Our Town, Our Heroes: What Authentic CSR Feels Like

Last week I was the lucky recipient of a vehicle loan from General Motors as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, Our Town Our Heroes. OTOH launched about a month ago under Driving the Midwest (there is also Driving the Heartland, Southeast and Northeast) and it works like this:

Anyone can nominate a local hero, and every two weeks three finalists are announced who then compete for the most votes. Whoever gets the most votes, as well as the person who nominated them gets a GM vehicle for one week, a full tank of gas plus “a few other surprises”.

I’m generally not a fan of any kind of cause related contests and certainly not a fan of asking people to vote for me. I didn’t enter Big Love Little Hearts in Chase Community Giving or Pepsi Refresh and the last time I asked people to vote for me was in Junior High for Student Council (along with the childhood friend who nominated me for Our Town, Our Heroes).

But I was a fan of this. As both an observer and a recipient, Our Town, Our Heroes feels like authentic CSR from General Motors. Why?

Strong Brand Alignment.

From their website: “We are celebrating the local heroes who inspire you and drive positive change in your communities.”

GM brands Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac are hometown cars and trucks. They’re dependable. They can work all day long and look good doing it, and they’re not afraid to get dirty. They’re just like the people Our Town, Our Heroes celebrate.

Even the award of the vehicle itself is in line with brand value. What makes a hometown hero a hometown hero is that they spend their days doing a lot of the same things you do – driving their kids to and from school, soccer practice and playdates, running to the bank or the grocery store, cooking, keeping a house, going to softball practice or visiting friends and family. Things they need a dependable car that can keep up with them for.

It’s Personal.

When Driving the Midwest first let me know I was nominated we talked about some of my charitable activities, and when I mentioned the Little Leo Project I explained that my Volvo Sedan didn’t have room to bring enough stuffed animals for an entire children’s hospital so I usually just brought enough for the cardiac floor.

When they told me I won they said they were giving me a Chevy Suburban for a week so I’d have a vehicle big enough to bring all the stuffed animals I wanted to the children’s hospital. I excitedly said that I’d be going to Hope Children’s Hospital first, because they let me bring a couple volunteers and with room for that many stuffed animals – I’d certainly need the extra help!

Before they came to drop the Suburban off to my house, they called the hospital to find out what kind of stuffed animals were allowed. Then they went out and bought a few dozen stuffed animals of all shapes, sizes and colors and filled up the back of the truck with them. I had no idea they did this! While they were showing me all the features of the truck we walked around back so they could show me how to open the rear hatch. When they opened it and I saw all the stuffed animals I burst into tears! I was beyond touched.

It’s Not a Public Relations Campaign.

At least not a heavy one. In fact, you can’t find any information about this on the General Motors website – not even under Corporate Responsibility. You’d have to have already heard of the campaign to find the Driving The Midwest website. There’s no Driving the Midwest or Our Town, Our Heroes facebook page.

The OTOH team wasn’t aggressive about asking for P.R. material and there was no requirement. When they dropped off the car they asked if they could take a couple pictures to put on their site in a blog post and record a short video. They said that if I wrote about it on twitter, facebook or my blog to be sure and let them know and they’d share it, but they never made me feel like that was part of the deal of winning.

Too many CSR initiatives feel hollow these days and indeed the ones that have felt the most hollow to me have been peppered with controversy. Our Town, Our Heroes is a project that’s truly about brand value and mission. Because of that it’s also a project that works: I haven’t driven a GM vehicle in years. I loved driving the Suburban. Loved it. It was fast, it was sleek, it was comfortable and it drove phenomenally. Couple that and the very positive feelings this experience generated in me towards GM with the fact that my Volvo is on it’s last legs…and you have a consumer currently shopping for a new Chevy or GMC. 

What other CSR campaigns feel really authentic to you? Which ones don’t?

Much gratitude to General Motors, Driving the Midwest and Chevrolet for making this possible – you made a whole lot of children smile!


Super Sized Brand-Building on a Value Meal Budget



During Mardi Gras last year Big Love Little Hearts wrapped up Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week with a trip to New Orleans: Big Love in the Big Easy.

Since Mardi Gras is going on as I type I’m remembering how much fun I had there but I’m also remembering how many valuable lessons I can share with you from the how, what and most importantly – why – we did what we did.

When you’re a small organization and especially when you’re a new one, every last dollar counts. While your impulse is to use every dollar raised for program and mission, you need to invest in brand building and awareness raising. What matters is that you’re smart in how you spend it and maximize the opportunities you choose to the nth degree.

As an 8 month old organization (our age at the time of Mardi Gras last year) we had four concerns: building good programs, funding those programs, building our brand so the public associated us with the cause of heart defects, and raising awareness of heart defects so people knew they were a problem that needed fixing.

I chose to do a brand-building and awareness campaign at Mardi Gras because it fulfilled all four of those.

We had interest from several students at Tulane to start a fundraising chapter for us in New Orleans so I had already planned on being there at some point. I really like to maximize my travel expenses and whenever possible build in multiple purposes – that’s what I did here.

I arranged meetings with the students and appointments with several venues and potential partners for the days following Mardi Gras to make it a worthwhile trip on the fundraising side.

On the program side, I made appointments with pediatric cardiologists and cardiovascular-thoracic surgeons who could help us accomplish the meat of our mission: delivering lifesaving heart surgery to children in developing countries.

The last two goals, brand-building and awareness, are why I chose to go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras though.

When raising awareness for your cause the chief goal is always to raise that awareness among people who don’t know about it. Brand-building has the same goal (along with increasing brand position among the people who already know about your cause).

Both these share a similar problem: reaching people on a broad basis outside of a narrowly confined demographic can be expensive. It’s a challenge to find an event, venue or platform that encompasses people from all over the country and from all walks of life that isn’t already inundated with cause messaging (like facebook).

Mardi Gras is filled with people from every corner of the country (and beyond!) and people from every demographic you can think of.

My cause, heart defects, has an incidence of 1 in 100. Few of the nearly 40 identified defects have genetic links and do not correlate to any demographic. For us, everyone is our demographic.

We brought 1500 Mardi Gras beads and a couple hundred t-shirts with our branding to New Orleans with us to give away during the parades. While that alone would have exposed us to a large and diverse audience, we did some things that really amplified our impact and made the dollars we spent wiser.




Smart Branding.

We tried to make our beads unique. They were red with a big heart pendant where we printed our log0 and our web address. They needed to be unique enough for people to want to take home with them where they might look us up online.

We printed our logo and web address on the backs of our t-shirts. People spend more time behind someone than they do walking towards them. Our t-shirts are made of soft, high-quality cotton and fit well…people like to wear them, and they like to wear them most to the gym – where someone might spend up to an hour behind them on a treadmill staring at our logo and web address.


Talking To, Not At.

We didn’t stand on a balcony or a float and throw beads and t-shirts at people. We put the beads on people’s necks for them. We told them who we were. They asked us what we did and who we helped. We had conversations.

Similarly, we had conversations with the people we gave the t-shirts to. Having to ask them what size they’d need started a dialog and every last person who got one wanted to know more about us.

Just by having conversations we created an experience for them that differentiated us from the hundreds of other businesses and groups  throwing beads at them – this gave them a reason to remember us and talk about us to their friends.


Being Different.

Besides differentiating ourselves by engaging with the crowd, we were the only cause there giving out beads and t-shirts.

When you do something  no one else is doing, even when it’s as simple as giving out beads at a parade, you let people know you’re forward thinking. Never underestimate the importance of this: innovation and out of the box thinking are key to solving social problems. Donors want to see you think this way everywhere.


We did the most we possibly could with this opportunity and it paid off. We saw a huge spike in page visits and newsletter sign-ups in the days following Mardi Gras and started receiving donations from new supporters immediately.

How can you maximize your brand-building and awareness spending?

Bang For Your Brandraising Buck

My non-profits are small and like all young organizations we are short on time, manpower and most of all – money. That doesn’t stop me from spending it on brandraising or awareness, though. You can have the best cause in the world and be doing incredible work but if nobody knows you exist, or worse – that your cause does, you won’t get very far.

I try to think out of the box when it comes to raising awareness for my cause and my brands, with the most important objectives always being reaching as many people from as many different places as possible who aren’t already in my cause community without breaking the proverbial bank.

This past February my non-profit, Big Love Little Hearts, launched The Global Geocoin Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Campaign. It not only achieved all of those objectives  – it has become one of the most emotional projects I’ve ever created.

Geocoins are trackable items used in geocaching, a sort of high tech treasure hunt. There are more than one million geocaches hidden around the world by approximately 100,000 active geocachers. Geocoins can be minted to look like most anything and have a trackable number on the back which directs the finder to a specific website where they can read and contribute to that coins log, as well as find out what they should do next.

My son and I are avid geocachers and the first time I found a geocoin a light-bulb went off in my head. People who geocache come from all walks of  life, are active all over the world and have no connection to the congenital heart defect community – a perfect opportunity to raise awareness and build our brand!

I set about having 200 geocoins minted to look like our logo, complete with trackable item numbers and google-map icons (this cost approximately $1800). While they were being processed I made a post on the geocaching forums requesting volunteers to help hide the coins. Not two hours later I had volunteers for all 200 coins from 37 states and 18 countries.

Once they arrived my brother and I customized the log website for each of the 200 coins with information about heart defects, the campaign and how they could donate.

If it doesn’t seem like 200 is enough to make much of a difference let me point out that on average each geocoin is moved once or twice a week. This means that those 200 coins will be found 10,000 – 20,000 times per year. That’s an average of 15,000 new people who’ll see our logo, read about heart defects and what we do. Per year. Perpetually.

We shipped the coins along with this letter to our volunteer “hiders” who released them during Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, February 7-14, 2010. I can’t tell you how blown away I was by their passion – this log represents a typical sentiment. Because heart defects are common – 1 in 100 – it’s not surprising that one of our hiders was personally affected by them. A volunteer in Japan even translated our message and made a spiffy holder for this one!

Since then they have been moved and found over and over and over again. I receive hundreds of log notifications a week. Some have moved through several countries and traveled more than 10,000 miles from their original release. They have done their job of raising awareness and continue to touch people personally. One family lost their daughter to a heart defect and they put our coin in a cache near her grave. They took a picture of it cradled in the arms of an angel overlooking her headstone – it is one of the most moving pictures I’ve ever seen. I cry every time I look at it.

It has raised money – not very much, but that wasn’t the point. Our $1,800 got us 15,000 new eyes and ears a year, every year. It also got us a whole lot of SEO power. Each one of those 200 coins has its own webpage and every time a new log entry is registered it caches separately. I don’t think we could have gotten more bang for our brandraising buck with this campaign if we tried!

Start thinking more creatively about how you can do more with less and how you can make the money you do spend on brand building and awareness as impactful as possible. Even small things like placing your logo/website on the back of your t-shirts can make a big difference when someone’s behind one of your supporters on a running path or at the gym.

Being a small non-profit with a small budget doesn’t mean you have to forgo brandraising or awareness campaigns – it just means you have to be smart about it and think a little more outside the box.

Before I end this post I want to include this geocoin log because it’s the greatest ROI I’ve gotten from this project on a personal level. To know that I made someone want to give more – do more – love more, is an immeasurable gift.