The CEO Pikeout: How The Rich & Powerful Do Charity

Brisbane, ceo sleepout, ceo sleepout 2017, ceo sleepout brisbane, charity, charity auction, charity event, couch surfing, fundraising, graham quirk, homeless, homeless youth, homelessness, homelessness in australia, ipswich mayor, ipswich mayor paul tully, jackie trad, jonathan sri, lord mayor graham quirk, paul tully, peter maher, philanthropy, st vincent de paul, st vincent de paul australia, st vincent de paul brisbane, st vincent de paul ceo sleepout, story bridge, vinnies, vinnies ceo sleepout, virtue signal, virtue signalling

Spiderman onesies, Adidas tracksuits paired with Cartier watches, tailor-made suits with folded silk pocket squares and shiny brown leather shoes – these, coupled with promotional beanies, are the outfits of choice for the middle-aged men sauntering around the park tonight.

Youths in hi-vis wander about with clipboards and flattened cardboard boxes. ’Love Shack’, ‘Two Princes’, ’Beat It’ and other obnoxiously peppy, kitsch hits mix with the constant rattle of traffic from the bridge above.

There’s a coffee cart, two tables brimming with blue gift bags, a pop-up store named “Contraband”, twelve art works, four projectors, two hundred seats and three lone port-a-loos – all encircled by a temporarily erected fence guarded by no less than six security guards and volunteers.

Tonight is no ordinary night under Brisbane’s Story Bridge. 

Tonight it’s the St Vinnies CEO Sleepout – an event where the top 1% subject themselves to contrived homelessness in the name of charity for a night. And it’s really quite bizarre.

When I first arrive I walk straight through the gates and into the crowd of CEOs and volunteers – an occurrence that seems, and is, far too good to be true.

A media co-ordinator swiftly spots me, tags me, then shuffles me in front of the man of the night: St Vincent de Paul QLD/NT CEO Peter Maher – a man with a penchant for raising awareness and a talent for changing the subject.

No, he can’t comment on whether participating CEOs could personally donate more than the $3000 average they’ve pulled together – he doesn’t know individual’s circumstances.

No, sleeping under a bridge doesn’t perpetuate misleading stereotypes of being homeless – couch surfing youth are just at the first stage of homelessness and St Vinnies have services to help people at every stage of inequality.

Yes, 20% of sign-ups actually haven’t donated anything at all but, “Wait and see. Having been a CEO, I can tell you that we’re very busy and often leave things to the last minute. Plus they get competitive towards the end and that really boosts the amount raised,” he says.

My interview is cut short by a CEO who simply cannot wait any longer to introduce himself to Maher, and I’m promptly informed that media access is now cut off for the night.

“We’ll need your media pass back too,” a tall, neck-bearded security guard demands.

I point out the Channel 9 crews doing vox pops inside (Sky News also made an appearance but had an equipment malfunction).

“Only sponsoring news crews who promote the event with prearranged interviews and video footage are allowed in. There are a lot of dignitaries inside and we can’t have print media bothering them,” neck-beard explains.

A group handing out fliers and piss cups protesting cashless welfare cards are also promptly shown the door.

As if his inbuilt social injustice radar was triggered, local Greens Councillor Jonathan Sri appears out of nowhere on his bicycle. But, unfortunately for Jonno, even elected members of parliament need permission to poke around this “invite only” do.

The reason for the sudden hostility towards the press soon presents itself in the form of the Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and his obligatory police escort.

The mayor is quickly ushered inside the gates to mingle amongst the crowd of gleeful CEOs. Even from the outside their networking boners can be seen.

A cheerful “hello” disturbs me as I rummage through my bag for a pen.

I look up to find none other than Deputy Premier Jackie Trad extending her hand.

She promises me that once the speeches are done she’ll come back outside for an interview and would I like her to fetch me a coffee too? They’re free? Yes please.

The official proceedings are as boring as you’d imagine. Sponsor plugs and slide show presentations are no substitutes for booze and canapés, and there’s nothing particularly remarkable or enjoyable about the first few speeches.

A rep from a company called Microhire uses their stage time to proclaim that, “This is about creating a sense of community, which is why we’re here today.”

Where exactly the community they’re referring to is is hard to say.

Mention is also made of  the “plush duvets” available for hire from the “Contraband” store – although to the CEO Sleepout participant’s credit, they don’t seem to be popular. In fact, so abysmal are the intentionally overpriced convenience store’s sales that a half-off discount is announced.

Maher’s speech is next, and it’s an almost verbatim repetition of the ‘interview’ he granted me earlier.

“I’m so proud to see all of our CEOs sleeping out. We’ve got 168 CEOs sleeping out in Brisbane tonight, and 1480 sleeping out across Australia,” Maher begins.

A cursory count of the cardboard boxes erected just before bed time reveals the figure to be closer to 70 CEOs actually sleeping out, and that number drops as the night gets colder.

“It’s not just a publicity stunt though, it’s a way for us all to experience a fraction of what people go through every night. I’ve been doing this for eight years and actually sleeping out is probably the thing I hate most about my job,” he goes on.

The crowd smile and nod. Yes, being outdoors is unpleasant.

The ejection of the cashless welfare protestors also gets a mention:

“I was talking to a group of young protesters before and I just had to say to them I’m happy to talk to you but probably not tonight.”

A slideshow of the houses the CEO Sleepout has funded ensues, before two brave women (Trish and Chris) then share their personal stories of homelessness.

If the CEOs are moved by these lived experiences, their wallets aren’t showing it. The final act of the night – the obligatory charity auction – is a flop.

Out of six luxury prizes up for grabs (a training sessions with boxer Jeff Horn, a full-day boating trip, Ed Sheeran tickets, two holiday packages and a casino tour) three of the items are sold at their reserve prices (including the Ed Sheeran tickets at a bargain $300 each) and the other three sell at just a few hundred above their reserves.

Closing up the proceedings, Channel 10 reporter and fundraiser thanks the crowd for their “commitment to fight homelessness in your sleep”, and tells the CEOs to leave behind sleeping bags or other items they want to donate.

‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasts from behind the stage, signalling the end of the tedious ceremony.

A lanky young participant donning hipster glasses and a checkered onesie wanders outside the gate for a chat.

“I came here to sleep rough, but it’s like a party in there,” he says in a heavy Brazilian accent.

“Free coffee, security, police, it’s all fenced off, you can buy snacks and rent blankets… it’s not at all what I expected”.

No sooner had I congratulated him on his fundraising efforts when, to my genuine surprise, Jackie Trad re-emerges with two coffees in hand and no security guards.

“I think without a doubt one of the most moving and penetrating points of the night is the sharing of Chris and Trish’s stories – that for me contextualises and personalises what this is all about,” she says.

I ask her the same questions about couch surfers and homeless stereotypes I’d asked Maher.

“Why not use something like this potent network of people – people who have the capacity to hire young people – to listen to their stories and understand the power that they have to transform the lives of young employees by making really simple decisions in their businesses?” she suggests.

Jacki Trad is disarmingly earnest. But her reputation won’t survive the sleepout completely unscathed.

An hour later I ask a bloke wandering away from the gate what he’s doing.

“I came down because I donated to Jackie Trad’s sleepout and they won’t let me in. They’re just advertising what good people they are but I’ve donated money an I can’t even get a foot in the door, it’s disgraceful. I’m going to unlike her on Facebook,” the pissed off passerby explains.

Sticky beaks are clearly not welcome in the CEO Sleepout. Print media, Jonathan Sri, Jacki Trad’s campaign donors, and even a wandering group of Seventh Day Adventists who had spent the night giving to the homeless in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley – all are turned away.

CEO’s friends with bags of takeaway, Uber Eats drivers and Dominos deliverers, on the other hand, are allowed to briefly pass the threshold.

By 10pm the lights and upbeat hits of yesteryear are killed and it’s officially bed time.

Networking chatter dies down, tv screens and lighting are disassembled, and a hush falls over the park. The shriek of curlews, the clunk of traffic overhead, and the crunch of plainclothes police circling the perimeter punctuate the cold night air.

Right outside the gates an actual homeless lady is blanketed up and sleeping on her reclined front seat

I wonder if deciding to stay the whole night is a mistake.

But my commitment to being the hall monitor of the rich and powerful doesn’t take long to pay off, as one by one CEOs begin to abandon the cause in search of comfort and warmth.

One sheepishly scuttles to his Jeep and turns the heater on.

Another, with sleeping bag, pillow and goodie bag in tow, makes a quick dash to her car and zips off.

It’s not even 11:30.

One CEO shuffles out for a cigarette, saying, “Wow, it really is cold. I can really relate to how the homeless must feel tonight.”

“Ah, look in the bright side. The police are here to protect you, not to move you on,” I reply.

Not long after that an older, jovial looking man strolls out of the gates and says hello. It’s 1am and he can’t sleep.

“Hey, are you a CEO?” I ask.

“Why, I’m the acting Mayor of Ipswich,” he smiles back.

We sit on the pavement under the bridge and chat for an hour.

No, he doesn’t comment on his predecessor who has just been arrested for extortion, except to say, “Nothing surprises me in politics, I’ve been in the game for four decades. I lived through the Joh Bjelke Petersen years.”

After briefly restoring my faith in the rich and powerful he toddles off to bed in his red Big W jacket and grandpa socks.

Ten of the 70 CEOs who committed to sleeping out call it quits before McDonald’s breakfast is served at 5am – although one does return at 4:50am in a fresh new suit ready for the day ahead.

One by one, cabs come to collect the dignitaries and by the official 6am finishing time only half a dozen CEOs are left.

Virtues have been signalled. Connections have been made. Money has been raised, and, of course, people will be helped.

Sure, $5 million could have been $6 million if those CEOs who signed up but didn’t fundraise had of followed through. And $6 million could have been $10 million if the rest of the actually participating CEOs had hit their targets.

And perhaps a bigger impact could have been made if the media, the homeless and the general public were allowed to cross paths with the decision makers in any real and meaningful way.

But, at the end of the day, nobody who spent the night under the Story Bridge on the 22nd of June had to do that.

And that’s kind of the point.


Did your cortisol rise when you read this? Did your dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin begin to flow freely?

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  • Refreshingly honest, real world perspective. Go Girl!

  • What does one say? Speechless!

  • ….. the significant difference between ” SHOW ” and ” GO ” is on display ! … ( Boy Scouts handkerchiefs personified ? )

  • Nice to see some authentic journalism. Factual, not sensationalised and gave a very clear picture of the reality of this “event”. Well done.

    • theundergroundobserver

      Thank you so much Alby. Your kind words make me want to do more of these!

      • Please do! Thank you so much for committing and staying the night. This was a great read. I hope some of those CEO’s get a chance to see it too

  • A Friendly Observer

    Authentic and refreshing? I don’t think so. Journalism nowadays is very biased and the reasons behind the bias vary. Mainstream media coverage often tries to sell something, or divert attention away from issues that may affect the balance of power. Often times, money is behind the curtains. Whilst I don’t think this article was written for any particular personal gain, it’s incredibly biased. It’s hard to write from a “facts” perspective when you begin with a personal agenda. I think when you arrived at this event, you already had a formed opinion; all you needed to do was seek the “facts” that would fit nicely with your “asshole CEOs” premise. You may have written this article with good intentions, but it is poor journalism.

    The event raises millions for charity because hundreds of individuals around the country have decided, out of their own accord, to dedicate a significant amount of time raising money. These are people who generally lead very stressful lives with numerous demands; yet they chose to engage in this cause – and their influence enables the event to raise a lot more than the average charity event would. As for the registrants who didn’t raise any money – they cost nothing to St Vinnies, and received no benefit from filling up in an online form and submitting their registration (unless you really believe that having a temporary little profile in the CEO Sleepout website renders any benefit for anyone). Many of them probably registered with good intentions, but never followed through. Some probably were just lazy. Do you know the reasons? Did you do any research before posting their names on your Facebook page? Did you perhaps consider that some of them may have had personal challenges that impeded them from following through? It’s very easy to make assumptions and put labels on people.

    And yes, the Sleepout itself is clearly a PR stunt; it’s about image, networking, making CEOs feel good about being part of the event so next year they do it again, and raise a few more thousand dollars, and inspire their other rich buddies to do the same (although many of the participants weren’t rich at all). That’s the premise of this event, and the end product is greater awareness towards the issue of homelessness in Australia, and a significant positive impact in our society.

    I appreciate you may not like CEOs, and that’s ok – it’s your opinion. You may also think that this event has a lot of flaws, and that’s fine too. But if you want to be taken seriously as a reporter, you have an ethical responsibility to provide a balanced perspective on things. Moreover, you have a social responsibility too.

    Of course, this is only my opinion. But I was there too. We had a chat. And from the moment we started talking, I could sense how badly you wanted to shame the event. I wrote this reply for your benefit; hopefully you will reflect on it, and take a thing or two on board. But if you completely disagree with everything I wrote, that’s ok too – the world is a big place.

    Take care and good luck with your next reporting!

    PS Free coffee was provided because the owner of Merlo Coffee was one of the CEOs, and he put up a coffee van for everyone. Free soup was also provided – cans of Heinz soup with a piece of bread. Real posh.

    • theundergroundobserver

      I arrived at this event hoping that my personal biases – which everyone including journalists have – would be proven wrong. They’ve been proven wrong before and I thoroughly enjoy it.

      I didn’t, however, just cherry pick the events that I thought would paint CEOs in the worst possible light. I patiently waited and wrote things down as they happened (which is more than I can say for the news crews that turned up to do a quick spruik and prearranged interview then disappeared. Perhaps my story would have been different if I had been granted access to speak to some of the CEOs instead of left at the gate to look in and occasionally stop someone who came out for a cigarette.

      “These are people who generally lead very stressful lives with numerous demands; yet they chose to engage in this cause”. Newsflash: Everyone lives stressful lives with numerous demands. CEOs shouldn’t be given any special badge of honour because doing this for charity is somehow harder for them than for other people. You know what would help the event raise more funds, other than their influence? Their personal contributions. I spoke to CEOs who struggled to even hit 2.5k in fundraising, none of whom even considered putting their own money into the cause.

      The research I did before I put the names up on my Facebook page included making sure that I called Vinnies and confirmed that their published figures are correct – they are. Vinnies has in fact won awards for their transparency in this regard. You are correct, I did not contact the CEOs I listed.

      As for personal problems prohibiting participation – again, everyone has personal problems. If you sign up six months ago and you have no way to follow through the least you can do is tell them. Or get your assistant to tell them, because the temporary profiles actually do help the CEOs. When you Google their names the fact that they have signed up to this event will show (and how much they’ve raised will not show in the meta description). So there’s a bit of free SEO PR.

      If you have a look at the Dog on the Moon comic from yesterday you’ll see my thoughts on the whole “raising awareness” thing. This event has been raising awareness for 10 years and nothing has changed. In my opinion, raising awareness does nothing. We all *know* there are homeless people. What we need to do – as I said in my article – is to break down the social barriers between the decision makers and the lower class, and to raise awareness of the emerging types of homelessness that are not mentioned in events like this. I stand by my belief that this event, by being held under a bridge with cardboard boxes, perpetuates negative stereotypes of being homeless that further stigmatise those least well off. And by being fenced off it only reinforced the homeless person as “the other”.

      So please, don’t lecture me on being “taken seriously as a reporter” and my “ethical and social responsibilities”. I will leave the fluff and promo pieces to literally every other reporter who covered this event before going home an hour later.

      And yes, I know the coffee was provided free by Dean Merlo – it was mentioned in several of the speeches and in the interviews I did. I just didn’t think that is really an important enough detail to include in my report – Dean Merlo has already had his free advertising. But, seeing as you have brought it up, congratulations to Dean Merlo for donating coffee and staff.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and I wish you all the best when raising funds in future. If I could say anything to you it would be that I hope that you consider hiring more freelancers instead of agencies, as you can change someone’s like with just one contract.

      • A Friendly Observer

        Journalists have biases, but good ones (if they are allowed to) know how to put their biases aside when writing. At least one would hope so.

        It’s actually interesting when you say you are biased towards CEOs. What do you think CEOs are – a personality type? My job title is CEO; I don’t have a business partner, nor do I own a business or make millions. I’m pretty friendly, and each year I donate a growing portion of my income to charity (and the company I work for donates a lot more). Does that exclude me from your CEO label, or does it automatically put me in your dislike list? Where do you draw that line? What about other CEOs (and non-CEOs) involved in this event? Do you know many of them? How you spoken to most of them? Are they all narcissists who joined the event so they could promote themselves (by the way, having a profile page on the Vinnies website for a few months, especially when it shows $0 funds raised, equates to approximately zero PR value)? Do you know their personal circumstances, whether they are altruistic, whether their businesses have helped people in the past? How much do you really know about the people you’re judging so harshly?

        I find it astounding that you perceive an event that raised over 5 million dollars for charity as “shamefully conceived and executed.” Do you think the concept causes more harm than good? Perhaps you should ask Vinnies why they do it; and how other efforts to raise funds compare.

        Actions express priorities. These CEOs have showed that at least one of their priorities at the time was to promote altruism. What were your priorities?

        • theundergroundobserver

          There is no stereotypical CEO. Good on you and other CEOs for being genuinely altruistic.

          I don’t believe an average of $3503 raised each much though.

  • I find it funny that you sit on the other side of the fence and criticise those who are actually trying to raise money for any sort of charity. I wonder what you or your organisation has done to help others and by misquoting and denigrating those who have tried you could be putting further efforts at helping the less fortunate at risk. They may not have actually lived homeless for the night but without their interest in the issue there would be 5 million less to help. Poor form and even worse journalism levelling such harsh criticism at those who try to help rather than do nothing at all.

    • theundergroundobserver

      Well, I guess you’ll never know what charitable works I do in my spare time because I choose not to publicise them.

      But, on a serious note, who have I misquoted? I have recordings of all my interviews and wrote down notes from the speeches verbatim.

  • Looking forward to your next article exposing that many riders in The Ride to Conquer Cancer don’t actually have cancer.

  • What are they going to do when the going gets tough? The homeless will still be tough

  • the suposed Uber eats guy

    I like how on the night you just assume people coming with food are working for uber eats, I was one of those people, before I even stepped foot inside you accosted me and accused me of working for uber eats bringing food to the CEO. when that wasnt the case in the slightest, i was there to bring food to one of the many people who volenteer’d their time…not that you give 2 fucks about the people who are trying to help when you can slag off a few CEO’s. Maybe you should do some real journalism and fact check before you shoot off your month

    • theundergroundobserver

      Hey I remember you. I didn’t accost you I walked up to you and said are you delivering Uber eats? You said you weren’t and that was that. You weren’t the only person bringing food that night – I personally spoke to CEOs who had food delivered. Although you do make a good point, maybe most of the people bringing in food were delivering it to their friends who volunteered their time (who I really do think are wonderful).

  • Share the love, not the hate


    Shame on you for targeting people doing a good deed. Regardless of whether they are rich CEOs (or average earning CEO’s working for a small company or brand new venture such as my partner) or any Joe blow, they are doing a good thing & they don’t deserve this sort of one-sided attack.

    My fiancé was one of the people you spoke to. He poured his heart into raising the money that he did. Annoyed all our friends, got his colleagues on board, even accosting friends congratulating us on our recent engagement as an opportunity to raise funds. He donated a generous sum himself, in addition to the thousands of dollars that we regularly donate on an annual basis to various charities that we believe in. Saying that these CEOs didn’t donate themselves is a big assumption – not to mention their time is donation in itself. And yes, some people really are busier than others. Not everybody works 40 hour weeks. Some people work 80-100 hour weeks.

    It is simply not that easy to raise money for charity. One year ago I cut off my buttock-length hair (which had taken me a lifetime to grow) & donated it to the Variety Children’s charity alopecia appeal for children suffering hair loss due to cancer therapy. I raised funds for months before the chop. My colleagues include doctors & other health staff whom i pestered in person & on social media in order to reach my target. I also donated money myself (I made a pledge to match my highest donation), and my partner donated too. I still only managed to raise just over $2000. Many people already have charities they donate to, perhaps they have prioritised their donations based on the causes they believe to be the most needy, and this might just not be one of those for them.

    $3,500 raised per person is actually a large sum. $5 million countrywide is a huge sum & a great success. Completely unreasonable to be belittling this.

    And just like any business needs ongoing investment to sustain & grow, so does every fundraising event. If it’s a flop, there will be no more events in future to raise funds. Simple economics. Why shouldn’t the CEOs who have taken their time to do a good thing have an opportunity to network & socialise? What is the harm in that? Should we punish them for doing something good? Let’s actually take their clothes & homes away to make it more realistic, throw them in the cold & then point the finger & criticise afterwards for not having done enough? I can guarantee none of them will be back next year, and no new punters will sign up either. Instead of targeting the people doing a good thing, why not see this for what it is – the majority of any given population having minimal Interest or insight into how the poor live & why. The guys doing the sleep out are the good guys. You suck for trying to spin it the other way round.

    There’s enough negativity, lack of empathy & consideration in the world already. We don’t need to persecute those who are actually trying to help. Next time please try some real journalism, instead of a superficial & biased opinion piece sowing even more negativity around.

    • theundergroundobserver

      Hi, would you and your fiancé like to do an interview about your experience at the sleepout?

  • What a great article, really good job. Keep writing please!

  • It takes a strong fish to swim against the tide westendhipster. Please keep writing.

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  • Really what is this article trying to achieve ? Some sort of self satisfaction at the cutting down of a very successful event. Sure it’s not perfect but it’s a darn sight better than doing nothing .

    Unhelpful and cynical in the extreme and frankly self serving .

    • theundergroundobserver

      Hi Hayden, did you participate in the event? I would love to do an interview.

      • No I didn’t participate but I am a St V supporter and run a charity fundraiser for Reclink Australia – the Galbally Cup . Frankly don’t see the point in being interviewed by a cynic.

  • Wow, absolutely brilliant, best thing I’ve read for a while. I’d always had philosophical problems with the CEO sleepout, because the rich and powerful can actually affect some structural change. Leave the sponsored fundraisers for regular people. But I’d never taken much notice of, I had no idea, of the workings, the lameness, the hypocrisy. Its emblematic of window dressing for positive change while things are actually going backwards. Thanks!

  • I loved this! I want to give you a hug.

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  • Oh the self righteous indignation over a well written article and observation, just makes me like it even more. None of the defences worked, the article calls it for what it is, and worthy of debate. Little transparency in the funding arrangements, and smugness all round.