Paul Skinner wanted to be a matchmaker.
But he wasn't matching would-be Romeos and Juliets; he wanted to pair charities with marketing pros looking to volunteer their time to a good cause.
So why not create an online dating service? The platform, with the cheeky name Pimp My Cause, is a place where nonprofits and charities, along with professional marketers — strategists, graphic designers and PR pros — fill out applications and shop for just the right match.
The idea came when Skinner was doing pro bono work for two or three causes a year while he was working as a professional marketer on campaigns for big companies like L'Oreal in their Paris headquarters. He could only do so much on his own, and he wanted to create a "multiplier effect."
Since he started U.K.-based Pimp My Cause in 2010, over 1,000 nonprofits and charities from the U.S. and the U.K. have posted profiles to the site, along with hundreds of marketers from Endinburgh to Chicago. Skinner estimates that they have completed $5 million of pro bono work for causes, and since every dollar spent on marketing comes out to about $5 in benefit, that comes to $25 million worth of benefits to date.
"I wanted to go beyond my own slender resources, and it shows how you can raise the ceiling," says Skinner. "It's about scale."
Conservation group Blue Ventures works in places where the ocean is vital to local people — and takes a science-based approach to creating sustainable marine and aquaculture practices. Quite quickly, it realized that part of a holistic approach to conservation included human development as well, such as reproductive health.
Toward that end, Blue Ventures did a fabulous job of promoting sexual health awareness among the Vezo people it works with in southwest Madagascar. After launching an education campaign, it conducted a survey and found that 88 percent of people said that condoms protect against STIs. The only problem? Only 15 percent said they actually used them.
The gap in behavior was perplexing. "Basically, we had to figure out a way to make it cool," says founder Alasdair Harris.
Pimp My Cause matched Blue Ventures with brand marketing giant Ogilvy, whose team helped it come up with a strategy to make condom use "normal," by using Blue Ventures' existing campaign, called "Vezo Aho," meaning "I am Vezo," that used social identity to encourage Vezos to use sustainable fishing practices
The campaign would extend the association of community pride to condom use, and promote it through providing condoms at communal washing areas, and sponsoring radio PSA's. Bracelets — ala the ubiquitous yellow Lance Armstrong "Live Strong" arm bands, would promote solidarity and identity.
"They [Ogilvy] talked about how behavior is often socially located. It's not about encouraging the individual, it's about social norms. We were struggling in this area before we got their take on it," says Harris.
The NGO of the future
Ogilvy's expertise in social psychology and behavior change is valuable to Harris, who is no slouch himself — he’s a marine biologist and visiting post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, an advisor to the U.N. Environment Program, has won international awards for his conservation and sustainability work, and was commended in the “Enterprising Young Brits’ awards.
The combining of unique talents and knowledge is all part of the pay-off for Skinner, who sees Pimp My Cause as a collaboration generator, which he sees as a model for the "NGO of the future."
Skinner sees collaboration as replacing the competitive model of the past in which organizations hired talent and tried to keep it internal. Instead, companies, and especially NGOs, should be looking to borrow talent outside of their organization, he says. "There's much more talent and know-how outside a group than inside — and smart NGOs will be looking to partner with those people."
What's in it for volunteers
Not all pro bono or CSR is the same, says Harris of Blue Ventures.
He's received some "ludicrous offers from feel-good initiatives," he says, citing one Tuesday afternoon when he received a "pompous email" from Shell saying that some executives would drop by Thursday morning for a few hours. He ignored it.
"Then they get to tell their shareholders that they're doing something good in Africa," he says. "We have a lot more education than most MBAs."
But effective partnerships come about when pro-bono volunteers are into a project for the long haul, or offer a unique skill set.
Matt Eller, who just graduated from Vanderbilt University in May, found that he had skills that nonprofits need, and they gave him something in return — job experience. Eller wanted to start a career in graphic design, but his portfolio was thin. The 22-year-old from Chicago found Pimp My Cause on the Internet and decided that if he was going to do work for cheap, he wanted it to be "for a good cause."
"A lot of artists will really undersell and do cheap work for a client that doesn't care," he says. "Instead of doing a $5 logo, I can do a full contract and make it official for pro bono."
Eller did a pro-bono logo campaign for Elephant Daze — an organization fighting elephant extinction. He's done another project since then, for HEAL, a group that offers help for domestic violence victims. Now Eller has two complete projects — one that's international — to show clients.
Steve Walker, a former head of marketing for Sony mobile, says that pro bono opportunities like those at Pimp My Cause are a perfect proving ground for young marketers where they have the ultimate challenge of working with a "budget of zero."
At the same time, causes are a great place to build a brand because they have the coveted aspect of "authenticity," Walker says, that can be harder to come by for companies.
When you think about a company with a brand like Apple, it's because it has been able to make the product about people, not technology. "It's a love story," says Walker. "Causes naturally have a strong human element to what they are doing."
Consumers are increasingly aware of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) he says, and if buyers are choosing between two equally good products or services, they will choose the one that has a reputation for doing good in the world, not just making profits. In that way, causes can be a marketing tool in themselves. "It can be a competitive advantage," says Walker.