Each week, New York-based Do Something, a nonprofit aimed at spurring teen community involvement and volunteerism, gives away up to three grants of $500 "branded" by marketers including Game Stop, Doritos and Del Monte. "We need to go where teens are, talk like they talk and make it very easy for them to get involved," said Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something, which this year has given away 148 grants totaling $272,500.
Operating online saves a load of money for the nonprofit, which operates on a $3 million budget. Do Something partners with brands that are the right fit for its "target audience" of teens 13 to 19.
The partnership with Frito-Lay's Doritos has yielded more than just money for grants. "These guys at Doritos are really smart," Ms. Lublin said. "And they know their target market. They have budgets for focus groups, they have budgets for trendspotting. They can make us a smarter organization."
For instance, when Ms. Lublin came onboard, she wanted to do everything she could to bring a cool and edgy vibe to Do Something's materials and online site. Doritos, she said, counseled the group to instead aim for "authentic" instead of "cool."
"That was such a fabulous learning for us," she said.
In exchange, the brand -- which has had its share of bad publicity these days from food critics who blame snack makers for contributing to child and teen obesity -- gained a powerful virtual endorsement from Do Something. Consider this plug on Do Something's website: "Thought the Doritos brand just made chips? No way. The Doritos team believes 100% in the power of young people to speak out and change the world."
In the bag
The mutual promotion has gone even further. Earlier this year, Doritos put photos of grant winners and short summaries of the teens' charitable efforts on the backs of 500 million bags of Doritos, along with Do Something's web address. "We turned these kids into celebrities. These kids became rock stars. We loved the idea of turning celebrity on its head and having these kids be famous for doing something good," Ms. Lublin said.
The Dorito bags led to several profiles of grant winners in local newspapers. Not bad PR for Doritos, for sure.
But some think Ms. Lublin is stretching things too far and wonder whether the "commercialization" of the grant-making process is a good thing for the broader and more-traditional philanthropic community.
Mark Rosenman, a longtime activist in the nonprofit sector and a public-service professor at the Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, said he is concerned about the ad hoc nature of Do Something's grant-making process.
"Serious grant-making implies a coherent strategy about how to deal with problems rather than an aggregation of unrelated individual efforts," he said. "While I applaud anything that inspires individuals to altruistic action and behavior, it also trivializes foundation grant-making."
Can brands cater to teens' consumption needs as well as their more altruistic charitable impulses? And can philanthropy, instead of YouTube clips, emerge as the new way for teens to achieve their 15 minutes of fame?
Matt Diamond, a Do Something board member and CEO of youth-marketing firm Alloy Media and Marketing, said celebrity culture is part of the puzzle of figuring out how to tap into this emerging trend among teens. Mr. Diamond said his company has done extensive research on the "millennial" youth market and said grants resonate with teens because of the now-commonplace practice of celebrities attaching their names to causes or charities. "When their celebrities are their heroes, they want to get involved just like them," he said.
Even though the online focus for Do Something is grant-making, the organization is also forging partnerships with brands such as Aeropostale that are less individually focused.
This January, Do Something plans to launch a major clothing drive to benefit homeless teens with Aeropostale, which operates more than 800 mall-based stores in the U.S. The focus will be jeans, and Aeropostale will be giving teens a "significant" discount on a new pair if they contribute their "gently used" pairs to the charitable effort.
The drive represents a marked change in strategy for Aeropostale. Traditionally, the chain's budget for philanthropic efforts has been funneled into initiatives that help associates and store managers volunteer in their communities.
The retailer expects 100,000 pairs of jeans to be donated to homeless teens. Aeropostale is planning in-store signage and collateral to promote the effort, and it's also running an online campaign.
Additionally, the company plans to produce a PSA with "yet-to-be named" celebrities to be aired on Channel One, the school-based TV network in 8,200 schools nationwide.
"Rather than give them a distant charity they think we are funding, we would rather put it in play right where they live," said Scott Birnbaum, senior VP-marketing at Aeropostale. "It's not enough just to tell them you're doing something good. They want to play a part in what happens."