St Vincent de Paul’s CEO sleep out went national for the first time this year, achieving remarkable fundraising totals and giving Australian CEOs a new appreciation for the struggles homeless people face. Rochelle Nolan reports.

On June 17 – one of the coldest nights of the year – almost 700 CEOs from across the country rose to the challenge to sleep on cardboard boxes in the frigid outdoors in capital cities across the country. This fundraising initiative raised $2.8 million, and also raised awareness of the issue of homelessness, which affects more than 100,000 Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006).

The event was held in all mainland capital cities, and included CEOs from companies such as Citibank, AAPT, McDonald’s Australia, and Hilton Worldwide.

History

The Vinnies CEO Sleepout began in 2006 in Sydney as a local community venture. Since then, the event has raised funds for Vinnies homeless services across New South Wales. The aim of the sleepout is not just to raise funds, but to raise awareness. It’s hoped one night of discomfort for Australian CEOs sheds some light on a larger reality affecting thousands of people every day.

Chief executive officer of Tactical Solutions, Bernie Fehron, founded the sleep-out. He says the idea came about as he tried to think of better ways to fundraise than holding a dinner. “It didn’t seem right to host a three-course meal to fundraise for the underprivileged. This coincided with my children participating in sleep outs for school. We decided to turn the concept of an event on its head. Instead of a three course meal, there would be soup and a bread roll. Instead of trying to entertain guests at dinner, participating CEOs would simply be entertained by maybe hearing a story or two from a homeless person. It grew into a concept of effecting change, and rather than just raising funds, raising awareness.”

An educational experience

Cassandra Kelly, joint chief executive officer of Pottinger and member of the CEO Sleepout advisory board, has slept out for the event twice. She says both times, she learned something new about the realities of homelessness. “It has helped to debunk the stereotypes and focus my mind on the horrible social inequity. I’ve found a new depth of compassion and a desire to help.”

“The toughest part for me in both cases was thinking about the loneliness of a homeless person,” says Kelly. “Although I was cold and uncomfortable, I was not alone and I knew that the next night I would be curled up in a warm bed, with a cup of tea, eating toast and vegemite.”

Fehron says the event has grown significantly since it was first held in Sydney with just 10 CEOs participating. “In the second year, it grew to around 30 CEOs, and raised about $30,000. By the fourth year, we were at a point where we saw how successful it was, and we’d fine-tuned the event. It had gained a lot of support, so we decided to take it national. This Australian event could change the world.”

The face of homelessness

Fehron says many CEOs who have participated in the sleepout have changed the way they think as a result. This is a key goal of the event; Vinnies says the face of homeless is changing, contradicting commonly held stereotypes. Young families, two-parent families and families with no history of domestic violence are now among Australia’s homeless. Part of the challenge in addressing homelessness, is breaking down misconceptions of what homeless is, how it happens and who it affects.

“I think tough economic times have made people more aware of the hardship some people in our community face,” says Fehron. “The novelty of the event – of having your boss rough it for a night – is also a drawcard. But I think also there are many CEOs who are perhaps tired of going to luxurious dinners to raise money for the underprivileged. It doesn’t make sense.”

A big future for a big event

Fehron says organisers have realised that, given the event’s success in Australia, it could be warmly welcomed on a much larger scale. “Homelessness is a national and international issue. St Vincent de Paul has a presence in 120 countries, and when those countries are ready for it; this is the kind of fundraising event we can take internationally.”

As for Kelly, she says there are valuable outcomes – even aside from fundraising. “If our business leaders can become more compassionate, that’s a great outcome. When I am asked now what we should do when faced with a beggar on the street the answer is clear. Start by saying hello.”

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