Where philanthropy, technology, celebrity and marketing converge

April 28, 2015

photo of panel on convergenceFor fans of “Entourage,” it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity usually reserved for the well-connected: walking the red carpet with actor Adrian Grenier and his Hollywood buddies at the highly anticipated premiere of the movie based on the hit HBO series.

But through his partnership with Omaze, an innovative startup that marries celebrity philanthropy with crowdsourcing, that opportunity will be opened to the world through an online auction. The money raised will help fund Mobile Kitchen Classroom, a nonprofit Grenier started to teach schoolchildren about health and a range of issues related to food.

“We’re inviting them to be good food citizens,” explained Grenier, who spoke during a panel titled “Convergence: Philanthropy, Technology, Celebrity and Marketing” at the Global Conference.  

Joining Grenier were the co-founders of Omaze, Ryan Cummins and Matt Pohlson, along with Stacey Boyd, founder of the online fundraising platform Schoola, and Karina Kogan, executive vice president of digital for Participant Media, which produced “Food Inc.” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” Michelle Kydd Lee, chief innovation officer of CAA, moderated the discussion.

For Grenier, celebrity is a tool to make the world a better place. In addition to acting, he is involved in a string of social entrepreneurial ventures, including, which promotes “conscious capitalism,” and the documentary “52,” which explores the threat posed by ocean noise pollution.

Grenier and Omaze are betting that by crowdsourcing the red carpet date, they can raise a lot more money than if they sold it at a traditional charity auction. Omaze has a track record: A pre-wedding date with George Clooney, for example, raised more than $1 million for a good cause, as did a chance to help Arnold Schwarzenegger crush something really, really big.

However, as nonprofits move beyond traditional fundraising models, they are also discovering that not all celebrities can get their fans to open their wallets. Like consumers, fans know the real thing when they see it.  Panelists said authenticity and a genuine connection between a celebrity and his or her fan base is crucial, no matter which funding tool is used.

At Participant Media, quantifying the impact of storytelling is fundamental to its mission. The firm recently unveiled a research system that uses viewership data, social media and other tools to measure the social impact of entertainment on audiences.

Asked for a real-world example, Kogan pointed to “Food Inc.” One powerful segment of that movie looked at the way chickens are raised on corporate farms, where the pressure to turn a profit often leads to the birds being stuffed in cages and fed antibiotics to stimulate growth.

“Overwhelmingly, we learned that movie had an impact on people,” she said. “I met people and they would say, ‘I became a vegetarian after seeing that film, and it was the chickens.’” 

Boyd was looking for a way to help schools raise funds to support music and art—valuable, but underfunded, aspects of education. After trying, with limited success, to help PTAs raise money online, she switched to a model that has spread like wildfire. Parents gather up their children’s slightly used clothing and ship it to Schoola, which creates an online store for resale. The schools get to keep 40 percent of the revenue. 

Goodbye wrapping-paper sales and charity auctions. Hello clean closets and extra funds that enable schools to bring back their orchestras and sports teams. Since December, the number of schools signed up with Boyd’s operation has rocketed from 6,000 to 10,000, she said, and the business is growing 30 percent a month. The company is opening a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in the Midwest.

At its core, Schoola’s mission is a simple one: using technology to provide cash-strapped schools with the funds to build a science lab or start an art class. “We are solving a problem someone needed to solve,” Boyd said.