It wasn't a gala. It didn't happen in tony Toronto. It involved just 16 people, among them one woman. It took place in a suburban strip-mall. The event raised only $20,000. Its name was Operation Bullseye and the charity it supported is not on anyone's list of fashionable causes -- even though its Canadian Chair is Hilary Weston.
But it holds a lesson for much bigger groups in how to turn new donors into rabid fans.
The Prince's Charities are the umbrella for all of Prince Charles' charitable efforts throughout the British Commonwealth. In Canada, one of their initiatives is to help members of the Canadian Forces become entrepreneurs.
So we were invited to spend a day in November at a firing range near Brantford,Ontario learning how to fire various "weapon systems" under the tutelage of Canadian Special Forces veterans and snipers recently returned from Afghanistan. All this (plus dinner after) for $1,250 largely tax-receiptable dollars.
I'm an entrepreneur, my wife is a physician. I'm 5'3" and so is Jean. Our politics are small-l liberal. We don't own guns, don't shoot them and view America's gun culture with fear and scorn. In fact, I hadn't fired a gun since my dad taught me how to hunt ducks using a 410 shotgun ("a lady's shotgun") when I was 10. Jean was raised on a farm and last fired a .22 when she was a teen.
So what would prompt us, of all people, to spend an entire day with some pretty heavy weaponry and their human handlers? Well, we have great respect for the military, nurtured through taking hundreds of Toronto women to Washington to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Jean's running group, JeansMarines. We learned all about professionalism under fire, and some of those Marines are now great friends.
But the rest was all fantasy: for me, it was every small boy's dream, picking up an automatic rifle and blasting everything in sight, kept alive over 66 years by action movies, HBO, and the reality of TV news.
For Jean, it was learning how to pick up a new skill that may not be vital for life, liberty or happiness, but that had enough cultural backsplash to be intriguing. Besides, at 73, she's still an "If I can see it, I can do it" learner, and we both wanted to know if we could handle the kick from a 12-gauge shotgun.
When we arrived at the firing range in the strip mall 90 minutes west of Toronto, we were put through a quick safety lesson by our very large and fit half dozen veteran instructors. We began with simple target practice: hit the target from 30 feet away shooting a Glock pistol. I think just one of my eight shots hit the target at all. Clearly, it was going to be a day of hopeless ineptitude in the face of mocking expertise.
Then we were told that pistols are incredibly inaccurate, which is why police are trained to fire more than one shot, even at close range. We were then asked to shoot our Glocks on the move, and walking slowly forward and firing, I put 6 out of 8 shots into the bullseye. Maybe this wouldn't be so dreadful, after all.
Over the course of the day, we moved up from pistols to rifles to shotguns, assault rifles and even the sniper rifle whose bullets are longer than an iPhone and can kill someone from 2 kilometres away. I tried my hand at a sawed-off shotgun and to this day the muscles between my thumb and first finger still ache.
There was plenty of time during breaks and over lunch to talk to the instructors -- and of course that was the Princes' Charities real goal: to get to know these veterans who had all become entrepreneurs. Two of them had opened 'close protection' companies, acting as bodyguards for Canadian executives doing business in dangerous places; one is a mortgage broker selling to families of the Canadian Forces; another has set up a growing dog food company.
By the end of the day, we were exhausted. The mental and physical efforts took their toll. But what really did us in was the successive rushes of adrenaline that accompanied every round of fire. We'd had just a taste of the addictive power of gunfire and now, whenever we watch the news, we also have a tiny glimmer of what being in combat must really be like.
But most of all, we learned that Canada's Special Forces and snipers aren't cowboys. They're professionals, with a highly developed understanding of risk (guess wrong and you're dead), teamwork, initiative and tactics-on-the-fly - the very qualities that make successful entrepreneurs.
In fact, Jean has offered to host a day at the range in May, this time in Toronto, again for 16 participants, but this time, all women. After all, who better to learn from what for centuries has been the ultimate male experience?