Let’s get really frank about philanthropy and homelessness

Written by Cheryl Norrad on March 29, 2013

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Tim Richter, President and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, Frank McKenna, Chair of TD Bank, and Tim Ross, Coordinator of the Community Action Group on Homelessness, at the Let’s Get Frank Fundraiser for the Homelessness in Fredericton on March 20, 2013. Photo by Doug Mullins Photography.

For weeks, the buzz had been building in the capital city about Frank McKenna coming to town to speak at a homelessness fundraiser put together by local community organizers.

The ads were in local media, the Facebook page was up, and word was spreading on Twitter. Even McKenna’s name was cleverly weaved into the title of the event.

Trumpeted as the beginning of the end of homelessness in New Brunswick cities, the Let’s Get Frank about Homelessness fundraiser at Fredericton’s Convention Centre on March 20th was expected to bring out the city’s power elite. Indeed the former Liberal Premier, and now powerful TD banker, delivered the keynote speech to a sold out room of mostly rich Liberal faithful.

At $175 a ticket (or $1200 a table), regular folk were left out in the cold along with the homeless. Sponsored by TD Bank, the high end approach to poverty fundraising, usually the norm in big cities across Canada, was now in little Freddy Beach.

“I wanted to go, but when I found out the price of the tickets it was out of my budget,” said Linda Ross, a retiree on a fixed income.

Some employed crafty ways of getting into the fundraiser because they really wanted to be there but couldn’t afford a ticket.

“A fundraiser for a fundraiser,” said Fredericton resident Doug Mullin, who started a crowdfunding site online to raise money for tickets to Get Frank. He managed to attract enough funds for two friends to attend. Mullin was also the event’s official photographer so got in gratis.

Others wanting access to the event volunteered at the ticket desk, worked the coat check room or ushered the tanned and fashionable attendees to the bar and VIP green room.

To be fair, it was a fundraiser after all, so organizers can’t be entirely blamed for wanting to squeeze the rich for a good cause, even if it leaves out others.

Tim Ross, a director with the Community Action Group on Homelessness and an organizer of the night’s gala, said, “We needed to tap into wealthy Frederictonians to start on really dealing with the issue…to ensure a robust response to homelessness in Fredericton.”

“It’s not elitist,” said Jason Lejeune, another gala organizer.

“The purpose was to invite the unusual suspects not usually engaged [in the issue of homelessness]. We wanted them to open their wallets to come to the event and open their minds after getting here,” he said.

Some in attendance wondered what they were opening their minds and wallets for when the main course of beans and wieners was placed in front of them during the fundraiser dinner.

“I initially turned my nose up at it, but quickly caught on they [organizers] were demonstrating that it’s a meal the poor often eat, and that the homeless would gladly wolf down,” said one prominent attendee who preferred to remain anonymous.

Others heartily dug into the brown mush because the meal reminded them of their own humble beginnings.

“Beans and wieners were a staple in my house growing up in Apohaqui,” said McKenna during a media scrum.

The fundraiser also celebrated corporate philanthropy, providing the evening with some of its more ironic moments. TD’s Brian Jones raised eyebrows during his speech when he proceeded to sell his employer to the crowd.

“…TD bank is one of the safest banks [for investors] and…number one in customer service…”

Jones later justified his remarks by saying it can only help the cause. According to him, clients who invest with TD were indirectly helping to finance the evening since TD was sponsor.

TD Bank has been the subject of protests for its financing of arms manufacturers, forestry companies that clearcut, controversial oil and mining projects and big pharmaceutical companies. Two days after the Fredericton fundraiser, on March 22nd, sixty people shut down the TD Bank in Asheville, North Carolina, in protest of the bank’s investment in the Keystone pipeline.

While McKenna’s speech earnestly highlighted the plight of the homeless around the world, outlining how many resources were wasted on luxury goods and military production, the clincher came at the end when he pledged $100,000 of his own money to help the effort here in New Brunswick.

The crowd went wild, giving him a standing ovation.

Speaking to the media after the fundraiser, McKenna said, “I’m no expert [on homelessness], but I want to contribute because I believe it can be solved…I lent my name to this because I was moved.”

But isn’t this just the issue? We are all personally moved by homelessness, but solving it is not a philanthropic question. It is a political one.

The evening was in part a celebration of the philanthropy of privileged individuals. But the event was rather short on considering some of the policies that systematically benefit those same philanthropists while making life difficult on a growing number of others.

Tax cuts at both provincial and federal levels that have gone mainly to the rich immediately come to mind. So too do the cuts to services – like EI – needed to afford those tax cuts.

It is hard for most, however, to say as much when service providers are increasingly dependent on financial assistance from wealthy donors who benefit from the system that creates poverty and homelessness.

Fiona Williams, Executive Director of Liberty Lane, a family violence outreach organization said, “I thought it [fundraiser] was quite inspiring. I hope people in the room saw the need for action, rather than just talk.”

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