Do Something

Profiles of New Philanthropists

Kristen Madsen

“What are we doing to cultivate new generations of arts activists—artists, arts managers and arts philanthropers?” This question—often asked and long massaged—has an equal number of answers to the individuals attempting to answer it. Under the broader umbrella of inspiring young people to make a difference—through the arts or otherwise—Do Something is an organization that is effectively answering that question with meaningful action.

Established in 1993 by actor Andrew Shue, Do Something was created as a vehicle to inspire young people to take problem-solving action in their communities. Do Something provides mini-grants to young people to make a difference in their communities for a cause that matters to them. Do Something also provides resources, ideas, networks, and workshops to help teens equip themselves with the tools necessary to have an impact. Resources include facts about each cause, ideas for how to start a project, descriptions of previously funded projects and dozens of blogs that discuss issues surrounding each cause.

The arts are integrated into the Do Something mission not only as a featured cause (arts education) but as the vehicle for many grant projects. Putting on concerts to raise funds, taking music into homeless shelters and hospitals, and creating films to raise awareness of an issue are just a handful of ways that teens have incorporated art into their Do Something projects.

After ten years of good work, Do Something was not thriving institutionally, having just fired twenty-one of twenty-two staff people and maintaining a bank balance of just $75,000. But the board was able to convince Nancy Lublin, the founder of Dress for Success, to take on the challenge of reinventing the organization to better serve what had always been its strongest asset—its unique and viable mission.

During Do Something's creative re-visioning process, three themes emerged that ultimately positioned Do Something to become a major force in the philanthropic community with young people. First, and probably most important, was the simple recognition that the best insurance for success in youth programs is that they be created and driven by young people. Do Something made an absolute commitment to this philosophy and it shows in every element of the organization. Do Something's “manifesto” has five planks:

  • Believe in teenagers. Teenagers can lead today. We don't require adults.
  • Trust teenagers. We provide reliable, easy-to-access information and activation strategies, but teens decide for themselves what to do.
  • Celebrate teenagers. We think all measurable contributions from teens are valuable.
  • Respect teenagers. We understand that teenagers have diverse abilities and constraints.
  • Value teenagers. Our programs and products are free. We're not after teens' money; we want their passion, time, and creativity.

Second, Do Something became an early adopter of the power of social networking on the Internet. Moving the bulk of its operations out of physical offices in New York City and onto the Internet (as much as possible) had the impact of expanding the reach of the organization beyond its geographic boundaries and finding young people where they most often “reside.” Do became an online community where “young people learn, listen, speak, vote, volunteer, ask, and take action to make the world a better place.” The web site currently enjoys 500,000 page hits per month.

And third, Do Something simplified its message and laser-focused it to young people. It boils down simply to this: “Do Something uses the power of the Internet to help young people change the world.” Gone from the website are references to community service, executive staff members, measurement tools, or anything that would not appeal to a teenager. The refreshing reality that Do Something has tapped into is that making a difference is fun and the by-products are too. Meeting like-minded people and working hard at something you care about is fun. Receiving recognition that your idea has value—and can garner cash with which to implement it is fun. Using money for positive impact is fun. When we cross over into the adult world we use words like rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable to describe our work in philanthropy. But when it's boiled down to its essence—“fun” still applies for all of us.

Recent studies by Cone Research indicate that Millennials (people born between 1980 and 2000) are highly motivated to be actively involved in causes that matter to them. 61 percent feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world and 79 percent want to work for a company that cares about how it contributes to society and what its impact is. If borne out by action, these beliefs may further blur the lines between traditional and nonprofit organizations and models for philanthropy.

In many respects, Do Something is a “right place right time” organization, capitalizing on this growing spirit of activism and fostering a young army of new philanthropers. The words of Glenn Means, a Do Something grant recipient, best summarize the goals of Do Something, as experienced by a member of its target audience. “Young people are able to do things that adults today seemed amazed about. I hate when adults think that we cannot do anything, when actually we can do a whole lot if they give us a chance. Adults are constantly harping on youth being the problem, but really we are the solution. Do Something believes in youth and most of all believes that we can do something to change the world.”

Kristen Madsen is senior vice president,
The GRAMMY Foundation and MusiCares Foundation.