BBBS turns away from the light for annual campaign

Who: Big Brothers Big Sisters Canada, with Humanity for creative and Frank Content for production.

What: A national awareness/fundraising campaign underscoring the vital role BBBS can play in the lives of at-risk children.

When & Where: The pro bono campaign launched nationally this week—timed to coincide with Big Brothers Big Sisters Month—with an emphasis on the Toronto market. It includes a partnership with Rogers Sports & Media, which has donated media on its TV and radio properties, as well as digital out-of-home.

Why: Awareness of BBBS Canada sits around 97%, said BBBS Toronto president and CEO Leanne Nicolle, but this campaign is about shifting public perception of the more than 115-year-old organization. Most people equate BBBS with providing adult friends for kids, but it actually serves as a form of support for children who have faced traumatic experiences, such as witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, bullying or the death or incarceration of a parent.

“Oftentimes this intervention is the difference between them engaging in risk-taking behaviour like gang violence or substance abuse, and thriving,” said Nicolle. “There are very few organizations that can boast that their intervention can actually change the course of a young person’s life.”

How: The campaign is part of a broader shift underway within BBBS that started with internal communications aimed at informing its social workers that it’s not simply about making matches with kids and adults, but strengthening community systems. “It’s a lot different than ‘We just match kids with adults.’ You’re creating systemic change and you don’t even know it,” said Nicolle.

That was followed by increasing its presence among other key referral partners such as the Children’s Aid Society, women’s shelters, food banks, etc.

There’s a marked shift in tonality for this campaign, with previous marketing tending to be upbeat, showing “Bigs” and “Littles” hanging out and having fun. But the new work, directed by former Little Thyrone Tommy (whose feature debut Learn to Swim is currently playing at TIFF), is built around stark black-and-white shots of some of the Littles across the country, accompanied by messages like “A 9-year-old should feel loved… not lost” and “An 11-year-old should follow their heart… not their hurt.”

“There’s some risk because Canadians might say ‘That’s not how I think of BBBS,'” said Nicolle. “But the flip side is they have to see the children for the adversity they’ve faced, and an investment now will prevent a long-term negative impact on the child, which is the right thing to do, but more importantly for Canadians who are donating, they’re going to save taxpayers’ dollars if these children become productive members of society.”

And we quote: “This is a problem worth solving, because we’re all going to benefit as a society if we get this right. We need public awareness to say ‘If these kids’ trauma is left unchecked, they will be left in the system forever, and you as taxpayers will pay for them forever.'” — Leanne Nicolle, president and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters Toronto

Chris Powell