Pure Genius

A refreshing idea: Public votes, and Pepsi gives away millions for better society

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Three months into the Pepsi Refresh Project, the co-founder of GOOD talks about the importance of prizes in spurring innovation.

Whether you drink Pepsi, Coke or green tea, it's hard not to love the Pepsi Refresh Project.

Pepsi is giving away $20 million this year to the best ideas for improving society; winning ideas are rewarded every month in six categories. It's open to any individual, business or nonprofit, and the public votes—and can vote every day—for their favorites. Grantees thus far include ideas from Clothe a N.A.K.E.D. Prom Date ($5,000) which provides tuxes for prom-bound gents; to a year of funding for Spinal Muscular Atrophy research ($250,000).

Pepsi’s partner in the project is Los Angeles-based GOOD, a media company that produces a magazine, videos and events for -- according to its website -- "people who give a damn."

Last week I talked to Max Schorr, GOOD's co-founder and community director, about the importance of prizes in spurring innovation and why corporate social responsibility needs to be at the core of any business today.

The Pepsi Refresh Project is awarding $20 million this year to the ideas voted as most likely to improve society. What’s GOOD’s role?

Since GOOD launched, we’ve wanted to team up with businesses. We’ve seen this trend of CSR [corporate social responsibility] going from a fringe operation to core brand strategy. Doing good is becoming more culturally relevant. Our CEO spoke on a panel, and someone from Pepsi saw him and brought him in. We developed this program and have been a core partner—bringing on the advisory board, creating all the content around the program, working with the winners and measuring the social impact at the end. It really resonates with what GOOD is all about—that you can align your business to create social impact.

Tell me more about the trend with CSR and how it’s become an essential part of doing business.

Before, [CSR] could be a PR arm to what you’re doing. But now, it’s what you stand for; it’s what motivates your employees; it becomes core to what a business does. With the rise of social media, there’s a real opportunity to add value to people's lives. There’s less of a wall between who you are and what you do.

How important are prizes to motivating people to get involved and make change?

There’s a cultural shift . More people want to be engaged and improve their communities, but sometimes people need to be invited to put their ideas on paper. This money has been a catalyst for people to do that. There’s a huge rise of social awareness, but it’s coupled with very hard economic times, so there’s less resources to put those programs in action. On April 30, the White House and Case Foundation hosted a summit on innovation [Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking]. GOOD was there, sharing best practices.

Is this program modeled after another prize?

Case has done prize programs, but this one is unique in that it’s open to individuals, nonprofits and business. It’s focused on programs that impact U.S. communities. And it’s larger--32 grants and over $1 million each month.

How important is it today for a global company to be involved in things at a local level?

Each company needs to align its business with how to improve society. It’s an interesting time--never have we been more interconnected globally, but there’s a local relevancy. That’s a strong position for a brand.

How are you using social media for the project?

From the day voting went live there was an outpouring of social media use. There were over 30,000 tweets the first month of the program.

What are a few of your favorite winners?

Every month when we look at the 1,000 ideas, I’m blown away by the range. There’s everything from job training in Atlanta that supports first-generation college attendees to a special needs cheer squad from Iowa. There was one idea that didn’t win, GreenMyParents.com, that I thought was clever. A kid is using a website to reach other kids across the country who are trying to convince their parents to green their houses.

What are the pros and cons of the public voting? Do they always pick the winner that’s best for society?

I think the pros are that it’s democratic and open and promotes fairness. There have been 96 winners in the last three months. The cons are –if you were looking to just chose the ideas that would have the most impact for a concentrated focus, you’d use experts and select with a different criteria.

Social impact seems like a difficult thing to measure. How do you do it?

We’re working with a firm called Mission Measurement. The field of social impact measuring is an emerging field. For each program there are different outputs. So for example, one winner is a mother in Texas whose project provides workshops for girls, so they would measure how many girls go through the program and the impact on their lives. The metrics include people impacted and organizations strengthened.

How much are people thinking about Pepsi when they are coming up with ideas, voting and being awarded grants?

Clearly Pepsi is doing something people respect. So when it comes down to making a decision to between Coke versus Pepsi, respect is one of the keys to making a decision.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure