Playing at poverty

July 28, 2016 § 36 Comments

Tonight, at the CEO Sleepout, a bunch of rich people are pretending to be poor to raise money for charity. And they will raise millions, which is commendable, obviously. 

I could almost stomach it if they arrived in a single layer of clothes, were given a blanket and they actually braved the biting cold. Make no mistake, it’s cold tonight. But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead they have fires, free WiFi, a pop-up shop, catered food, branded tin mugs, presumably as souvenirs of their experience, and so on and so forth. There’s even a ‘reflection’ bench. (No, I don’t know either.) A public road over a bridge will be closed for several days, the bridge was specially cleaned, and there are lights and cameras and action.

Over on social media, there’s a barrage of negativity towards the event, by people like me, who find the event crass, insensitive, and frankly narcissistic. There’s a blithe, arrogant kind of mockery in glamourising poverty with designer shacks and gourmet soup so you can pat yourself on the back in the boardroom or at golf.

On the other side of the fence are those focused on how much money the event raises for charity. People are angry that there’s criticism of something that does a lot of good. Accusations of slacktivism are levelled at those who criticise; you’re only allowed to have an opinion against the event, apparently, if you yourself have raised similar millions. Inevitably the awareness argument has been raised: how else does one raise awareness about this issue? (I’m just going to point out at this juncture that it’s impossible to be unaware of homelessness in South Africa, and leave it at that.)

And I stand amazed. In a country that demonstrates creativity around every corner, is this the best we can come up with? Of course raising millions for charity is a good thing, but in a country of such immense inequality, surely we can do so in a way that allows the poor some dignity instead of turning poverty into a three-ring circus?

Because under that bridge, and countless others, in doorways and alleys and fields, there are men and women and children who sleep rough every night, not just in adverse weather conditions, but in very real danger of being assaulted or raped or even killed. They have no food, no clothing, no work, no dignity. They will not be sleeping in a cosy bed tomorrow night. This event is not even remotely about them.

So in a spirit of constructive criticism, let me make some suggestions. I’m just one person, and I can think of a couple of alternatives, just off the top of my head:

  1. Want to engender some sort of empathy in the CEOs? How about taking them on a walking tour of the CBD, led by a homeless person, who can give them some insight into what their lives are like. I’ll even concede that some security might be required.
  2. Have a silent Sleepout – like a silent auction. You really care about those causes, companies? Then donate to the silent sleepover, anonymously. I’m willing to bet a lot less money will be raised when the publicity is removed.
  3. Set up a programme that sees homeless people being offered the opportunity to apply for work at the companies involved. I’m willing to bet there are a wide variety of skills out there. Give them a sustainable hand up. You can set rules and boundaries, but give them a real shot at a new beginning.
  4. Spend a day building a new shelter for the homeless somewhere. I’m thinking Habitat for Humanity could help. And there are building options other than brick and mortar that require a lot less time and a lot less money.
  5. Give a big donation to a worthy NGO and pledge to do so for 10 years: many of them are doing amazing work, but cash flow is a daily struggle. 
  6. Volunteer – not just on Mandela Day, and without trying to get coverage through your PR machine.

No doubt people will pick holes in those ideas. That’s okay. They’re just a beginning. I’m just one person. But it has to start somewhere. I’m only trying to demonstrate that there are other ways, if the event truly is about raising the money, and not about the companies’ brand visibility.

And finally, to accuse people of slacktivism for their opposition to the event negates the small unseen acts of charity that ordinary people do every day, and without which many would be even worse off. There are many good people in the world who don’t have the wherewithal to donate to something like the CEO Sleepout, but who do what they can, wherever they are. Their contribution is no less important for being of insignificant monetary value. 

South Africa is still a deeply divided country, and many of the divisions between rich and poor are not only huge, but still run along racial lines thanks to our history. Events like this serve only to broaden those divisions, and break down the social fabric of our country, and no amount of money raised will undo that.


§ 36 Responses to Playing at poverty

  • Ange says:

    Well said Mandy. I was struggling to articulate WHY I feel that “the ends justifies the means” argument can’t be the ultimate full stop on the debate – the sickening pandering to the “poor cold CEOs” just hits me in my gut and I can’t help but feel their has to be a better, more empathetic way to do this. I get it – the money raised is WONDERFUL. But do you have to make fun of a group of desperate, oppressed people to do it?? It’s a big party for the CEOs. They get to roll their eyes after and claim they lived “homeless” for a night the next day on a golf course, while chucking out the tin cup because it doesn’t go with the Carrol Boyes in the kitchen cupboard (sorry, Carrol Boyes probably not posh enough, but I’m not sure what top CEOs drink their Nespresso from). It just smacks of gross insensitivity and I think you’ve done a great job of explaining why (lord but it’s hard in 140 characters! Much easier to name call and be mean than to genuinely debate!) this is problematic.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Michelle says:

    You have perfectly articulated my thoughts on this. Yes, the money raised is wonderful, but that has not, nor ever will, be a free pass for awful behaviour like commercialising homelessness.

    Thank you for writing this.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Jeremy Farrell says:

    Who was it who once said, “Let them eat cake?”

    Thank you for what you have articulated so well. Seeing the one CEO in her designer off-piste head-to-toe Arctic-white onesie last year was enough to make one feel unwell.

    I wasn’t in the country this week so I missed the fanfare, and make no mistake there are thousands of CEO’s out there making a difference. From the CEO of his one-man plumbing business to the CEO of the NGO, to the CEO of many corporations.

    Wouldn’t it be nice, or maybe they did, to leave behind all of the warm clothing, bedding, food, shelters, in the form of a donation to an organisation who can distribute accordingly?

    Liked by 1 person

  • KevinMarkPass says:

    How dare they raise awareness in a way that actually works in raising funds – totally unacceptable!!!!

    I trust this article was written after a sleep in your own warm bed in your home? (or more than likley you’ve been writing this for a week of warm sleeps – and are very proud of your article highlighting your negative outlook on life and how many kudos it might bring your career)


  • brettfish says:

    i LOVE this so much [yes CAPS much] – thank you for using better words than i could to say what my heart is screaming….

    love brett fish

    Liked by 2 people

  • Darren says:

    Well said Mandy , so right in what you have said in that the real publicity that is given is to the CEO;s not the “faces” of this issue . I love some of your ideas for making it right , thank you for being our conscious .

    Liked by 1 person

  • Debbie says:

    It’s a whole lot better than some fancy dinner or auction! does that mean we can’t run a marathon and raise money for physical disabilities or debilitating illnesses?


  • Bravo! My sentiments exactly. It is such a PR stunt – the suggestions you made are so much better and the charities they chose to get the funding are not reaching thousands of people, nevermind homeless people!!


  • Thank you Mandy – this whole “sleepout” has been sticking in my craw for days now and I have been unable to articulate why – you have succeeded in doing so for me. There are SO many NGO’s that would be in a much better position to articulate this problem – but are voiceless in the face of huge marketing budgets employed by events such as this. Perhaps next year there will be a more considered approach – rather than more pandering to the needs of “important” people to get some PR.

    Liked by 1 person

  • smileymum says:

    What started out as a great idea has turned into a a bit of a joke. Pics from our one here in Sydney last year showed that it was all just a publicity opportunity for the rich to get a new FB profile pic of them ‘sleeping’ on new, clean, sturdy cardboard – not the type that the homeless people have to scavenge for. It’s a pity it’s come to this as the initial concept and goal was fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Sham Moodliar says:

    Totally agree with you. They even raise funds from their own underpaid staff and then go network and take credit for their little glamping event. The irony, the other 364 days are spent running organisation whose primary focus is shareholder value only , not employee , not customer, not societal value either. A goal best achieved through and geared for exploitation !

    Liked by 1 person

  • chris. says:

    Has anyone bothered to ask the homeless of Jozi how they feel about it?


    • I honestly don’t know.


    • Samantha says:

      Well, I run a homeless charity that helps people just down the road from where the event took place. Pretty sure if anyone of the guys got some clean sleeping bags, clothes and food, they would be very happy!


      • Shirley says:

        I think that’s part of the point Samantha if more charities like yours got some money where it’s really making a difference instead of some of these big charities where half the funds raised are used in salaries and admin

        Liked by 1 person

  • Giles Shepherd says:

    From News24 this morning…

    Raising money for what?

    And finally, while the CEO Sleepout’s stated purpose is to “raise awareness and empathy by allowing people to experience a small taste of life without a roof over their heads”, the money that they raise doesn’t even go to homeless people. This year, the beneficiaries are the Asha Trust, Columba Leadership and the Steve Biko Foundation – all worthy causes, sure, but not supportive of homeless people. Which just makes the poverty tourism even more tasteless and meaningless, really.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Joanne says:

    I’m amazed, everyone is quick to criticize but where are you (that’s all of us) every day people doing stuff to help the homeless. So to throw stones at the concept and yet doing nothing to actually help is for me the saddest part of all this. If each person did something everyday then maybe homelessness wouldn’t need charity from big business. People, stop moaning and start doing!


  • Robyn Sassen says:

    Great piece, Mandy. I hope it goes viral. One has to wonder if these great and supposedly sensitive and intelligent and educated CEOs are really and truly blind to the obscenity of glamourising poverty and so naive as to how they are exploiting something that they barely understand. It kind of takes one’s breath away.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Shani says:

    Who cares how the money is raised. It’s no secret the divide between the haves and have nots in this country. If this is a way to raise money for good then so be it. Get off your moral high horse and be happy that something big is being done to help. As long as it works and serves the cause then why not. I don’t think the homeless people will question where and how the hand out was given. It’s only people with chips on their shoulder who will.


  • Dawn Adam says:

    Are you aware that this is a global initiative started by an Australian CEO? This is not a uniquely South African event. Am I to understand that you wish South African CEOs to stop participating?


    • I am aware of that. And a comment elsewhere in this post indicates that the Australian one has gone the same route. I would prefer that they took their energy and willingness to help and didn’t turn it into a dog and pony show that denigrates the poor. That’s all.


  • Jeremy Farrell says:

    For those thinking Mandy and other echoes are being holier-than-thou, or stick-in-the-mud, I think the sting would be taken out of most of this if the CEO’s just knuckled down and had a cold night in the street – dress the same, and maybe go hungry. That’s not actually a big ask, would generate much more goodwill AND money AND awareness.

    PS. If the harshest critics really knew Mandy, they might now just how much heart she does have for these things.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Shirley says:

    It would be better if the charity/ies that receive the money were more closely involved in benefitting the homeless. It would also be great if those that received R26 million last year were more transparent on how this money has been used. If it weren’t a publicity stunt then the companies involved in organising this event wouldn’t have their logos all over.
    Donate the money and skip the dog and pony show.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Nicky says:

    Before you judge, show me any other fundraiser that raises as much funds as what the CEO Sleepout , with more than R30 million raised that will benefit 3 charities.
    Show me any other fundraiser where so many companies stand in unity for a better cause.
    No other fundraiser raises as much awareness as the CEO Sleepout.
    It’s no picnic or luxury.
    All the participants need to earn their box , sleeping bag or food by taking part in various activities such as knitting for 67 blankets . Participant donated rows and rows of clothes and shoes to be given to the needy.
    The CEO’s that take part don’t pretend to be poor, they take an evening to get together and raise awareness to a cause, what they take with them after the experience has long term benefits for the homeless and other charities.
    Yes it creates a massive media hype…… That’s the whole idea, because more people get involved and help those in need.
    Stop looking at it as CEO looking for publicity and see the bigger picture.
    If anyone who judges or criticise the concept of the CEO Sleepout I then challenge you then to try and raise as much awareness to a cause and most of all raise so much funds to be give. To charities.


  • Kyle Cherry says:

    Complain all you want Mandy, publicity stunt or not, they raise more money for charity than the rest of us. Why don’t you lead by example? Sure, you are no big fish, but maybe (if you try hard enough) you can snag a sponsor or two for you charity event. Who knows, it may grow into something one day (if you try hard enough).

    It’s easy to sit and judge the actions of others, you probably dusted your hands off after writing this thinking “There, pat myself on the back, the homeless are avenged!”.

    I am more than happy to sit on my ass and let the CEO’s throw money at charities any way they like. I am doing no better, so why should I complain?

    Are they being insensitive towards homeless people? Maybe.
    Do YOU know for sure? No.
    Is the article substantiated with thoughts and opinions of homeless people? No.
    Is the article and comments section filled with anger and disgust from the middle-class aimed at the charitable actions of the upper-class? Yes.

    Maybe you need to climb off of whatever make-believe ladder you find yourself standing on and go do some ACTUAL research.



  • Cheche says:

    Mandy I appreciate your criticism. Why not do it silently. Yes those CEO’S are not materially poorer. We should be encouraging South African to be generous. Instead of always complaing


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