Last semester I spotted a fellow NYU Net Impact member sporting a slick accessory around his neck. It turned out this trendy accessory was no ordinary piece of jewelry, but part of a fundraising effort by the non-profit Falling Whistles. The organization sells vintage whistles to support the rehabilitation of child soldiers born of the devastating civil war in the Congo. Whistles are also intended to spark a conversation about the conflict—it certainly worked on me—turning every consumer into an informed ambassador for the cause.
Fast forward a few months to a hip club in New York. Somehow or other, I’ve ended up at a fundraiser for Falling Whistles, and the scene is packed with NYU kids there for the cause, the party, or some combination thereof. Falling Whistles is clearly hip and fresh, and while equating such a sobering organization with the bankability of a pop icon may seem ill-fitted, a sharply edited opening video, boldly styled homepage, and chic set of accessories beg to differ.
The global advertising industry is slated to crack a $120 billion valuation by 2014, and with good reason. It is challenging to make things trendy and desirable—especially on a guerilla budget. But once the “trendy code” is cracked, people will pay extortionate premiums to impress their peers via Juicy Couture sweatpants.
Social entrepreneurship is about leveraging proven business practices to achieve social profits, and there is no reason for such a powerful marketing tool to be solely under the purview of single-bottom-liners. I care about the Salvation Army because I think I’m supposed to; I care about Falling Whistles because I really hope somebody will buy me one of their Limited Edition Gold whistles.
The Falling Whistles model represents a sophistication of the Livestrong bracelet pioneered by The Lance Armstrong Foundation. I was in high school when suddenly everybody seemed to have one. It is beautiful to look back now and recognize how excluded I felt—and not because I was wearing the wrong clothes but because I was not supporting a social cause.
Needless to say, “cause fashion” must deliver on both words. A boring product will not sell, and is mostly harmless. The reverse is far more nefarious and requires a keen eye to discern. A recent example of an organization overselling and underworking its cause is the Product (RED) campaign involving some of the world’s largest corporations. In 2007, Gap, Apple and Motorola spent $100 million advertising their affiliation with the program, ultimately raising only $18 million in AIDS-related funding. I am comfortable with Falling Whistles given their non-profit status and commitment to spend 100% of funds raised on rehabilitation, but as always it is important to check out their credentials for yourself.
I dream of a future where my children throw tantrums to have a loan disbursed on Kiva to an entrepreneur they choose because all of their friends already have, instead of screaming about some Beyonce makeup kit; or ask for a new Falling Whistles accessory for Christmas (as one awesome mother already did this past December) rather than another product that would benefit nobody but themselves. Will this ever be possible until social impact wholeheartedly embraces the power of trendy?
Photo via Falling Whistles Store
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