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Free Range Opens Its Youtopia Grant to Everyone

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The world of social responsibility is changing -- growing more complex along with the problems it's working to solve. Free Range is now taking applications for its Youtopia grant -- and it's including for-profits for the first time. Agency co-founder Jonah Sachs tells why.

Running a creative agency for social change was a lot simpler in 1999. Those were the David-and-Goliath days. Our firm, brand new back then, saw the world divided neatly into black and white. On one side, you had the scrappy underdogs working thanklessly for a better world (our clients) and on the other were those thundering giants, full of power but interested only in profit (not our clients). The better-world Davids struggled heroically but often futilely because they were shut out from major media opportunities. They shouted the gospel of green and nobody listened. We saw ourselves as that little stone loaded into David's sling. Sure, we didn't look like much. But thanks to our killer aim, we could boast some devastating impacts.

Over the past 10 years, our black-and-white world has gotten a whole lot more complex. Everyone from your local coffee roaster to Walmart is talking about sustainability. YouTube ads made with $100 Flip cameras rival broadcast TV's million-dollar efforts, giving everyone access to mass distribution channels. B Corps -- companies that use triple-bottom-line accounting, valuing people and the planet as well as profit -- are popping up. Free Range's phones are ringing twice as often, but it's twice as hard to tell if the person on the other end is going green or just greenwashing.

This year, our team decided to do what would have been unthinkable 10 years ago -- we opened our annual Youtopia grant to for-profit businesses. Every year since 2003, we have put out the call to our community of clients and fans asking what they think the world is most in need of that particular year. We cull through mountains of applications that we receive and pick one to work on -- free of charge.

When we get passionate about a project, good things happen, and that's why Youtopia has been so successful. One grant led to the creation of the viral video hit "The Meatrix," a short film about factory farming that has been viewed more than 22 million times in more than a dozen languages. The grant program has also created a hit online game on sustainability and helped changingthepresent.org make gift-giving a tool for social change.

So when we made the decision to give away our time and creativity to a for-profit business, a Goliath, we had to do so with a deep belief that social change is no longer the exclusive domain of nonprofits and political campaigns. This is a lesson we've learned from our clients, such as Gary Hirshberg at Stonyfield Farm and Tom Szaky at Terracycle. These guys are entrepreneurs making huge progress in creating healthier, more sustainable food and ending waste, respectively. Activist Annie Leonard, with whom we made the viral video hit "The Story of Stuff" taught us that you can't buy your way out of the current ecological crisis; but RSF Social Finance, a client that finances for-profits, helped us understand the hugely positive impact that consciously invested money can create.

And then, of course, there's us. It took a while to realize that we are a for-profit enterprise focused squarely on social change. And we're not some little David anymore. Suddenly widening our circle, making our world less black and white, looked less like a leap of faith and more like opening our eyes to acknowledge a new reality that is all around us.

As I write this, the Youtopia 2009 grant has just been announced. Over the past few hours since we posted the application about 50 ideas have come in with many more sure to follow. It's going to be a busy few weeks sorting through them, and this year we're going to have help in deciding the winner. In a more complex world, we feel a wider conversation about what solutions will work is needed, so we're asking our more than 100,000 fans and their friends to vote for the Youtopia finalists.

No doubt there will be plenty of greenwashers and cynically minded projects thrown our way. It's a lot less simple than it once was, but the effort of sorting through the entries will be worth it. Considering the complexity and urgency of our deep environmental and social challenges, it's naive to think the solutions we choose can be the easy ones, the ones that see the world in black and white, as simply David vs. Goliath. We're still devoted to the underdogs, but it's time there were more seats at the table for everyone to pitch in and make a better world. Our hope is that more businesses will add social profit to their bottom lines, more nonprofits will partner with them and more agencies will pop up to help all these folks get heard and inspire action. If anyone needs ideas for projects to make the world a better place, we'll have hundreds pouring in any moment now. We'd be glad to share.

Jonah Sachs is co-founder and creative director of Free Range Studios, a graphic design and creative services agency for progressive nonprofits and socially responsible businesses, with offices in Washington and Berkley, Calif.
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