On March 4, 2016, dozens of UBC students participated in a challenge to dance in the Nest for five hours straight. In this “dance-a-thon,” officially titled the “Evolution: Endurance Dance Challenge,” participants would dance until they either reached the five hour mark or ran out of energy and stopped moving. The soundtrack moved chronologically from 60s oldies to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, while prizes were given out for various superlatives such as best outfit and best dance moves.
But this challenge wasn’t done solely for the purpose of indulgent fun. In fact, it was actually organized by two philanthropic clubs — UBC Free the Children and Party Well — to raise money for international charity projects trying to provide clean water to villages in India suffering from water scarcity.
For student charities on campus, events like a dance-a-thon are standard fare for raising money for a cause. Clubs don’t simply ask students for their money in the name of charity — they’ll sell things, organize gigantic parties, put themselves through challenges or even chop off their hair in their efforts to tackle worldwide issues. Along the way, they have to find innovative ways to keep their costs low and maximize their impact in an environment largely composed of equally broke university students. In this piece, we explore how philanthropy at UBC is innovating to make an impact within and beyond the Point Grey community.
A tale of three charities
Charitable causes at UBC don’t always begin with a large donation the way many more mature foundations got their starts. Oftentimes, they come from students connecting with a cause and figuring out how they can help from miles — and often worlds — away.
Free the Children — now WE Charity — was founded in 1995 by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger after he read about the murder of Iqbal Masih, a former factory worker turned anti-child labour advocate in Pakistan who was assassinated at the age of 12. The organization focuses on social activism for children’s rights, international charity work in developing nations and mobilizing western youth to become socially conscious.
At UBC’s Free the Children club, which still bears the organization's former name, students follow the “adopt a village” model, meaning that every year they focus on fundraising for one of five pillars of sustainable development — water, education, alternative income sources, health care and agriculture and food security — to help lift a village out of poverty.
“We’re giving them resources that are sustainable for them to continue on so that when we give them help, it goes a long way — it doesn’t just go cash-in-cash-out,” said Saurav Acharya, an executive of UBC Free the Children. For example, he talked about how farm animals such as goats could be used as a sustainable resource.
“Goats can give you milk, goats can give you more goats — Goats can give you perhaps even goat meat if you have a lot of goats.”
Free the Children often collaborates with Party Well, which primarily focus on providing clean drinking water to developing nations. The charity’s founder, a fifth-year commerce student named James Cohen, learned about the issues of water scarcity firsthand while on a volunteer trip in Cambodia.
“The children I was interacting with over there weren’t actually able to attend the school because it was their job to carry water back to their families,” he said.
Both clubs also work with local charity initiatives — Free the Children organizes their We Scare Hunger fundraiser for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank around Halloween, while Party Well has funded organizations such as the Red Cross and Helping Hands.
Meanwhile, the UBC Cancer Association fundraises money for the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), which funds cancer research and supports Canadians living with cancer. For example, the CCS provide lodging to cancer patients who live far away from Vancouver while they undergo treatment.
“If your family’s coming down to this area but you live far out in BC and you can’t make the trek every day for your cancer treatment, they will put you up in their lodge,” said UBC Cancer Association President Adam Mesa.
Likewise, the UBC Cancer Association also raises awareness about cancer and provides services such as grief support groups. As a small student group, focusing on raising funds for projects that can be administered through pre-existing infrastructure ensures that they don’t bite off more than they can chew.
What these philanthropic clubs have in common is that they’re faced with the task of raising funds for their cause. Party Well’s approach to this task has been to organize large parties on campus and then pledge the funds to charity, but their method actually goes deeper than that.
They organize their events under the ethos of creating a positive and valuable experience — an approach that, according to Cohen, captures people’s interest and gains a lot of funds for a cause.
“There’s some charities that emphasize the negativity in the world — like, ‘we wanna solve this really terrible situation’ — and while it’s important to educate people a bit about the reality of the world, I think it’s actually more effective to focus on the positive aspects,” said Cohen.
He cites the 2.5 million Twitter followers of charity: water, the main organization that Party Well funds, as an example of this.
“They really just focus on happiness,” he said. “These emotions of the positive impact that they can make in the world is the thing that people should be emphasizing when they’re talking about their impact — as opposed to the negativity — because people don’t want to share negative stuff online as much as the positive”
One might argue that it’s an approach that places a lot of emphasis on the enjoyment of the participants rather than on a critical analysis of international water scarcity, but it’s certainly not an ineffective strategy. Their most recent party, One More Time — which celebrated 2000s pop music from the likes of Daft Punk and LMFAO — sold out and amassed over 1,200 attendees.
Acharya agreed that it’s good to focus on the positive.
“Because there’s a negative, you’re donating to make it a positive,” he said.
“Krispy Kreme goes a long way”
However, Acharya also sees fundraisers that are small and simple as being effective too. He cites their Krispy Kreme donut sale for the We Scare Hunger event as an example of this.
“We had about fifteen boxes of donuts in the span of three days and we sold them all,” he said. “When it’s something simple, even Krispy Kreme goes a long way.”
A donut sale is easier to organize than a 1,200-person party, but both are structured around the same deal — a charity will offer something to a student under charitable premises and the student will purchase it, thus funding the cause. By selling things to students that would have appealed to them anyways even if there was no charitable context behind them, student philanthropy groups insert themselves easily into the average student’s choices.
Another model that charities use involves students making some sort of sacrifice or putting themselves through a tough excursion while others pledge money to them that they plan to donate.
A well-known example of this is the UBC Commerce Committee’s Five Days for the Homeless campaign, where students go without shelter, income or a change of clothes for five days to raise funds and awareness to tackle homelessness. At UBC Free the Children they run an annual Vow of Silence campaign, where participants would refrain from all forms of communication for a day to raise money for building schools in Sierra Leone. In 2016, they amassed $7,888 from that event alone.
Likewise, the Cancer Association’s annual Cuts for Cancer event sees students cutting off their ponytails to make wigs for those who have lost their hair from chemotherapy.
“We estimated that we’d get at least 20 [wigs], so at a thousand dollars per human-hair [wig], that’s $20,000 saved for families,” said Mesa. People could also get ordinary haircuts, which raised the organization $1,267.
No matter the strategy, what matters most to the charities’ success is that students know exactly why they should get involved and how to do so.
For the UBC Cancer Association, becoming a recognizable presence as a campus charity is an important factor in gaining donations. Every April they put out donation boxes with daffodil pins, which gets a lot of revenue because of the ubiquity of the daffodils.
“We didn’t really do that much aside from handing out the boxes and then making sure they were filled,” said Mesa. “But we still raised almost a thousand dollars just because it was a very well known event.”
He also attributed the success of Cuts for Cancer to its recognizability as an annual event.
“For clubs like ours, continuing events from year to year is one of the best things because once you get a following, you get to build on that for future years.”
Free the Children benefits from this recognition too, as Acharya pointed to their charitable reputation as a selling factor in their donut sale.
“Because of WE Day [Free the Children’s annual mobilization event for high school students], people have heard about it in high school, so people actually tend to buy a lot of donuts from us.”
Where the dollars go
All three of these groups generally put their charity funds towards larger organizations. Party Well mainly gives to charity: water, the UBC Cancer Association gives to the CCS, while UBC Free the Children gives to WE Charity.
“We have an inside Free the Children account on Free the Children’s website, and then I believe from there on we just donate all the money from there, and then we trust them enough to do the work they do and donate this money and hope it goes towards the cause,” said Acharya.
However, these groups also have extraneous costs that they have to not only cover but also minimize as much as possible, which is generally done through partnerships and sponsorships. Since many of these groups are tied to the AMS, they hold their events on campus and get their venues for free. This has been especially helpful for Party Well in cutting costs, though Cohen acknowledged that they had expenses to cover in terms of innovative lighting and sound.
In contrast, UBC Free the Children and the Cancer Association go for lower-cost endeavours such as the Vow of Silence or the daffodil boxes that may not earn as much revenue but still get returns. Mesa lamented that since charities are often hesitant to spend more on extraneous things, they can’t invest in things that can get them more revenue.
“If we wanted to do really large advertising or some of the great things that you see around from businesses to really captivate the greater audience, you’d have to spend a lot of money and that goes against our aim to spend money where it counts,” he said, also noting that yearly turnover in club leadership can make long-term projects difficult to pull off.
“That’s one of the big limitations, knowing where to stop spending money or knowing when to start spending money.”
Bang for your buck
A campus club alone can’t solve a worldwide issue such as water scarcity or cancer, but these groups are all certain that they’re making the world a better place. According to Cohen, Party Well can be credited with the creation of four wells around the world, with more to be built in the future from their most recently-earned funds. He estimates that Party Well has helped about 1,500 people get a source of clean drinking water.
WE Charity itself has a long legacy of charitable work and Acharya sees the UBC Free the Children branch as contributing to their efforts.
“The feedback that we get from the admins at Free the Children once we donate the money — they really appreciate the work we do, and we also get to see it published on the Free the Children website,” he said. Like Party Well, they also credit their contributions to local charities as part of their impact.
“We get messages back [from the food bank] saying ‘thanks so much for donating.’ We know that people are getting food, and everyone’s for the better.”
Mesa remained more modest about the UBC Cancer Association’s contribution, but he’s certain that the club is helping to alleviate the problem, even if it’s just a small contribution.
“There are a lot of people who are already signed up to fight the cause of cancer, and as a club we’re enabling all of them to, you know, go out and make that difference,” he said.
“I think that when we’re all doing something little, it adds up to a lot.”