V2V (Viewers to Volunteers) giving platform breaks traditional philanthropic models

Paul Polizzotto began his distinguished career in social enterprise in 1989, when he founded his first venture, the industrial/environmental cleaning company Property Prep.

As President of CBSEcoMedia, the company he founded in 2002, Paul created and oversees the EducationAd, WellnessAd, EcoAd, and Viewers to Volunteers (V2V) advertising programs.

Paul has received numerous awards for his work, including the EPA’s “Environmental Hero” recognition (1999), the Santa Monica Baykeeper’s and the Waterkeeper Alliance’s “Keeper Award” (2002), and the Coastal Living Leadership Award (2003). In 2006, he was named a Public-Private Visionary by Vanity Fair magazine. In 2009, Paul and the team at EcoMedia earned the US Conference of Mayors Award for Excellence in Public Private Partnerships, and in 2012 and 2013, were recognized with Edison Awards for Social Innovation and Social Impact. In 2014, Paul was honored to receive the Starlight Children’s Foundation’s “General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award,” which recognizes individual and organizational leaders who are doing extraordinary work to advance the common good and strengthen their communities.

Paul serves on the Board of Directors at Publicolor and Grades of Green and is a frequent guest lecturer at business schools across the country, including at USC’s Marshall School of Business, where he is a Senior Fellow and an inaugural member of the Board of Advisors for the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab.

I grew up in the 1970s, surfing in the polluted waters off the Southern California coast. As a result, my buddies and I were sick all the time, with upper respiratory infections, ear infections, and sore throats. Like so many others, my first philanthropic efforts were motivated by personal experience; I was determined to find a way to clean up the Santa Monica Bay.

But I was young, and in no position to donate anywhere near the amount of money necessary to make a serious dent in the problem.  I think that reality prevents many people from joining the philanthropic community.  I believe that most people genuinely want to make a positive difference in the world…but passion about a cause isn’t enough.  People need to feel that their contributions will make a tangible, meaningful impact, and for so many folks, like for me in the 70s, writing a Big Check just wasn’t an option.

So I started looking around for other ways to fund a Bay clean-up. 

My first efforts were as a non-profit… but I quickly came to see the limitations of the traditional philanthropic model.  I was often in the very uncomfortable position of competing against my friends -- who were heading up their own non-profits -- for a piece of the donation pie.  We were all soliciting the same individuals, foundations, and corporations for money and, particularly when the economy was stressed, the answer was often a quick “no” – no matter how important the work.

I knew I had to sweeten the pot; I wanted to figure out a way to supplement the conventional philanthropic “ask” with an “offer,” and I focused on what I saw as the untapped potential in corporate advertising. Every year, companies spend hundreds of billions of dollars on commercial messaging, so much of which is fleeting.  What if we could add value to those transient advertising impressions -- give corporations more bang for their bucks -- and, at the same time, do real good in the world, like clean up the Santa Monica Bay?

In 2002, I founded EcoMedia to do just that.

In a nutshell: When a company buys advertising through our EcoAd, WellnessAd, and EducationAd programs, a portion of the ad spend is channeled to a nonprofit organization to further an environmental, health and wellness, or education project in a local community. With one ad spend through EcoMedia -- money that’s already been committed to advertising, money that’s going to be spent anyway -- companies fulfill the entire spectrum of their business objectives: advertising and marketing, environmental affairs, government affairs, community relations, social responsibility, and public relations. 

It’s an additive proposition. Our business model gives brands the opportunity to wring more value from the advertising dollars they’re already spending.  On the non-profit side, it means an increase in funding because, in addition to the donations that corporations continue to make through their foundational giving programs, they now contribute money through their advertising budgets as well.

I can’t adequately express how gratifying it’s been to travel around the country, witnessing first-hand the positive impact that’s being made.

At veterans’ hospitals in Seattle and San Diego and D.C., for example, UnitedHealthcare and Sleep Number have underwritten Fisher Houses, comfortable and inviting accommodations for the families of servicemen and women who are undergoing treatment. I’ve had the honor to meet – and to be inspired by – some of the military personnel and their families receiving services and to benefit from the gift of their courage and optimism. 

In LA, I was fortunate to have been involved with the building of the first all-access baseball field, at Bielenson Park in Van Nuys. We brought Chevy together with the Los Angeles Parks Foundation to build a rubberized surface for wheelchairs and walkers, and boy was it a thrill to watch those kids enjoy themselves.

With my daughter, I helped Americorps volunteers – and Manny Diaz, then the Mayor of Miami -- plant 1000 trees in a single day on Virginia Key, off the Florida coast. It was once the only beach to which African Americans had access, and it had fallen into disarray and become over-run with invasive plants. By bringing back the indigenous species, we not only beautified the Key, but helped create a protective barrier against hurricanes and, I hope, re-establish the beach as an important reminder of our nation’s racial history.

These experiences have made indelible impressions on me, and several years ago, I started thinking about ways in which we might be able to extend the privilege of giving back to everyone. I want us all –- young and old, financially fortunate and on a tight budget -- to have the opportunity to be philanthropists and experience the joy and fulfillment that I’ve had, seeing our projects come to fruition in communities all over the country.

That’s the inspiration behind our latest initiative, Viewers to Volunteers (V2V).

On the website, and through the mobile app that’s launching later this spring, visitors can watch and read a wide variety of videos and articles that we’ve carefully chosen and constantly update, - inspiring stories about people and organizations who are doing their part to make the world a better place – in some really creative and interesting ways.

One of my favorites is a video called “Fire With Fire,” that documents the efforts of researchers and scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia to cure cancer by injecting the AIDS virus into patients’ T cells. It’s a story of sheer human ingenuity that’s really captured my imagination -- the idea that someone would have the audacity to look at a problem like cancer from a totally counter-intuitive perspective, and the courage to attack it with what, at face value, looks to be a crazy idea. (And by the way, it’s working!) That’s really the best of what humans are capable of, on display.

Now here’s the philanthropy part: Every time I watch “Fire With Fire” on the V2V website, or share the link with a friend over social media, an advertiser donates money to a non-profit organization to fund an environmental, health and wellness, or education project in a local community -- Meals on Wheels delivers dinner to a senior living independently at home, for example; First Book gives an underprivileged child his very first book; the Kids in Need Foundation supplies backpacks full of school supplies to kids in underserved communities; and Little Kids Rock puts new musical instruments in the hands of schoolchildren.

Through V2V, I can also sign up to participate in volunteer activities in my own community. 

I think it’s important to point out that V2V is not an ad platform. It’s a giving platform.  There are no banner ads or pop-up ads to get in the way of users’ reading, watching, and sharing experience. The money for these projects and initiatives comes from our sponsors’ ad spends on other CBS platforms, including radio, TV, and digital. 

V2V eliminates the obstacles I encountered back in the 70s and 80s, when I wanted so badly to clean up my beach, but I couldn’t fund the effort myself, and had difficulties to attract donations from the traditional sources, using the conventional philanthropic “ask” dynamic.

With V2V, we’ve given everyone a fun and simple way to transform their innate philanthropic impulses into real money – advertisers’ money – and use it to make a real-world impact… an impact they can see.  In the process, our non-profits’ philanthropic “ask” is coupled with a compelling “offer” – one that allows advertisers to fulfill their multi-silo business objectives without spending additional funds. On the nonprofit side, fundraising increases because corporations now contribute through both their foundational giving and their advertising budgets.

I was a history major in college, so I know that it takes more than an idea to catalyze a social movement.  In order to innovate and create change, there has to be an almost magical synchronicity of human will and the real-world tools and infrastructure to support it.  From my perspective, for philanthropy, this is that time. 

New technology, and the reach of digital and social media, make it possible for more people than ever before to learn how they can make a positive difference and connect to causes and volunteer opportunities that inspire their philanthropic spirits.

V2V and initiatives like it  – tools that empower everyone to give back – are, I hope, the future of philanthropy. 

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