As has been done every year since 1965, the $165,000 raised by students during Welcome Week 2014 will be donated to the national Shinerama campaign to be given to Cystic Fibrosis Canada.
However, some universities, such as Acadia University in Nova Scotia, have stopped donating Welcome Week funding to Shinerama in favor of supporting local charities, which raises the question of why. It’s a question even the Executive Board of the McMaster Student Union has been looking into.
“It would be great if McMaster could fundraise to help mental illness in Hamilton as this is a huge issue that is progressively getting worse,” said Nicole Rakowski, a fourth-year life science student and an avid volunteer in the Hamilton community.
Although some criticize Cystic Fibrosis Canada’s finances, over the years the Shinerama campaign has undeniably been successful in terms of generating funding for an important cause.
“The collective efforts of students have really made a difference,” said Dr. Andreas Freitag, the Medical Director of the Adult Cystic Fibrosis Clinic at the McMaster University Medical Centre. “The Hamilton Cystic Fibrosis Chapter, and Cystic Fibrosis Canada are really grateful for the support.”
Although a discussion on choosing which charity to support is divisive, critical discourse should ultimately be embraced at an institute of higher learning and critical thinking.
“Having a discussion and questioning and thinking about all these things makes a lot of sense.” said Violetta Igneski of the McMaster philosophy department.
Given cystic fibrosis is an orphan disease, researchers are grateful that university students across Canada have rallied behind this cause.
McMaster students have been especially passionate, consistently placing in the top tier of more than 60 Canadian campuses that donate Welcome Week fundraising towards Cystic Fibrosis Canada.
“In total we’ve raised over one million dollars,” said Karissa Holyer, this year’s MSU Shinerama coordinator.
However, the cause has not been without controversy. In 2008, Carleton University’s Student Union passed a much-debated motion to stop their Shinerama campaign because of concerns that it is a disease that only affects white males. This false claim quickly generated intense criticism on a national level, including by Macleans and the Globe and Mail, leading to a reversal of the motion.
In reality, cystic fibrosis is a disease caused by an autosomal recessive gene, meaning it is a rare genetic disorder, affecting around 4,000 Canadians. If both parents carry the gene, their child will have a one in four chance of having cystic fibrosis.
Although everyone with the disease has a different experience, generally cystic fibrosis generates mucus that clogs the lungs leading to bacterial infections. The body also has a decreased ability to absorb key nutrients from food.
“It’s a great way to get involved in the community and make a difference,” said Jasmine Gilmour, a first year Humanities student said of Shine Day. The campaign is a way to demonstrate that McMaster cares about causes beyond campus.
With this type of enthusiasm typical of Shinerama participants, it’s not surprising that Cystic Fibrosis Canada seems to be prospering. The organization’s net fundraising revenue in 2013 exceeded $12 million. As well, CFC has gained a high profile thanks to endorsements from celebrities like Céline Dion and Ben Mulroney, the organization’s national ambassador.
Despite these high profile endorsements and cross-Canada support, according to Charity Intelligence Canada, a foundation that analyses Canadian charities to increase accountability, CFC has an overall grade of B+.
This grade may be partially due to the organization’s overhead costs. Almost $2 million of CFC’s budget is allocated to administration costs and $627,000 goes to meetings. McMaster’s fundraising from 2013 ($139,534) is less than half of this overhead. Moreover, in 2013 the excess revenue over expenses was double the total raised by McMaster.
Cystic fibrosis is indisputably an important cause. There is currently no cure, but thanks to medical advancements, half of affected Canadians live to their 40’s and older. Despite these developments, Cystic Fibrosis is still the most common fatal genetic disease in Canada.
Holyer believes that over the years the campaign has contributed to social change, citing the fact that since the Shinerama campaign started 49 years ago, life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis has increased by an average of 11 months for each year the fundraising has taken place.
CFC grants support research on improving disease management and finding a cure. In fact, funding from Cystic Fibrosis Canada is regularly allotted to McMaster researchers like Dr. Freitag for whom grants are an integral source of funding.
But the MSU is not limited to choosing between supporting a local charity or a national one; a rotation or alternating model is also possible. Campus Events, for example, alternates the organization that receives the money raised during the annual Charity Ball.
“It’s a model that’s been around for 18 years,” explained Al Legault, director of Campus Events. Each year, their committee of volunteer organizers hears pitches from local groups in need and chooses a deserving local charity. “It’s a matter of being fair and really looking at helping numerous groups instead of sticking with one.”
He also cited the benefit of students connecting to a local cause.
“Students will feel closer to the event themselves if they have a say. Favoritism is not a bad thing, but with this event things change every year. We may as well change every year.”
Holyer defended the tradition of sticking to one organization for Welcome Week fundraising.
“This is the charity we support during Welcome Week, but we also support other charities during the year like Terry Fox.”
But regardless of the way this tradition has been institutionalized, it is essential to reflect on why this choice is made and whether it is worth continuing.
“Why did we choose this and what criteria are important in deciding where our money should go, should it all go into one charity? Should it go in to different charities? Should we have some kind of division between international, national and local? All of these things might be worth having a discussion about,” said Igneski.
The passion of Welcome Week representatives and the first years who join them on Shine Day is admirable. But ultimately, given the huge sum of money being raised, McMaster students should think critically about where the money is going and why.