Jewish Family Services Innovators Lunch committee, left to right: Sherri Wise, Tamar Bakonyi, Candice Thal and Shannon Ezekiel. (photo from JFS)
On May 14, Jewish Family Services held its 15th annual Innovators Lunch at the Hyatt Regency downtown. The sold-out event was hosted by CBC broadcaster Gloria Macarenko and featured keynote speaker Lane Merrifield of CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Attended by 620 donors, partners, sponsors and volunteers, it raised an unprecedented $380,000 towards programs and services designed to improve quality of life for 2,000 Lower Mainland residents.
This year’s theme at JFS is “community.” At the luncheon, Richard Fruchter, the agency’s chief executive officer, spoke of JFS’s mission to provide life’s necessities: “food, shelter, accessibility and emotional stability.”
The audience was shown a video presentation created by Michael Millman, which revealed the wide-ranging benefits of JFS’s work. A single mother spoke candidly and with feeling about her struggles. “Before I reached out to JFS, I struggled with everything. We lived on almost nothing,” she said. JFS staff provided housing, food and food vouchers, as well as trauma counseling. JFS partner agency Tikva Housing provided the family with a townhouse in a new development. “It’s a beautiful place, right on the Fraser River … a lovely home for us to have for many years,” she said, adding, “JFS has given us a life. A way to be happy. It’s just been a huge blessing for us.”
A senior with disabilities spoke about how a spinal cord injury felled him at the age of 36. JFS has helped him remain independent with its Better at Home program. In the video, Cindy MacMillan, director of senior services at JFS, explained that a grant from the United Way made it possible for the senior to remain at home. Now he has a housekeeper come in to look after his home, and also enjoys companionship with weekly visits from a JFS volunteer. “It’s working out, I look forward to them!” he said.
“It’s helped him realize that people in his community care about him,” said MacMillan. “It’s really Jewish values in action, in the broader community. Those values of caring and healing happen every time we make a match with a volunteer.”
JFS board member Jody Dales gave a passionate speech about her own family’s struggles. Dales saw her grandmother turn away help when she was struggling with poverty. Having survived the Holocaust, her grandmother still felt that others needed the help more than she did, Dales explained. As a result, Dales said she applauds anyone who comes forward to seek support. Rather than being a sign of weakness, she said, “Only the courageous are able to say, ‘Help me.’” She acknowledged that people tend to experience “a sense of shame in asking for help. But nothing is certain. It could be any of us at any time.”
Dales also explained how big a difference can be made by even a small donation and told the audience, “Let your empathy guide your decisions.”
Merrifield, co-creator of Club Penguin, an online community for kids, spoke about building community in the business world. Designed to be a safe, collaborative environment for play and learning, Club Penguin is founded on an ethos of mutual reliance and philanthropy. Eventually sold to Disney for $350 million, Disney recruited Merrifield to lead the project, ensuring that Club Penguin maintained the integrity of its original goal, “inspiring change in the world.”
Merrifield urged people to work towards social entrepreneurship, where human concerns guide business decisions. Rather than focusing on capital investment, he advised the audience to “invest in people because that’s what keeps us healthy. Revenue is not what you chase for its own sake,” he said. “It is the by-product of creating a great product with a great team.”
Right from the beginning, the business plan for Club Penguin was based on philanthropy. A portion of subscriptions went to families that live on less than $51 per day, he said. But “there was no fanfare,” said Merrifield. “We didn’t want this to look like a gimmick.” In the first year, the company gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Merrifield spoke of the need to galvanize the community of kids, teaching them to invest in their community with a “coins for change” program. This virtual fundraiser even allowed children to “ring bells” to attract the attention of other subscribers. Over one billion digital coins were donated annually, for a range of humanitarian causes. Self-organizing kids formed virtual marches, becoming activists in their own right; held candlelit vigils and themed parties.
Merrifield brings the same spirit of social responsibility to his work on Dragons’ Den. He and his fellow panelists (“dragons”) hear pitches by entrepreneurs who are looking for investment and choose which ones to support. Merrifield said he looks for companies that “use recycled materials, hire disabled applicants, plant trees, and make an effort to reduce waste in their packaging and lower their fuel costs.” So far, he has not been disappointed. “Most companies have pretty good answers and that gives me hope,” he said.
On the subject of giving back, Merrifield encouraged people to consider donations – such as those to JFS – not as losses to oneself, but as “investments in the future, to individuals who continue to pay it forward.”
He also asked the audience to engage everyone they could to further the cause of fearless generosity. “Use your collective strength and influence to create change for good,” he said.
He advised, “Pool your talents and leave this world far better than it was when we came into it.”
Shula Klinger is an author and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at shulaklinger.com.