When brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger were in middle school, international travel experiences changed their lives and sparked the beginnings of the social enterprise ME to WE. What is now ME to WE Trips began when Craig and Marc took the first young travelers to build WE Charity’s first schools in India, Nicaragua and Kenya. Craig and Marc started these international volunteer trips because they couldn’t find a provider that would take youth under 18.
When they asked the WE Charity Board of Directors to set up a volunteer travel program, the board politely declined. Because of the laws in Canada, a Board of Directors would have had to assume all risks and potential liability if something went wrong. For our Board of Directors, some of whom are notable philanthropists, it was too great a liability to assume. And according to Canadian law, if a participant pays for themselves or a family member to participate on an international volunteer trip (excluding the rare case when philanthropists provide scholarships for someone else), it is a “personal benefit,” rather than a charitable activity eligible for a tax receipt.
At that point in time, the designation “social enterprise” did not exist. So in 1999, the brothers incorporated a small company to run volunteer trips and leadership camps. They called it Leaders Today, and it was the precursor to ME to WE. Any profits at the end of the year were given to children as scholarships.
Today, ME to WE offers trips to eight destinations in our partner countries around the world, with experiences for individuals, youth, schools, families and companies.
As WE Charity grew internationally, Craig and Marc Kielburger struggled to find a sustainable funding source. This problem came into sharp focus in 2006, while they were in Freetown Port, Sierra Leone, waiting for a shipment of medical supplies to support WE Charity development projects in that country. Waiting on the docks, the brothers watched other international charities, depleted of funds, prepare to ship out. One dejected aid worker explained why everyone was leaving: “When is the last time you saw a celebrity telethon for Sierra Leone?”
Charities often lurch from crisis to crisis, desperately trying to help during humanitarian emergencies, but rarely staying long enough to empower people to help themselves for the long term. Another humanitarian disaster had caught the wave of goodwill and it was time for many to move on. Craig and Marc realized they needed a new model to support the long-term charitable goals of WE Charity, as well as crucial behind-the-scenes needs that few wanted to fund, such as administration, research and monitoring and evaluation activities.
The seeds of that new model lay in the trips that Leaders Today was operating.
In their search for a sustainable funding source for WE Charity, Craig and Marc were fortunate to be mentored by billionaire Jeff Skoll, eBay’s first president. Jeff encouraged the brothers to grow Leaders Today into a social enterprise, with a social mission at its heart, that would turn a profit in order to provide a long-term, predictable source of funding to WE Charity. ME to WE offers sustainable products and life-changing experiences that have forever changed the way consumers shop, travel and learn. And ME to WE helps sustain WE Charity. The funds ME to WE donates to WE Charity enable it to have an extremely low administration rate (around 10%) compared to other Canadian charities.
Craig and Mac have always served WE Charity as ambassadors and volunteers, never once receiving a salary from the charity. Before ME to WE, they’d been living on fellowships and scholarship money. ME to WE allowed Craig and Marc, for the first time, to earn a salary, which is fully paid through ME to WE. Read more about ME to WE and WE Charity’s relationship.
At the heart of ME to WE is our commitment to social entrepreneurship. WEconomy, a new book co-authored by Craig Kielburger, Holly Branson and Marc Kielburger, is an extraordinary guide to today’s new business world, helping others find meaning, make a living and change the world.
ME to WE Artisans is a line of original accessories handcrafted by artisans in WE Charity’s partner communities across the globe. It started with a vision: to not only create a way for talented artisans to earn the income they deserve, but to foster a collective of women empowering one another globally. To date, ME to WE Artisans partners with more than 1,800 women in Kenya and Ecuador, empowering each woman to build a brighter future for herself, her family and her community.
Founder and ME to WE CEO Roxanne Joyal was inspired to create ME to WE Artisans after meeting talented Maasai beaders forced to travel daily to small tourist markets flooded with similar products. There, they would sometimes sell their intricate beadwork at a loss.
Today, the mamas are able to earn twice as much as before—without giving up their traditional way of life. Gathered under acacia trees with their young children in tow, the Maasai mamas bead using art forms passed down mother-to-daughter through generations. They turn their traditional handiwork into a livelihood.
ME to WE retail products, including ME to WE Artisans, also offer a Track Your Impact promise, to show consumers what their purchase provided to WE Charity. Through this model, consumers can see exactly what their dollars provided, and where the donation was delivered. For example, the purchase of a ME to WE bracelet might fund education for a child in Kenya for one year.