People Making A Difference: Chrissie Lam
This New York fashion designer taps the talents of her fellow artists to help the orphans of Rwanda.
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Inspired by the "Oprah's Big Give" reality TV show about would-be philanthropists – and put in touch by friends with a filmmaker in Rwanda who needed a hand – Lam decided to enlist colleagues in the causes she was discovering.Skip to next paragraph
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"I had all these amazing, talented friends and co-workers who would love to get involved," she says. She asked them to design and make T-shirts she could sell to raise money.
"I didn't want it to be just about my trip to Africa," she says. "I wanted to make other people a part of it."
Fundraising traditionally has meant starting an organization and sending letters to foundations asking for help. But Lam's generation of 20-somethings is different: They tweet on Twitter, post on Facebook, and long ago they left daily diaries for online blogs.
Create for a Cause has no president, no executive board, and no growth strategy. Its projects begin when someone sends Lam an e-mail. So far, the group has two Rwanda projects: the orphanage and Voices of Rwanda, an effort to collect the stories of genocide survivors.
It also supports AFEM, an association of female journalists in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. So far it's contributed to both funds, such as the $3,000 it cost to ship those 18 boxes of goods to Rwanda, and volunteer time, such as the graphic designer who designed AFEM's business cards.
Seven students are now in school because of the money Lam helped raise, says Idelphonse Niyongana, director of the orphanage.
If that all sounds like small-scale philanthropy, that's the point, Lam says.
Deena Suh, who designed T-shirts sold to benefit AFEM, says Lam's collaborative approach appeals to creative professionals: "She took into consideration my creative sensibility, what [AFEM] might be looking for, or just personalities that would work well together. I don't know what the magic formula was, but the way that it worked, I think, is incredible."
Bryan Collins designed T-shirts for Lam's first fundraiser. His artwork – interconnected hearts in the shape of Africa – is her bestseller.
"I think that she was really good about leveraging people's natural talents, about not asking people to overextend themselves but to do what they do best and put that toward a cause," he says.
Along the way, Lam has learned philanthropy can take some bizarre twists. A dozen boxes of clothes were held up by customs in Rwanda for weeks. On the day Lam thought she would finally bring them to Gisimba, the officials said they needed to be fumigated.
"Fumigated?" Lam remembers asking incredulously. "They told me, 'There are holes in these clothes. There must be insects in them.' I had to explain that jeans with holes are fashionable in America, that people spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on them."
After Lam pointed to the holes in her own jeans, they finally relented.
Lam, meanwhile, continues to receive e-mails both from artists who want to help and from organizations that need a hand.
Simply pairing them up, she says, is precisely her vision. "If I can be a philanthropic matchmaker," she says, "that's perfect."