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Charity Gone to Extremes

Stripping Santas? Where's the risk? 'Tis the season for crazy stunts for good causes.

Jeremy Keehn 23 Dec


Billy Bob Thornton had nothing on these bad Santas. The ninth annual charity Strip-a-thon took place at the Dufferin Pub in Vancouver on Saturday of last week. Seventeen young men, some of them dressed as the jolliest old Saint Nicks, dropped their clothes for a wildly enthusiastic audience. The event raised $1,700 for Loving Spoonful, a local HIV/AIDS charity.

Karen Opas, volunteer coordinator for Loving Spoonful, says these kinds of events are very important for their group. "A lot of agencies receive a lot of their funding from government sources," she says. "We typically only receive about 20 per cent."

Opas says this year's mixture of naughty and nice was Loving Spoonful's most successful Strip-a-thon so far, raising almost double what the same event took in two years ago.

Stripping Santas are a pretty tame example of the growing phenomenon of "extreme charity." A lot of charities, which function today in a highly competitive market for donor funds, are generally happy to have people do whatever it takes to attract money and attention to their causes. Which is why stunts for good causes are raising more money all the time--and some problematic questions, too.

Mystic in a barrel

The rise of extreme charity coincided with the rise of mass media and public relations. Some of the first people to do stunts for charity were the descendants of the Niagara Falls daredevils who crossed the water on tightropes during an age of spectacle wrought by master promoters like P.T. Barnum.

The first person known to have gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel to raise money for a charitable cause was a peculiar fellow, even by the standards of barrel-running daredevils. George L. Stathakis was was a self-styled mystic trying to raise money to pay for the production of books on his metaphysical experiences, for the benefit of all humankind. One such book opened with the line "I was born a thousand years ago, on the banks of a river in Central Africa...."

Disaster struck when Stathakis' barrel got caught in the cascade behind the falls, and the oxygen inside eventually ran out. When, after 22 hours, the barrel finally broke free, rescuers recovered Stathakis' body and took it away to be interred. His pet turtle, Sonny Boy, walked away unharmed.

Battling 'donor fatigue'

Since then, adventure charity has become less dangerous and more successful. Most Canadians are familiar with the exploits of Terry Fox, Rick Hansen and Steve Fonyo. Fox's attempt to run across Canada for his "Marathon of Hope," Fonyo's successful completion of that run in his "Journey for Lives," and Hansen's "Man in Motion" wheelchair tour of the world attracted wide media attention.

The trend has accelerated in the past decade. Recall Erik Weinhenmayer, the blind man who climbed Mt. Everest in support of the National Federation for the Blind, and Jeff Adams, the Canadian Olympian who climbed the stairs of the CN Tower in his wheelchair last September to raise money for the Variety Village school outreach program for the disabled. In a particularly extreme stunt, Tom McGouran, a Winnipeg radio DJ, spent 48 hours encased in a concrete tomb to raise money for Special Olympics in the summer of 2001.

Charities love these kinds of stunts and events because getting attention is a big part of the battle in the modern charity world. "It's a competitive marketplace for charities," says Gordon Floyd, former Vice President of Public Affairs for the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy. And unlike corporations, few charities can afford to advertise.

"Very hairy stunts generate the biggest response, with people being very impressed and digging much deeper into their pockets," says Dennis Daymond-John. He ought to know. The 81-year-old legally-blind Welshman has raised money for charity by cycling vast distances, rappelling and skydiving.

"Donor fatigue" is driving the need for such stunts, says Christine Teterenko, Revenue Development Coordinator for the Canadian Cancer Society in Edmonton. "People are tired," she says, from the onslaught of charities' letters, telethons, and phone calls.

Flying turkey fiasco

But like the stunts themselves, such fundraising gambits carry a high risk of failure.

Consider what happened when KONO-FM in San Antonio, Texas, decided to drop from a helicopter papier-mâché turkeys stuffed with gift certificates for real turkeys. Unfortunately, the rotors blew the turkeys off course, and people were injured trying to get their hands on the birds.

Then there's the sad fate of Nigel Rogoff, a Brit who fell while parachuting for charity into a stadium during halftime of a soccer game. He had to have his leg amputated.

Even when such stunts go off without a hitch, do they really work? "The thing that limits the effectiveness" of stunts," says Floyd, "is that they're not related to the mission of the organization. People give to causes that they believe in."

Most of the people who perform stunts for charity see the need to seek publicity as a necessary evil. Neal Daymond-John writes of his father: "He sees the publicity as a means to an end--publicity gets the money coming in." The younger Daymond-John notes also that his father pays for all the expenses incurred by his events himself--a way, perhaps, of reminding himself who he does his stunts for.

For doers of extreme charity, the risk would seem to be part of the reward. Or to put it another way, sometimes angels rush in where even fools fear to tread.

Jeremy Keehn, based in Vancouver, has reported for CBC Montreal and freelanced for CBC Radio and the UBC Thunderbird.  [Tyee]

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