Aria Finger, Chief Old Person of DoSomething.org, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Aria Finger, Chief Old Person of DoSomething.org, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

aria_fingerDenver: Numerous studies show that Millennials entering the workforce place a higher premium on going to work for a purpose-driven company than do older workers. And in much the same vein, their choice of brands is influenced to a greater degree on the social good a company is doing. One reason they may be that way is because millions of them were once members of DoSomething.org.  And here with us this evening to explain is their CEO,or more appropriately, their Chief Old Person– Aria Finger. Good evening, Aria, and welcome back to The Business of Giving!

Aria: Thanks so much! It’s great to be here.

Denver: So, tell us about DoSomething.org– the mission and purpose of the organization.

Aria: DoSomething.org is the largest organization in the world. We’re a global organization for young people and social change. It is our entire purpose to get young people, aged 13-25, to find a cause they’re passionate about, and then take action with one of our campaigns.

Denver: Well, let’s talk about a couple of those campaigns, get right into it. One that I’ve always loved is “Give a Spit About Cancer,” probably also one of your more carefully …pronounced campaigns. Tell us about it. How does that work?

Aria: Well, Denver, “Give a Spit”  is also my favorite campaign, so you have good taste. It was a campaign that’s based on the fact that so many people need to get bone marrow transplants if they have blood cancer, leukemia, et cetera, and they can’t find a match. They might not have a match within their own family, and so they need to go to the kindness of strangers. “Give a Spit About Cancer” asks everyone– but especially college students because they’re the ones with the best bone marrow– to simply swab their cheek and get registered on the bone marrow registry.

Through this campaign, you can literally save people’s lives. Our Head of Product, Mike Fantini,  signed up for the bone marrow registry for our “Give a Spit About Cancer” campaign, and he saved the life of a 7-year-old boy from Texas.

Denver: Well, you’ve had over a hundred matches, haven’t you?

Aria: Absolutely. We’re actually one of the leading referrers to the bone marrow registry, and we are so proud of that fact.

The most important thing when you’re giving back is to make sure that you’re doing something that’s actually needed…

Denver: You have a great history also with homeless shelters. “Teens for Jeans” was one of the campaigns that you cut your teeth on, and that’s evolved even further into something called “Power to the Period.” Tell us about that campaign.

Aria: The most important thing when you’re giving back is to make sure that you’re doing something that’s actually needed, and so we have kept a very close relationship with homeless shelters to find out what is the thing that these homeless men and women need the most. Our “Teens for Jeans”  campaign had jeans donated to homeless youth, and now our “Power to the Period” campaign with Kotex is all about getting fem care for homeless women and transmen that desperately need those products when they’re on their period. As a woman, I am just so proud that we are finally able to say the word “period” in mixed company in this country.

We have three rules for our campaigns: brand, scale, impact.

Denver: Let’s talk about launching a campaign, Aria. How do you give birth to a campaign? How is it decided? How does it grow and then get activated?

Aria: We have three rules for our campaigns: brand, scale, impact. Brand — it must be uniquely DoSomething.  Lose Your V-Card– I don’t know anyone else who’s doing a campaign like that. Scale — for this campaign, in particular, we wanted hundreds of thousands of young people to be able to participate and register to vote. And then, Impact – do we know that this campaign is making a measurable impact on the cause? We all know about the importance of voting, and the importance of creating a social norm around voting. This campaign does just that – getting lots of young people to first register… and then get to the polls.

Denver: Well, let’s talk about impact. You were an Econ major. You’ve always loved Math. I think you still harbor the dream of becoming a ninth grade Math teacher and basketball coach. So, numbers and data are really important to you. How do you go about measuring the impact that these campaigns are having?

Aria: We are really lucky at DoSomething to have a Chief Data Officer, as well as other folks that are focusing on data every single day. One thing they’ve done is to open up data to the entire organization.  I can go on to our dashboard and look at exactly how our campaigns are doing on a minute-by-minute basis. One of the things we’ve really looked at is the percent of our new members who have reported back in the first 30 days. We want to get young people to action as quickly as possible.  Over the last six months, we’ve actually seen a doubling in the number of young people reporting back in the first 30 days– which is a good sign for the future.

Denver: Fantastic. How are you able to do that?

Aria: Everything we do is a mixture of product and content. If our campaigns aren’t excellent, with excellent names and titles, and amazing impact, they’re not going to go anywhere. But if we don’t have a good product, if we don’t have a frictionless website, if we don’t have excellent SMS capabilities, then we’re also going to go nowhere. So, we have a mixture of good content– which is good campaigns–along with our product and engineering team who are making sure that our website is as seamless as possible.

Your teen years? That is when as a young person, you solidify your affiliations; you really think about how you view the world. That’s why it’s really important to do something to make sure that these teenagers are experiencing volunteering, giving back, social change.

Denver: I think the Millennials have been studied and dissected to death by just about everyone. So now, Generation Z, it’s beginning to be their turn to go under the microscope. That would be that generation born from 1996 to 2011. They’re somewhere between 5  and 20 years old, and they make up a good number of the people who are members of DoSomething.org. Tell us about Gen Z and how they differ from their older siblings, the Millennials.

Aria: Well, I’m tired of talking about Millennials, too. So thank you, Denver. Gen Z is very important to us. You’re especially that older cohort. Your teen years?  That is when as a young person, you solidify your affiliations; you really think about how you view the world.  That’s why it’s really important to do something to make sure that these teenagers are experiencing volunteering, giving back, social change. We do see differences between Gen Z and the Millennial generation. I think one of the most stark contrasts actually has to do with privacy. These young people grew up in a digital world of social media.  A lot of people are saying, “Oh, teenagers don’t care about privacy.” But it’s just not true. It’s something they actually guard very closely.

Denver: Interesting.

Aria: It will be interesting to see how that plays out as they enter the workforce and become leaders in the business and nonprofit worlds.

Denver: I also think they seem to be a bit more serious than the Millennials. I don’t think that they want to be saddled with the student debt that the Millennials have, and are much more focused on getting good jobs when they get out of school.

Aria: These are also young people– to your point– who have experienced a pretty horrific recession over the last five years. So, yes, they are career-oriented. They want to make sure that they are getting into the right college, but also not saddled with that debt. I think that’s going to be really important to see how they view the economy, their own finances, and their family’s finances.

Denver: Everyone in our sector talks about the need to be more daring, to take bigger risks.  But I really see, everywhere I look, that we are still pretty much afraid to fail. And I guess one of the ways of combatting that is to hold a “FailFest” like DoSomething.org does. What is a “FailFest?”

Aria:  DoSomething is not perfect, and we are still certainly afraid to fail at times. But FailFest has been a wonderful way to mitigate against that very natural feel. So, twice a year, we hold a FailFest, and you are nominated by your manager to present— but when you do, you must wear a pink boa, and you must give three learnings that you had from this failure… and three learnings that the organization had.  Each of these learnings must be accompanied by a pop culture corollary. This is to keep the afternoon light and fun and in a mode of learning…as opposed to feeling ashamed and sweeping that failure under the rug. It’s been a really excellent way to both normalize talking about failures that we’ve had in the past, but also to really spot talent… to really see, “Oh, wow. That employee analyzed the failure, thought of new ideas, and really has a plan for the future.” So instead of being a bad thing to present at FailFest, it can actually turn into a positive.

The demand for social change is universal.

Denver: For much of your existence, you have been a North America organization – United States and Canada – but a few years ago, you went global. Tell us about where you are now and some of the things you’re doing around the world.

Aria: Just under a year ago, we actually opened up our website so that it’s available in four languages. The first, English; the second is actually Global English; the third is Spanish; and the fourth is Portuguese. So, if you are in Mexico, Brazil, or the rest of the world, you’re not getting a US-centric view of these causes anymore–which was really important to us. We wanted to make sure that our Fourth of July barbecue campaigns weren’t showing up when you are accessing the website from Indonesia. I think a few things are important about global. One is our global traffic is actually growing at twice the rate of our US traffic.  So, we’re seeing a lot of traction there. Number two:  is that we’ve actually seen members in 131 countries.

The demand for social change is universal. Of course, the causes that young people might be interested in vary by geography.

Denver: Give us a few examples.

Aria: One example of the campaign that actually resonated universally was women’s empowerment. We saw young people in 71 countries participate in our “Real Women” campaign that talked about the obstacles that women face, and how women can achieve their goals.

Denver:  How many members do you have overall?

Aria: We have 5.3 million members on a global basis.

Denver: That is fantastic. You were just over 3 million, I guess, when you went global. So you really have had a tremendous infusion across the globe.

Aria: We grow by more than a million members a year, which we are really excited about.  So this year, it’s both going to be about growth from a member perspective… and then also deepening the impact of each member who comes to our site.

Denver: All nonprofit organizations are looking for earned income streams, and they usually try to do it around one of their core competencies. And a couple of years ago, you did that by starting up a consultancy called TMI. What does it do?  And how much, Aria, has it meant to your bottom line?

Aria: TMI is really exciting to me for two reasons. One is the earned income piece of it. We are monetizing our core competency, and we’re talking to other not-for-profits and brands that really want to reach young people through social change. But the second is: it’s actually a way to extend our impact. We’re not talking to brands about how to sell more sugar water or how to sell the next widget, but we’re talking to these companies and these nonprofits about how to activate young people. So this is just another arm of DoSomething that has another outlet as to how we can activate this next generation, which I think is pretty exciting!

Denver: What does TMI stand for?

Aria: It stands for “Too Much Information,” but we stick to TMI on a regular basis.

I think that the reason you leave jobs is if you are unchallenged, if you’re not having fun, if you don’t appreciate your co-workers, if you feel underappreciated. I have been so lucky in all of those regards to find everything I need at DoSomething.

Denver: You’re interesting in that most people, when they graduate from college, have a plan to jump around to a number of different jobs, get increasing responsibilities, and go to some different places. You are a throwback to a bygone era in that your entire professional career– all 11 years of it– has been spent in one place. And I must say, Aria, that has worked out pretty well for you. But speak to that a little bit, and maybe about some of the benefits of having taken that path.

Aria: It certainly wasn’t the path that I was planning. In my job interview for DoSomething with our previous CEO, Nancy, she asked me where I saw myself in three years. I said, “Well, in two years, I’m going to leave DoSomething and go to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy. “ So, that was a slip of the tongue, because she said, “Why would I hire you if you’re going to leave me in two years?” Luckily, I was not correct about my future.

I think that the reason you leave jobs is if you are unchallenged, if you’re not having fun, if you don’t appreciate your co-workers, if you feel underappreciated. I have been so lucky in all of those regards to find everything I need at DoSomething. So, I couldn’t be more grateful for the  opportunities I’ve been given, and also for just wonderful, wonderful work and camaraderie that I get to experience every day.

I think that one thing that really makes it a great place to work is: not only are you surrounded by passionate, smart, amazing people, but you’re able to do good work that actually makes impact.

Denver: Well, you certainly have made the most of it. I want to pick up on that idea about the work and the camaraderie. Crain’s Business issued their list of 100 best places to work in New York, and DoSomething.org was about the only nonprofit named to it. Tell us about the corporate culture at DoSomething.org, and why it is such a great place to work.

Aria: When people think about great places to work, they often think of perks. They think of free lunches and dinners and scooters and ping pong tables in the office. I think those things are nice, but just like the consumer research says: that young consumers value experiences over buying things,and you get more happiness from that.  I think the same thing is true of the workplace.

We recently had an employee post on Facebook that her most memorable moment at the office was when she was doing our September 11th campaign a few years ago.  She was able to thank firefighters and policemen for their good service around New York City. I think that one thing that really makes it a great place to work is: not only are you surrounded by passionate, smart, amazing people, but you’re able to do good work that actually makes an impact. We’re so lucky to have this enormous impact on the cause-based. I think that’s the number one most important thing.

And then number two, of course, is the colleagues that you work with every day. Since DoSomething has gained some notoriety and become more popular, we’ve been lucky in that  we’ve been able to be very choosy about our talent. So, we only hire the best, and that helps retain the best folks and contribute to a really positive corporate culture.

Denver: You also have tried to broaden the diversity by introducing some really innovative ideas– like the student debt forgiveness program you have. Explain that.

Aria: Diversity is incredibly important at DoSomething, and we’re not done. We have a lot of ways to go, a lot of problems, a lot of solutions still to find. I won’t say that we’re perfect on this topic, but we’re always looking to improve. So, when we’re talking about socio-economic diversity, it’s not something you can see. You’re not going to say, “Oh, I really need someone of a new gender for this role.“ Because you don’t know when you look at someone!  What we decided to do was institute a policy where after an employee had been at DoSomething for five years, they actually would be able to forgive $20,000 of their undergraduate student debt.

And this was important to us because after three years, someone might say, “Okay, I’ve worked at a not-for-profit for three years. I’m 25…now I’m 26. Now, I have to go make real money because I have to pay off these student loans.” And we wanted to say to that person, “You know what? Stick it out another year with us, and when you get to that five-year anniversary, we’ll actually forgive $20,000 worth of that student debt.”

Denver: My producer right now was online looking at your job postings. Well, Aria Finger, the Chief Executive Officer at DoSomething.org: Thanks for being here this morning. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

Aria: Such a pleasure. Thank you.

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The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6 and 7 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on I Heart Radio. You can follow us at bizofgive on twitter and at facebook.com/businessofgiving.

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