Like the typical creator of any one of thousands of Facebook groups, Shannon Christensen went through a challenging time in her life and decided to start an informal support network to share her story and to help others. In this case, Christensen was struggling as a mother of two small children, with a husband working out of town, and no one to help with an overwhelming list of challenges. While some were practical, and others financial, it was the experience of “emotional poverty” that motivated the beginnings of Mamas for Mamas in 2014.
In just five years, the effort has grown from a core of 32 mothers connected through the original Facebook group to more than 55,000 and 54 chapters across Canada—and these are not just Facebook groups with an owner and a handful of joiners; each chapter has a minimum of 500 members.
Although advice and sympathetic ears are certainly a part of what Mamas for Mamas delivers, it is much more than online discussions, making an impact many have experienced as life-changing. Such was the case for Robyn Brown and her 2018 pregnancy, where she dealt with extreme morning sickness that could only be controlled with expensive medication. Coupled with her husband having to leave his job to care for their other children, the couple found themselves in severe financial and emotional distress.
“We were drowning,” said Brown, 29, who lives in Kelowna, British Columbia. “There was no program to help struggling parents while you are pregnant and sick.”
That’s when a social worker made an unexpected suggestion: check out a group called Mamas for Mamas. A few days later, Brown learned that her upcoming credit card bills and rental payments were taken care of, and additionally received a crib and car seat for when it was time for the baby to come home.
“They turned one of the absolutely scariest times of my life into something absolutely beautiful,” said Brown.
Mamas for Mamas helps with practical issues like bills, clothing, and toiletries, as well as emotional support, counseling, and even homelessness, domestic abuse, and postpartum depression.
While Mamas for Mamas is an obvious “great cause” and a source for endless heartwarming stories of people in need getting help from strangers when they need it most, so too do most of Canada’s more than 85,000 registered charities.
So, with the sector as a whole experiencing a donations decline of more than five percent in the most recently tracked decade (as illustrated in the Giving Report 2018) and with 80 percent of charities generating less than $500,000 a year in revenues, this is also an intriguing story of the modern evolution of a nonprofit.
This is not your classic case of years of social policy discussions at stakeholder roundtables, giving birth to committees that produce multiple drafts of founding documents, and hosting an inaugural annual general meeting to get things moving. Rather, the paperwork is trying to keep up with a blossoming movement that is driven by the so-called target population.
“We were lucky in the sense that the timing was really right for us. This was the first Canadian charity born on social media. We didn’t have any brick-and-mortar.”
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Although difficult if not impossible to prove this claim (since the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) does not provide any public information that would settle the matter), there’s little doubt that the largely online infrastructure of Mamas for Mamas challenged the regulatory body. In fact, the CRA twice denied the application for charitable status because they could not figure out how it would qualify within the guidelines for charitable purposes and activities. Eventually, Christensen was successful in making the case for registration under the relief of poverty qualification and obtained charitable status in January 2017.
Although operating primarily as an online network, Mamas for Mamas does have one brick-and-mortar location in Christensen’s hometown of Kelowna, where an operation that started in her garage evolved to an office space and Karma Market, a drop off/pick up location for donated items.
In a story that will no doubt ring familiar to many nonprofit founders, Christensen never intended to build a new career, content to continue as a full-time trauma counselor while doing some good to help mothers on the side. That changed in October 2017, and she now manages eight (mostly part-time) staff, supports the establishment of new chapters, and coordinates with other poverty reduction efforts to avoid duplication.
With the endless list of poverty reduction organizations that do important work across the country (many of them struggling to maintain operations, let alone grow them), it would seem that the ability of Mamas for Mamas to recruit so many volunteers and attract so many donors must have more to it than the use of Facebook groups, which are hardly an uncommon vehicle for other charities. Whether Christensen is merely being modest is unknown, but her explanation of the meteoric rise of Mamas for Mamas is relatively straightforward.
Because it’s social media…you can do it anywhere. You can do it while you’re nursing your baby or working on your degree. Or you’re at your computer 10 hours a day and you want to take two of those hours to contribute back to your community.
Having a good cause and a long track record of being in service to that cause is no guarantee that donors, media, or celebrity will prioritize their wallets or time in that direction. Mamas for Mamas literally came out of nowhere in 2014, and it is clear that the compounding impact of online networking has also thrust Mamas for Mamas into the traditional media spotlight. This in turn has generated celebrity support, from Canadian country music star Aaron Pritchett to HGTV’s Love It Or List It star Jillian Harris, who appeared on ET Canada to celebrate a “hand up” over a “handout.”
Harris has teamed up with other celebrities, including Pritchett, for big-league fundraisers that may be taking the charity to yet another level. Mamas for Mamas “should go national, possibly international” says Pritchett, who recently helped give away a used car to a mom in need.
Even the most experienced NPQ readers will find the range of what Mamas for Mamas does and can do impressive. For example, consider a mom of an infant diagnosed with cancer; what’s the answer to such an extremely distressful situation? The team in Kelowna figured it out—they got this mama’s mama a visa and got the cash ready to buy her a seat and fly her in from the Philippines.
“No crisis is too much for our team to handle,” said Christensen.
Beyond the effective use of social media, perhaps it is this “we can do anything” approach that explains why Mamas for Mamas has such an infectious impact on volunteers and donors, in ways that other charities—many of whom are also very savvy with social media—do not.
Speaking to effective website messaging in 2013, web developer David Hartstein wrote in NPQ that, “A problem that appears unsolvable isn’t motivating. It’s daunting, overwhelming, and maybe even debilitating. Our job is to inspire visitors to action, not dim their spirits and immobilize them with despair. Hope makes taking action seem worthwhile.”
In a time where charities are in a constant dialogue of scarcity. and where many people are struggling to see a positive future, the ability to actually solve problems—or even a belief in the ability to solve any problem—is likely more attractive (and needed) than ever.—Keenan Wellar