by Sue Tobias – Aug 3 2015
About 10 years after Free The Children’s (FTC) launch in 1995, co-founders Marc and Craig Kielburger, struggled to find a sustainable funding source for their international development and youth empowerment nonprofit organization. The creation of Me to We, a social enterprise, became the organization’s answer to securing sustainable funding.
In their search for a solution, Marc and Craig were fortunate to be mentored by billionaire Jeff Skoll, eBay’s founding CEO. Skoll (founder of Participant Media, an award-winning film and media business, with a social mission baked into its DNA) was using his fortune to incubate innovative ideas to create social impact.
Four years after starting FTC, Marc and Craig had incorporated a small company, Leaders Today, to run volunteer trips and leadership camps. At the time, the designation of “social enterprise” didn’t even exist. In Leaders Today, Skoll spied an opportunity. He encouraged the brothers to grow Leaders Today into a social enterprise (a business with a social mission at its heart) that would turn a profit to provide a long-term, predictable source of funding for FTC. With Jeff as a mentor, Leaders Today transformed into Me to We, a fast-growing social enterprise.
Jeff provided start-up capital to help bring the vision to scale, including the building of the Bogani Cottages in Kenya’s Maasai Mara so adults and corporate travel groups had a place to stay when they visited. He also provided seed money to start Me to We Artisans to support the work of Massai mamas. The mamas are women in the region who have found much-needed employment and a reliable source of income, working on mostly beaded items that are sold through Me to We and its retail partners.
The vision was for Me to We to offer sustainable products and life-changing experiences that would forever change the way consumers shop, travel and learn. And Me to We would help support FTC’s transformative international development projects.
The funds Me to We donated to FTC enabled the non-profit to have an extremely low administration rate (10 per cent) compared to other Canadian charities. Half of Me to We’s profits are given to FTC to ensure the sustainability of the nonprofit’s international development work. The other half are invested back into the social enterprise to ensure its own sustainability and growth. To date, Me to We has provided over $6 million in cash, and $10 million in in-kind contributions, to FTC.
The social enterprise continues to drive innovation. For example, all Me to We retail products now come with a ‘Track Your Impact’ code. This is an online tool that shows consumers exactly what social impact their purchase had, and where the donation was delivered. And, the purchase of a Me to We backpack might fund education for a child in Sierra Leone for one year.
Me to We was created out of necessity and with great care. In countries such as the UK, charities can form separate for-profit trading companies to generate revenue to meet charitable goals. But in Canada, (unlike the UK), the social enterprise model is relatively new and is not yet recognized by the laws that regulate businesses and charities.
To ensure that the relatively new concept of social enterprise met Canadian legal requirements, the distinct and separate governance and legal structure of FTC and Me to We was reviewed and given formal approval by the Public Guardian Trustee of Ontario, as well as the Ontario Superior Court. These critical steps have ensured Me to We’s success to-date. Me to We still maintains separate financials, governance, and headquarters from its charitable partner, FTC.
In an environment in which charitable transfers from governments—and public donations in Canada and many countries—are declining, social enterprises have the potential to provide a sustainable source of funding for non-profits like Free The Children so that they can continue to deliver significant social impact.