Every year on April 20, the air above the university campus here in Boulder turns rather aromatic as thousands of students celebrate 420 Day. For us at School, it’s also a day to celebrate Volunteer Recognition Day – a time to remind ourselves that giving time, energy and intention to helping others in need is perhaps another kind of high.
Almost every agency I know has a volunteer program, and there’s no shortage of humanitarian intention in our industry. We should all be proud of that. Within our halls and ranks there’s an abundance of food drives, group builds, and clean-up crew registrations. When we (often rarely) have the time, we’re pretty good at giving it to someone else.
We’re no different here at School. We do a lot of purpose-based work. We do a lot of pro-bono work, too. And, we volunteer to give even more work away.
We learned early that instead of volunteering at other organizations, we’d rather volunteer at our own. In other words, instead of trying to get a creative technologist to hammer away at some joists for a Habitat For Humanity project, we’d rather have our teams hammer away at business problems for our non-profit partners.
Early in our inception, we decided to give what we’ve got: creativity, strategic chops, the ability to prototype rapidly, and the intention to do great work that does good. So, that’s what we volunteered to others. We called it Night School because we would give our time, energy, and intention after hours.
Loosely described, Night School is an idea hack. We bring our agency people together with non-profits in a highly collaborative and spirited brainstorm and build session. We also bring in people outside of the agency who have a particular set of skills that could be complementary to the particular problems we are trying to solve. Today, like when we started, the cost of a Night School sessions remains enough pizza and beer to satiate the room.
We’ve run Night School sessions for non-profits like Crocs Cares, FoodCorps, the Chef Ann Foundation, The Kitchen Community, RealGood, Search For Common Ground, Purple Purse, and even the United Nations.
As we got better at volunteering our time, energy, and intention for Night School, we got better at being an agency. We began to get to ideas faster, to collaborate more easily, to discuss and discard more magnanimously. We began to act more like problem solvers and less like ad makers. And, we applied our Night School principles to our for-profit clients, giving them insight and access to our agency not seen before. That drove revenue (which, thankfully, is more than pizza and beer.)
The benefit of volunteering goes beyond the narrow focus of how a business operates. Studies show that volunteering makes us happier, makes us healthier, and even makes us live longer. The act of volunteering also provides a key attribute that is integral to our industry: empathy – the ability to intellectually and emotionally connect with the experience of another.
Why is empathy important? Because all over the world, people’s attitudes toward brands that embrace empathy and social impact are fundamentally shifting the creative work that is breaking through and influencing culture. Empathy to me is a huge competitive advantage when it comes to originating and delivering this kind of work.
Now that, like 420 Day and Volunteer Recognition Day, is worth celebrating.