‘We Day’ in Seattle inspires youth, makes pitch for Free the Children enterprise

We had a big thing happen here in Seattle on Wednesday.

We Day

Magic Johnson, Seattle rapper Macklemore, Nelly Furtado, Martin Luther King III, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, Martin Sheen and other celebrities joined some 15,000 teens and pre-teens in Seattle’s Key Arena to celebrate and inspire youth to make the world a better place.

We Day is an event promoted by a Canadian organization known as Free the Children, a non-profit organization started in 1995 by Craig Kielberger, when he was just a boy, inspired by the tale of a Pakistani boy subjected to slave labor, abuse and eventually death.

Though the organization is popular on Facebook and in Canada, it’s not a well-known organization in the US and the Seattle event Wednesday is the organization’s first stake in the American humanitarian turf. Below, I note a few reasons why we may want to take a closer look.

As Time magazine noted:

We Day, with its glitz and superstars, is essentially a big pep rally for these dedicated volunteers, a way to congratulate and celebrate their selflessness and spur them on to do more. Since the event launched, middle-school and high-school students have contributed more than 5 million volunteer hours and raised $26 million for 900 different charities and causes.

I didn’t brave the event in person but watched the event’s webcast, which featured a lot of inspirational speakers and gangs of dancing adolescents.

The basic message is that young people can, and do, make a difference. The organization didn’t sell tickets to the event; you could only attend by performing some kind of community service, either for your local community or with a global aim.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, one of the featured speakers, told the crowd he believes in “the chance for every single person in this room to make a difference'” – and couldn’t help adding that using Microsoft’s new Surface tablet was one way they “could change the world.” Microsoft was one of the event sponsors, after all.

We Day

It was inspirational, and fun, to see all those kids jumping up and down with enthusiasm for doing something aimed at helping others. These kind of events can plant a good seed, overcome indifference and perhaps create another young humanitarian entrepreneur who launches a venture aimed at righting a wrong somewhere in the world.

We all hope so, which is why it’s so great to witness or take part in these kind of humanitarian raves.

But we are equally obligated to look beyond the motivational speeches and warm feelings to make sure what we are celebrating is actually accomplishing the good we all want to support. I don’t know much about Free the Children as an organization and don’t have time to dig into its material claims. It’s actually not that easy for an outsider to double-check – as many discovered with the Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea scandal.

Here are a few things that caught my attention that some supporters may want to check out:

  • Charity Navigator, an organization which ranks non-profit groups and tries to give independent assessments, reports that the organization does not list its CEO salary and has not made its IRS Form 990 easily available on its website. Both are considered signs of accountability and transparency.
  • Free the Children is a non-profit organization that, in 2011, reported bringing in more than $22 million and spent nearly $2 million on administration and fund-raising. In 2009, it launched a for-profit subsidiary company run by Craig’s brother Marc Keilberger, Me to We, which sells clothing, vacation tours and other products. The Kielbergers said Me to We was created to defray Free the Children’s administrative costs but only half the profits go to that, according to their website. The rest is re-invested in the business.
  • As the Globe and Mail reports, the Kielbergers have a number of other enterprises, including a business devoted to managing their speaking engagements and productions as well as a number of real estate holdings.
  • In 2011, the news group Dawn.com ran a critical article from a Canadian academic alleging that Keilberger’s inspirational tale of how he got started on his mission was partially false and the donated goods and projects sponsored by Free the Children had the opposite effect that was intended. According to the news story, the well-intended donations nevertheless served to displace local businesses and workers:

Kielburgers’ campaign against child labour in Pakistan has cost millions of dollars in lost export contracts that forced the very same workers they intended to help into abject poverty and a life of begging and misery.

I have no independent way of assessing the validity of the Dawn.com article. Free the Children responded to it, denying some of the allegations and demanding a retraction. The practice of non-profit organizations expanding into for-profit ventures is neither too unusual anymore or necessarily an indication of anything wrong. Still, there’s enough here to perhaps raise legitimate questions. It’s great to inspire our kids. But that isn’t the only metric we should use.

ThinkAfricaPress recently published a much more extensive analysis of the pros and cons of Feel Good Activism, a discussion with Lilie Chouliaraki, a communications theorist and author of ‘The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Post-Humanitarian Age.’

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Jason Polen

    Good information Tom.

  • Amy Hagopian

    Thanks for being the skeptic. These generic “feel good” events make me a little queasy, because they aren’t really driven by the population that’s featured. Like the Kony event.