I spent one night sleeping on the streets of New York. But it did not compare to the experiences of children who do it every night.

MarkConlin

Xerox Foundation president Mark Conlin: “We can give people the opportunity to become involved on a local level.”

Think about the toughest decisions you’ve ever had to make. Did you have to consider whether or not you would be more comfortable if you wore your overcoat to keep warm, or to ball it up so that you may rest your head on a makeshift pillow?

Or perhaps you had to figure out if prostitution would yield some scarce money that will get you by for another day or two.

The stories from the children who live on the street are just plain horrific. The reasons they became homeless are varied and tragic, but there’s a common thread: These children have nowhere to go, and no family to rely upon.

That’s why I – and 180 other business executives — spent the night of November 21 on the streets of New York with a piece of cardboard, a cheap sleeping bag, and the clothes on our backs. We did this to raise money for Covenant House, a non-profit network of shelters across the Americas that serve homeless youth. The night began with presentations by some of the youth who now live at Covenant House. They shared their stories of how they became homeless, and how they survived on the streets. After that, they sent us outside, and we bedded down not far from the Lincoln Tunnel. The noise from the traffic never let up, and the ground shook beneath us whenever a truck went by. The temperature started to drop at about 4 a.m., and it started to rain 30 minutes later. I managed to get some sleep, but I was grateful when they called us in at 5:30.

Our experience was for one night, and we did it with the sure knowledge that a warm home, a hot breakfast, and a loving family awaited us the next morning. So while my personal experience of the night was off the charts, it was nothing like what homeless kids go through day in and night out.

Before I took my current job with the Xerox Foundation, I spoke with former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy, who is now chair of Save the Children. She told me that I should not under-estimate the learning curve needed for this type of job. Seven months in, I see that making a difference is at least as important as the giving of money. We can’t respond to all needs, but we can give people the opportunity to become involved on a local level. That’s an important way that we put Xerox’s philanthropic dollars to work in the places where we, and our people, are.

Last week, my group of “homeless executives” raised about $2 million, and we helped bring more eyes to the plight of homeless children. Multiply that across everyone who has ever gotten involved in their community, and you begin to see why philanthropy works.

Last week, I learned more than I thought I knew, which is why I’ll be back on streets for next year’s Sleep Out — and I plan to bring a few more Xerox people with me.

By Mark Conlin, president, Xerox Foundation, as told to Gregory Pings, manager, Content Marketing, Xerox.