Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Enabling Change Agents

I recently started doing a bit of homework for a client on Google’s efforts at benevolence. In addition to the initiatives supported within google.org and the Google Foundation they have a wealth of other interesting partnerships. The common thread, regardless of the audience or sector of Google, seems to be a desire to use their tools and resources to enable the world’s change agents - young and old.

2006: Google Docs partners with the Global SchoolNet Foundation, inviting students to use Google Docs to dream up inventive new ways to fight global warming

2008: Google Docs partners with the National Writing Project to support Letters to the Next President, an online writing and publishing project for school-aged kids designed to let them express the issues they hope the next president will help solve.

2008: Similar to the American Express Members Project, Google launches Project 10 to the 100, soliciting "ideas to change the world by helping as many people as possible."

2009: Google powers America’s volunteer (search) engine with Allforgood.com. It “aggregates volunteer opportunities around the US” and is now powering the search portion of President Obama’s Serve.gov.

Sign me up for that kind of company!

On the one hand, I’ll admit I love that Google does these things with limited fanfare, and (apparently) without a focused strategy or a plan. They seem to anticipate that these efforts will somehow, someday bear fruit for the brand and, in the meantime, they’re worthwhile. On the other hand, the lack of focus appears to limit the effectiveness of the initiatives. The result of the global warming project was a newspaper ad. The outcome of the writing project is….a website. Project 10 to the 100 still hasn't announced a winner. Where is the follow-through? Couldn’t the Letters project now live on, especially given the publicity letters to President Obama have received in recent months? Couldn't you enlist a team of specialists to help enlist a winning idea (and a team of interns to cull through them all?)

I have to wonder whether Google’s unique employee proposition – 20% of their engineers' time can be spent on personal pet projects – has promoted innovation at the expense of impact?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Make Me Complicit in Caring

Events at work this week got me thinking a bit more about the relationship between philanthropy and consumerism. Someone re-sent me the Story of Stuff. (Oldie, but a goodie.) Meanwhile, I've read quite a bit about (PRODUCT) RED, Bono’s well-known and novel business model designed to attract greater corporate financial commitment toward fighting AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa. His principle – a win-win-win model wherein consumers contribute to the cause by making a purchase, participating corporations give up a bit of revenue in return for a positive brand halo…and more revenue, and the Global Fund gets money – is both insightful and effective. It shows he gets a thing or two about consumers (on average, we’re largely motivated by self-interest) and corporations (also motivated by self-interest.)

This marriage of consumerism and altruism is the latest trend in harnessing corporate benevolence, but it leaves me wondering whether perhaps there isn’t yet another – better- way? One that doesn’t promote the accumulation of more stuff? Four ideas to mull over:
  1. Perks for Good: The immediate no-brainer for me is with American Express. Trillions of unused Membership Rewards points! How about if we can donate them to the Global Fund? AmEx gets them off their books, the cardmember feels goods (and gets the tax deduction), and the Global Fund gets funds? Well, it turns out you can donate your points to the Fund, or any charity for that matter. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. But, I’ve been an AmEx cardholder for eight years and had them as a client, and never knew about it. Why don’t they promote a Points for Charity program?

  2. Free: An article in today’s Slate railed against “pandering ad campaigns”. They used Starbucks’ new “I’m In” campaign, championing volunteering, as one example of a company turned shill by “selling virtue”. The principle is relatively simple – sign up to volunteer for five hours and they’ll give you a free cup of coffee. I agree with Jack Shafer of Slate – if Starbucks is truly committed to the cause of national service, why not give employees paid time-off to volunteer their five hours? They could also promote local community organizations by providing free refreshments at meetings, provide free coffee to companies that organize paid Volunteer Days (as my old employer did), work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to make Starbucks popular meeting points for get-togethers or recruiting events…..so much more than a free cup of joe for signing a piece of paper?

  3. Truly Useful: Where’s a GAP RED tote bag? You know, the one that I would bring to the farmer’s market or grocery store? The one that keeps me from using yet another plastic bag? Yeah. That one.

  4. New Services: I’m in the market for a new laptop. I’m fairly eco-conscious and have real issues with what’ll happen to that laptop when I want a new one in a few years. What if I were able to buy an anti e-waste recycling policy, as an add-on to an extended warranty? Dell or IBM then donates money toward the creation of safer tech recycling facilities, or toward fighting illegal, toxic e-waste dumping in China? I know it’s taking the long-view, but no one seems to be providing services that help me minimize the eventual impact of that new bit of tech I’m bringing home…and make me complicit in caring.

In any case, I’m a firm believer that companies can and should motivate consumers (and employees) to do the right thing. I’m just not sure getting them to buy a t-shirt with a cool logo is the right answer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Planned Obsolescence and Apple Pie

So, I like connections. I like themes. I like when an idea is sparked, reinforced and re-articulated. I like when I watch a segment on 60 Minutes about something, read a Forrester report that jogs a related thought, get sent an article in Popular Mechanics on a similar subject, bake a pie...and then see another article in Wired that sums up all these themes. This is just such a connective post.

Oops, there was some pie baking in there? Well, if you're an old-school American setting out to to make your mother's pie for Thanksgiving, the device you inevitably turn to is your trusty Kitchen-Aid mixer. Mine is (I believe) two generations old - not two product generations, but two people generations. Regardless, it still works, it weighs a million pounds, its the same antiseptic white that is probably their best seller, and I've never even had to replace so much as the whisk that came with it. And I'll be damned if I can think of any reason why I would want a new one.

By contrast, let's reflect on my cell phone(s). First, I have two - one for work, and one for personal use. I tend to get a new personal phone every two years, when I can get the free or discounted ones Verizon offers me to renew my plan. Now, my laptops: I have two - one for work and one for personal use. In my lifetime I've probably had...hmmm...maybe five laptops and five mobile phones that have been 'mine' over the years? And I'm only 30.

My point? Technology is giving a whole new meaning to the notion of planned - or perceived - obsolescence. The frequency with which our generation will dispose of modern-day labor saving devices is increasing with unparalleled rapidity.

The good news is that the likes of Sony, Dell and LG are starting to partner with recycling centers to support take-back programs for out-dated models. And according to a recent article in Wired, their corporate benevolence is indeed largely profit-driven. Interestingly, there are environmentalists out there who are more interested in the end result than the motivation. Casey Harrell [of Greenpeace] estimates that recycling old electronics could result in up to 4-to-1 cost savings. "I don't think these companies would be lobbying [greener tech] unless there was a financial incentive," Harrell said. "It's not altruistic, and ultimately we don't care. We want the [cleaner] results, so if they're able to make money off of this ... it's a win-win."

According the Popular Mechanics, the same is true of our general recycling efforts. It actually pays to recycle. (May I throw out a YAHOO!) When you do an assessment of the total life cycle of a product, it often uses far less energy to recycle an existing good than to create it from raw materials. A few examples (still thanks to PM):
  • Aluminum requires 96 percent less energy to make from recycled cans than it does to process from bauxite

  • Recycled glass uses about 21 percent less energy

  • Recycled plastic bottles use 76 percent less energy

  • Newsprint requires about 45 percent less
Of course, by contrast, my decades-old mixer still looks like a pretty great deal.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Littlest Watchdog

I just noticed this recent article from the New York Times, highlighting a new generation of environmental watchdogs who are - quite literally - starting at home. This article reveals a growing trend among a new generation of kids so well versed in the environment, global warming, hybrid vehicles and the plight of cute penguins and polar bears that they're forcing their families to alter their collective behavior. "They pore over garbage bins in search of errant recyclables. They lobby for solar panels. And, in a generational about-face, they turn off the lights after their parents leave empty rooms. “Kids have really turned into the little conscience sitting in the back seat.”"

I recently started reading Thomas Friedman's new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, wherein he reminds us that our nation has long forgotten the sacrifices, values and successes of the "Greatest Generation". Those victors of World War II were willing to make personal sacrifices toward a greater cause, 'exported' a moral vision that was aspirational for the rest of the world, and - post-war - laid the foundation for our modern economy. I often believe all things are cyclical - booms, busts, eras of great innovation and stagnation, even xenophobia seems to rear its head on a cyclical basis (at least in the US.)

While the NYT article focused on grade school aged children, prior research with all Millennials has revealed a higher level of idealism and desire to effect positive change in the world. While they may be the offspring of the Boomers, perhaps their grandparents are the real role models.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Noblesse Oblige, Piazzas...and Starbucks?

Noblesse Oblige was on my mind the other morning. I was listening to Nelson Mandela's birthday pronouncements on NPR. Mandela called on the South Africa elite to share their wealth with the impoverished within their own country. And it got me thinking about the American aristocracy, including our self-made billionaires, captains of industry, and famous families.

In the US, we've always been absent the royalty and landed gentry of Europe, among whom noblesse oblige went hand in hand with their birthright. But, what prompted early generations of American elite to feel a comparable sense of obligation to give? Why do Carnegie libraries dot small towns all across America? What led John D Rockefeller to say: "Think of giving not as a duty, but as a privilege"? Do self-made men - those who realized the American Dream - feel a greater duty to support those less fortunate? By that line of reasoning, one might expect Donald Trump - a modern day poster child for the self-made American billionaire - to be as much a philanthropist with a social mission as a real estate mogul. [Unfortunately, I haven't seen much evidence in his favor.]

It has to have been more than a Helper's High that made those others contribute so much to the development of their young nation. I'd argue it was a sense of shared destiny. A fundamental belief that only in the success of their nation and it's people could they themselves succeed. I think that shared destiny prompted a natural desire to invest in people and communities, where ROI is less easily quantified.

As I was reading a recent New York Times article on the hundreds of Starbucks that are closing across the country, I felt a pang of indirect nostalgia for the days when corporate moguls invested in the public domain. The article focused on one Starbucks in particular - in Newark, New Jersey- slated for closure because of lack of profibility. It's viewed by the community "as a gathering place whose very existence would have seemed impossible a decade before, a symbol of a knocked-down city’s attempts to get up." In the 8 years since it opened it's doors, it became an impromptu gathering place and community focal point. The mayor's office appealed to Starbucks to keep it open, to no avail.

Ah, but Starbucks is a corporation, right? Of COURSE they're focused on ROI, and those stores just weren't bringing in the kind of money they expect. Ok, fine, put profitability ahead of public interest. That's what we've come to expect of corporations. But wait. Hasn't Starbucks built their entire business model around being more than a coffee shop? Didn't they set out to develop rich community hubs, modern day piazzas that serve as gathering places for residents, students, and office workers? Ah, I suppose its ok to market yourself as a community asset, as long as you're making money too. No revenue, no gathering place.

Good thing public parks don't have revenue targets.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Advertisers for Good

Many ideas have been fluttering around in my head for my next post, but this was the one that made me finally get back to the ol' blog!

I was watching some of the award winners from this year's Cannes ad festival (the Academy Awards/Oscars/Grammies of the ad industry). A submission for UNICEF caught my eye. The objective was simple - provide a means of fundraising for the organization, raise awareness of World Water Day. The solution was equally simple - Tap Water. Dubbed the Tap Project, the initiative is rolling out to cities across the world, charging restaurant patrons $1 for a typically free glass of tap water. It's a powerful but simple solution.

Check out the video with the award submission. It's from an agency called DROGA5, who apparently approached UNICEF with the idea.

The incredible thing is the allure it must present to fashionable restaurants, and their patrons, who have been given an opportunity to participate in such a worthy cause. One might fault UNICEF for putting people on the spot, but in a world where water is often something we pay for it's not such a foreign notion that a particular glass of the stuff might cost a dollar for a day.
I love that it launched in New York, as New Yorkers like to imagine their public water supply is among the best in the world. It's a nice twist to have tapped into a singular point of pride. And it's fascinating that the core of the concept lived in doing what New Yorkers have done for so long - creating a brand out of tap water. It's credited with the producing the best bagels and pizza in the country, after all. Bloomberg's Finest, anyone?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

NYC and Personal Agendas for the Public Good

New York. A great town that always gets me thinking. I was there these last few days for work, and had a bit of free time to spend wandering around the city. On this trip, my thoughts wandered to the public and private initiatives designed for the betterment of the city and its residents.

My flight on Saturday took me over Robert Moses beach - a well-known, free retreat for city residents seeking a break from the heat along a lovely stretch of sand. From the plane I could the vast parking lots, art deco bath houses and changing rooms, and train tracks that help deposit the throngs in the summer months. Robert Moses, the man, the legend, remains a controversial figure in New York City history, but can be credited with an extensive public parks network originally designed to serve the city's lower income neighborhoods. (Unfortunately, I missed a number of exhibits on the man and his legacies in NYC last year, reviewed in this New York Times article.)

I also strolled by the New York Public Library - a gorgeous beaux arts building that came to be as a result of the charitable donation of Samuel Tilden, a lawyer and former governor of the State of New York. Together with the resources of the Astor and Lenox libraries, already in existence (although not exactly 'free libraries'), the Public Library became the first of its kind in New York City.

Hmmm, ok, so this all makes for a good history lesson. But, what could a public park designed by a public servant, and a public library created by private wealth have in common with each other? And with corporate benevolence? Personal agendas for public good. In other words, both are really stories of a man with a plan. (I'm revealing my roots here - that's also the name of a GREAT movie about an old Vermont farmer running for office...but I digress...)

I'd love to see the day when social responsibility initiatives play such a primary role in corporate agendas. Perhaps, one day, CEOs will take over the reins of a company and define not just their fiscal and restructuring plans, but their goals for good as well.