Fundraiser to aid the homeless gives executives the chance to do good, and be better role models.

Business leaders are often urged to go "outside their comfort zone" when they attend leadership courses. The ability to give anything a try and to be a good role model to staff can be priceless in terms of staff retention.

A successful collaboration between businesses and charity has been happening in Australia for the past two years and is now being adopted in New Zealand.

The Vinnie's CEO Sleepout ran in Sydney last year, with 200 business leaders sleeping rough for the night to bring attention to homelessness in Australia.

It was so successful, raising more than $600,000 in one event, that this year it was held in several cities including Perth and Melbourne.

Melina Schamroth, social entrepreneur and founder of m.a.d.woman.com.au (making a difference), attended the Big Sleepout in Melbourne in June. She was accompanied by 119 other business leaders including Gerald Dalbosco, CEO of Ernst and Young, and Wayne Dunne, managing director of Australian Airlines. Andrew Forrest, one of Australia's wealthiest men, went along to the Perth sleepout.

See these websites:
* lifewise.org.nz
* bigsleepout.org.nz

The evening of the Melbourne event was chilly, says Auckland-born Schamroth. Everyone brought their sleeping bags and pillows along to a stadium and spent the night on a piece of cardboard after a light supper of soup and bread.

"It's certainly an eye-opening experience - you can't walk away from there not feeling changed," says Schamroth. "It's not the discomfort or the fact that you get up with pins and needles; it's knowing that 105,000 people in Australia are doing this every night." At a discussion held at the event, top business minds were asked to put forward potential solutions for homelessness.

The Auckland Lifewise Big Sleepout will be held next month and Schamroth will be doing the event here, too.

About 30 people have signed up so far, including: Bizzone's Sarah Trotman; the finance director of Vodafone, James Marsh; managing director of Neatmeat, Simon Eriksen; divisional director of Macquarie Group, Guy Eady; Borderless Productions' Quijing Wong and co-founder of Colenso, Mike Hutcheson, now executive director of Image Centre Group.

Lifewise general manager John McCarthy says: "Auckland has a homelessness issue and there are a lot of myths around. It's important for people in key roles to understand what leads people into homelessness."

The social services agency is expecting 50 to 100 people to sign up for the event.

Businesswoman Sarah Trotman, one of the first to sign up, says more New Zealand business leaders should step up for various causes and has invited some of her friends and contacts to join her.

The business community has tended to rely on high-profile do-gooders such as Sir Stephen Tindall and Sir Ron Carter to do all the work, she says. "What's really exciting about Lifewise is they are unearthing a new breed of business leaders."

Another executive to step forward for this charity is Gavan Jackson, the New Zealand and Australia managing director of Electrix, a utility services company that targets the power and gas sectors.

Jackson says his involvement in the Lifewise Big Sleepout has already raised some positive comments from staff, who say it is nice to work for a company whose leaders do this kind of thing.

Jackson says that it lets people see that the boss is quite happy to sleep rough for a night for a charity he believes in.

His New Zealand general manager, Robert Ferris, says when he visited company depots the Big Sleepout was a point of interest and discussion. "People will come up and ask about it.

"My outlook on life is [that] while I enjoy working for Electrix and you have to make money, I want to make a difference to society, too."

Two Vodafone directors have signed up for the fundraiser: Mike Stanley, chairman of the Vodafone Foundation and director of human resources, and finance director and foundation director James Marsh.

"I don't think a one night sleepout will change the world," says Marsh. "What I think it does is give an opportunity to raise money, to draw attention to the cause. It's not sexy but an absolutely critical issue, we will hopefully create some exposure."

After the event, Stanley and Marsh will make a presentation to Vodafone's leaders.

Lou Draper, chief executive of Rockstar PR, says she is doing the Big Sleepout because it is something she can do. "It addresses a guilt thing for me - it's not just about homelessness, it's trying to support what you can, what I am able to do."

She is going to friends, family and clients for fundraising and will make a big push through social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Draper says she has had a good response from clients.

She is philosophical about the discomfort she will experience sleeping outdoors on a chilly spring night.

"It's 6pm to 8am, it's not a huge amount of time. I probably won't sleep."



Gill South is an Auckland freelance writer.