Sunday, March 22, 2009

Toronto’s 6th Timeraiser – The unlikely marriage of glamour and charity

So, what scene do we imagine when we hear the word ‘art auction’? Well, lots of money for sure, champagne, posh people, sophisticated conversations, a fair share of vanity – you get the picture. Now think of ‘charity work’: mmhh, not quite the same I guess. More like hard selfless toiling away facing tasks normally shun by many people, such as feeding the homeless, attending the sick, helping the unemployed etc.

Yesterday in Toronto one could see the unlikely union of both worlds. It was Toronto’s 6th Timeraiser Event which displayed once again what a creative, vibrant space can be created by imaginative civil society activists. The core idea is as brilliant as it is simple: The auction features some 30 works of local artists and the interested art collectors make their bid in form of committing time to volunteer for selected charities – rather than bidding money. For most pieces of art people were happy to bid up to 125 hours of their time! This is a heck of a lot of time if – like most folks at the event – you are in a full-on career in business.

So here we are: a great art gallery space in Toronto’s distillery district, nice drinks, great hors d’oeuvres, beautiful people, and of course, pretty cool artwork. While checking out which piece takes your fancy you also have a chance to talk to 40ish agencies which offered various volunteering opportunities to the potential bidders. In the end, it was not only a lot of fun to see who bids where and who gets outbid for which item but it was also an incredibly successful raising of time for charity: last year’s event raised more than 11,500 hours of volunteer time from the guests of the event.

What is great about the event is that it does not confine the ability to be charitable to the Trumps, Buffets or Gates’s of this world who can do so by virtue of their checkbooks. This is based on the one resource where all people are more or less equal: the 24 hours we have per day.

The other aspect from our perspective is of course this one: the entire event was made possible financially through the support of 10 Toronto based companies. As such, this represents a clever form of CSR. Having just published some research on how volunteering creates social capital, this event was a great ‘laboratory’ to observe from the point of view of a researcher.

‘Social Capital’ consists of three things: networks, trust and norms. Such an event creates new networks between the business-, arts- and charity-community which are beneficial for all parties involved. By showing that people working in business are willing to commit substantial chunks of their time to community work it also helps to address the trust issue. The latter being particularly valuable in a time where business has gambled away quite a bit of that trust recently… But it also helps to instill new norms and values into all actors involved. From our perspective this is particular crucial for business folks: having real time exposure to many of the pressing social needs and problems in our view has the potential to challenge a mindset which is all too often confined to just financial results and career advancement.

But most of all, it's a lot of fun! Or as one journalist put it: 'Good is getting really sexy!'

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