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The Compassion Effect: How Social Activism Is Changing Everything

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By Claudia Luther

Published Apr 1, 2015 8:00 AM


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Of course, not all companies have the freedom of movement to take similar steps. Josh Levine ’93, CEO of Los Angeles marketing firm Rebel Industries, says that incorporating social good into a company’s marketing plan might distinguish it and give it an edge in the market, but good intentions won’t last unless the company’s profit goals are met.

“All of these things matter,” Levine says of the new initiatives by Unilever and others. But he added that it may not be as doable for other companies, and it may not even be what all consumers want when they buy something. “I think we should not get ahead of ourselves and say that just because one large company is doing it that this is what all consumers want, or that this is going to save the environment or whatever those causes may be,” he says.

Levine points out an obvious truth: that lasting change in general is created by leadership, whether by legislating environmental standards or other methods. Peer pressure can also help. So it’s a good sign that in late 2014 a number of large international companies — again, Unilever, along with BT Group, Coca-Cola, Marks & Spencer and Carlsberg — worked with the World Economic Forum to create Collectively, a web platform that is designed to engage Millennials in making sustainable lifestyles a “new normal.” Many other companies have since joined in, as has the sustainability nonprofit Forum for the Future.

Young adults, Collectively’s leaders say, will be the ones to lead the shift to more sustainable actions “through life choices that maximize their well-being while minimizing their environmental impact,” while also “demanding workplaces, brands and organizations that align with those values.”

On that latter point, it is clear that Millennials want to work for companies that share their values. “No matter how prestigious the firm is, if there isn’t purpose behind the company’s work, a Millennial will take his or her talent elsewhere,” Stengel says.

Social Activism: The Movie

One sector of society that has seized upon the compassion effect with considerable success is entertainment. At UCLA, the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment, recently created under the umbrella of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT), is working with a $10-million endowment from film producer Jeff Skoll to foster innovative ways to develop entertainment that can move the needle on social issues.

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Skoll, who was eBay’s first full-time employee and first president, made his fortune when eBay went public in 1998. That business success made possible the fulfillment of Skoll’s lifelong dream: to promote social change with a special interest in using storytelling.

Among other things, he launched Participant Media in 2004 to produce films designed to promote activism on social issues like climate change (Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth), racial prejudice (The Help), healthy and sustainable food (Food, Inc.), and sexual harassment (North Country), among many others. The new center’s goal, the philanthropist has said, will “reach young storytellers at the beginning of their careers and influence more broadly a greater swath of the [entertainment] industry.”

Later this year, Participant Media and the Skoll Center will hold the first of what is intended to be an annual TED-type conference to bring together leaders from the creative community, government, business and nonprofit sectors “to focus on the power of entertainment and performing arts to drive social change,” says TFT Dean Teri Schwartz ’71. The Skoll Center is also underwriting a yearlong course, “Engage L.A.: Social Impact Storytelling,” in which undergraduates focus on the critical issues facing the city using digital tools and technologies to tell stories.

Among those who are looking forward to working with the new Skoll Center is Gayle Northrop M.B.A. ’96, who three years ago began teaching a course at UCLA’s Anderson School in social entrepreneurship — even though she didn’t consider herself an expert in the topic at the time. In her class, Northrop works with Anderson students who either want to use their M.B.A.s for positive social change or want to remind themselves that there’s more to life than just making money. “I tell them that sometimes the best way may not be by working for a nonprofit, but by using their skills as a businessperson — as a manager, leader or marketing person,” she says. For example, they could work within their companies to help the firms move toward more sustainable products or ethical supply chains.

Or, supposing these future business and marketing leaders get lucky: They can make their fortunes and go on to endow places where young people like them can gather to talk about how to make a better world. It’s what TFT’s Schwartz called the “double bottom line.” Do well. Do good. Everybody wins.

A Digital Destiny?

Last fall, Al Gore announced his new “Why? Why Not” initiative to harness Millennials’ technological power in combating the climate crisis. The campaign, part of his Climate Reality Project, is designed to use the social media expertise of these “digital natives” to build support for an international greenhouse gas reduction agreement later this year. As Gore told USA Today, “What starts as a debate on Facebook can quickly spread around the world, across social media networks, and eventually influence world policy.”

Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, Millennials understand very well that technological prowess is what sets them apart from prior generations. But no one can predict how lifelong Internet connectedness will bear out in the long run. Will Millennials use their devices to engage in the nation’s civic life, or ignore it in favor of playing games or watching videos on all those screens?

Some may agree with a much-touted adolescent-to-adulthood study a few years ago that concluded that this cohort had more narcissistic traits than previous generations. Others find little or no difference between the generations. In any case, Millennials are poised to dominate the workforce — and their insistence on good corporate citizenship will continue to influence decisions in the boardroom, at the polls and at the box office for years to come.

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