Craig Kielburger has long been a face of Canadian humanitarian innovation. Photo credit/ Greater Tacoma Community Foundation
Craig Kielburger has long been a face of Canadian humanitarian innovation. Photo credit/ Greater Tacoma Community Foundation

In 1995, Craig Kielburger began a journey that is now familiar to many Canadians. Upon learning the story of Iqbal Masih—an activist and former child labourer in a carpet mill—Kielburger began Free the Children (FTC) in his Thornhill classroom with 11 other students. Eighteen years on, Kielburger has a degree in peace and conflict studies and psychology from the University of Toronto and an MBA from York University. His name is on the Canadian Walk of Fame. He remains, with his elder brother Marc, at the helm of Free the Children.


FTC is operational in 45 countries, has built schools in 16 nations and has provided one million individuals improved access to healthcare, clean water, and sanitation facilities.


Craig and Marc act as co-directors of FTC. Although this takes up most of their carefully allotted time, it is still only the “volunteer commitment” portion of their lives. The pair also have a passion for business. Several years into the expansion and development of FTC, the Kielburgers came to the conclusion that pure charity—giving without prospect of reciprocal reward—was, if unsupported, a fundamentally unsustainable model for their organization.

To ensure that FTC could continue to exist, and to help alleviate the tension created by the search for consistent funding, the Kielburgers co-founded Me to We, a “social enterprise” which donates half of its profits to the operational costs of FTC and uses the other half to keep itself sustainable. Social enterprise is a business model where, rather than the accumulation of profit, the goal is the sustainable advancement of local and global human well-being.


Although separated by a few provinces, the newspaper had a chance to speak with Craig over the telephone about the opportunities presented by an integrative model of charity and business. Namely, the ways in which social business can address new challenges, and also provide answers to persistent obstacles facing development.


The attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September killed 260 people; tourism to Kenya has been decimated. How does this affect Kenya and the region?

On one hand there is the immediate loss of life and the impact that would have on families and on the economy of the country. On the other hand, we’ll see a decline in foreign investments on a huge scale, as Kenya is seen as the gateway to investment into Africa.

Kenya is the only permanent house of the UN Environmental Program, home to the UN Mission to Somalia, as well as governments in exile, such as Somalia’s. It is such a cornerstone to the region. And on a very practical level, if people lose their jobs in the cities, or at a tourism camp, then they are not sending money back to rural areas, and you see children dropping out [of school], you see hunger, you see very difficult choices as a result of this.

This is exactly when the world needs to rally around Kenya, as the world rallied around America. After 9/11 people talked of going to New York to show solidarity. People are not doing that for Kenya: Kenya who was very much a victim.

And what is little understood is that while people are asking us if [Free the Children’s] programs are okayand we appreciate the concernthey are hundreds of kilometres away from Nairobi. We work in the south of the country. In fact, I was reminded of when the riots took place in Vancouver [in 2010], and our friends in Kenya wrote to us in Toronto asking if we were okay.

While this may sound somewhat naive, this is the way many of us understand regions. It shows the process by which people in Canada and in the West can associate this attack with all of Kenya and in fact, much of East Africa.

It seems as though there is a surplus of students studying international development and disciplines like it for the number of choice positions in not-for-profit organizations.

One of the challenges [of studying one of these fields] is that there are not enough jobs. Thus, there is a need to innovate the social sector, and bring some of these people into the for profit sector. We need a merging of the two fields.

I loved my time in peace and conflict studies [at the University of Toronto], but on the other hand I also loved my MBA [at the Schulich School of Business at York University], and I wish I could see a little bit of that in disciplines like peace and conflict studies.

The critical skills of an MBA are not taught to development students, they are only taught in an MBA: terms of trade, rate of investment; these things are not talked about. People are setting out to change the world for the better, but they need the practical tools, the knowledge of business, to achieve the scale and depth of their ideas.

Students can look at your achievements and see you as someone who has been massively successful at helping individuals, but also someone who is massively successful in your career. How do you define success?

Success for us? The best development puts yourself at a distance and looks at about a five year model. Initially, everything in the [FTC aided] communities is free, and as they mature, the community is able to sustain itself. They begin to pay a cost, they pay for the schools’ upkeep. Good development is when you are able to exit in a sustainable way.

How can you look at the model in order to be financially viable when in fact, if you are successful, you will put yourself out of business? The first thing though, is that there is not a lack of need: we will always be able to move our programs elsewhere when we no longer are necessary.

But what about success for you as an individual?

The not-for-profit world loses really good, talented people who exit [the sector] because they need to start sustaining families, paying a mortgage. It’s ironic because a career in the not-for-profit sector isn’t sustainable—it is clear the arena is not built to sustain a career and that the arena in not sustainable in itself.

Therefore, my big interest is social enterprise, this is the easiest way to achieve career success. We work in a world where there is enterprise: some is for profit, some is for mission, and some is a hybrid.

What is the most precious resource that cannot be quantitatively measured?

I once asked a very similar question to James Orbinski [a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs], and he said resilience. I also like the answer that the most precious commodity is time. But if I had to choose, I would say two: idealism mixed with innovation.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

comments powered by Disqus