The following is a conversation between Jennifer Lotito, President of (RED), and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: (RED) was founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver in 2006 to turn companies into a force to fight the AIDS pandemic. Today, that cohort is also fighting the urgent threat of COVID and its devastating impact on the most vulnerable communities, answering the need for a truly global response.
And here to discuss this work and their evolution is Jennifer Lotito, the president of (RED).
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jen.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: Share with us the history of (RED) and why the organization was formed in the first place.
Jennifer: Absolutely. As you mentioned, we were started by Bono and Bobby Shriver just over 15 years ago. And what I like to say is that we were not formed because we thought the world needed another AIDS fighting organization. That was absolutely not the case. We were really formed for one reason, and that was to bring the private sector– or companies into the fight, and specifically to fund the Global Fund, one of the leading private, financing organizations, fighting the most preventable and treatable diseases of AIDS, TB and malaria.
So (RED) was really created to focus on AIDS and to bring companies into the fight. And the reason why is because the Global Fund was set up as a public/ private charter. So what we mean by that is they were getting money from governments, but they also needed to get money from companies because as we all know, especially back then in 2006, the government was looking at: what are companies doing? And companies were looking at what governments are doing, and they really need to come together around this fight.
And so at the time, the Global Fund had been around for a few years and they’d generated about $5 billion from governments, but only about $5 million from companies. Now, the intention was never for that to be even, but the companies needed to do their part. And huge kudos to Bono and Bobby because they came up with this genius idea of saying, What if we created a brand, marketed it like a Nike or an Apple would, and brought a similar level of energy or punk rock or whatever to it and really disrupted the world, and really get these companies to put their hands in their pockets, not necessarily their customer.
That’s the beauty of (RED), is that when you choose a (RED) product, that causes the company to give to the fight. So if I go and choose a red iPhone, instead of a black iPhone, it’s the exact same phone, it costs exactly the same, but when you choose the red one, it unlocks that money. So what a genius model. Again, I can’t take credit for it, but I’m so proud. Again, just 15 years on, we’ve generated nearly $700 million, and I couldn’t be more excited about what lies ahead.
Denver: Great explanation. Let me ask you a little bit about the Global Fund, because I have spent about half of my life working on memorandums of understanding, first with the Department of Interior and the National Park Service, and then the United Nations, and a whole bunch of others. Tell me a little bit about the relationship between a private sector organization and the Global Fund… how you work together, what the understanding is between the two of you.
Jennifer: Yeah. And I think it’s also interesting about what (RED) does, because, we are, I like to say we’re the marketing engine, we’re the creative minds, we’re the strategic thinkers. We don’t put the money to work on the ground. That’s what the Global Fund does. And they are one of the most innovative financing entities out there. And so they have a really important model, which is, it is country-led. So this isn’t a bunch of bureaucrats in Geneva telling countries what to do. The countries are in charge. So they’re going and putting their plans together. They’re coming to the Global Fund, looking for funding for whatever it is they promise that they’ll do, and then they are tracked. And in order to get more money, they have to demonstrate the impact that they’ve had. So it’s a very innovative model. It’s something that Bill Gates has said something about, “It’s one of the kindest things that an organization has done for the human race,” or something like that. But it’s really important.
(RED) is good at what we do, and the Global Fund is really good at what they do. So we’re really fortunate to be generating the money for them, and then them putting the money to work on the ground so that we can then go to our partners and say, “Look at what you’ve done.” So we’re really grateful to them, and it’s a great partnership that we have together.
Denver: Well, sounds that way. So you give it to them on an unrestricted basis, and they let you know the impact so you can go back to the donors and say, “Hey, this is what they did,” but you don’t get involved in that process of the distribution or the allocation. Sounds good.
Jennifer: We do, just in the sense of we have certain countries that we want to go into, and we have certain types of grants. So obviously, the Global Fund is doing AIDS, TB and malaria; our grants are focused specifically on AIDS. Obviously, we’ve got to get into the COVID conversation because that’s having an impact, too. So we work with them strategically to say, “This is where we want the money to go,” but then they’re responsible for putting it to work and tracking it.
Denver: That’s what a partnership is about. Let’s start with the AIDS. We’ve been at this for several decades now… three, four decades now. Where do we stand with the AIDS pandemic around the world?
Jennifer: It’s an interesting story. It’s a fascinating story, actually. We could spend a lot of time on it, but just in a nutshell, I think when you look at it, as you mentioned, it has been several decades since the mid ‘80s. We are seeing absolutely incredible progress. We’ve got tens of millions of people that are accessing treatment.
And the interesting thing that people may not know, I mean, you see Magic Johnson and others, but what’s really important about this story, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, is when people are getting on treatment, it lowers the viral count in their bodies so they are then not transmitting it. So they’re healthy. They’re able to be part of the economy and their community. They’re not transmitting it to their partner. And if they happen to become pregnant as a woman, they are not transmitting it to their babies. So this is really important.
Getting people tested, getting people on treatment, is absolutely critical. And like I said, we’ve seen really great progress, but way more is needed. And when you bring a second pandemic in– COVID, you start to see that progress get threatened. We’ve got to get people in. The thing about HIV is that when you’re on treatment, you’ve got to stay on treatment every day to keep that viral load down. If you’re now not going in to get your pills because you’re worried about COVID, or perhaps you’re not getting tested to begin with, you can imagine what the impact of that is going to be for months and years to come.
From (RED)’s standpoint, we’ve got to stay focused on all that progress we’ve made in the AIDS fight, but now do it with another pandemic on top of it. So it’s not easy.
Denver: And we’ll get to that in a second because picking up on the medication, what about prevention? That’s what I’m really curious about. Are we preventing AIDS? Are we just being able to treat it for people who’ve already contracted it?
Jennifer: It’s interesting that you say that because our partners at the ONE Campaign who we work with really closely from a policy perspective, as we talk about, when we look at charts and graphs and where are we going, you’ve got enough people on treatment, but you’ve also, to your point, got to prevent new infections. If not, we’re just, as we like to say, we’re just treading water. And that’s not how you’re going to end a pandemic.
A lot of the things that we’re focused on from a (RED) perspective and with the Global Fund, are prevention programs. So that is things like especially important for young girls– getting them to stay negative, helping them stay in school. We have a lot of programs I’ve gone and seen on the ground that are absolutely incredible– peer-to-peer, helping girls understand the importance of having protected sex, not having sex at an early age, staying in school– and we’re seeing the impact of that.
There is also what is readily available here in the States, things like PrEP, which is the pre-exposure prophylaxis. We’re starting to see some of that and because there are female sex workers and others who don’t necessarily want to be working in that business, but perhaps there might not be another way. And so those are the areas. Some of these marginalized communities are really important when it comes to prevention that we’ve got to get in there and focus, and the Global Fund is really good at that.
Denver: Getting back to COVID again. Intuitively, I know that COVID is going to have an impact on AIDS, but I really don’t know what that impact or how great that’s going to be. What have you found out?
Jennifer: I think the COVID thing is just… oh my goodness! It just makes my head want to explode. But I think that one of the things about COVID is first of all, if you are, as we all know… right, we’re all learning about this….if you’re immunocompromised, you are much more likely to have a difficult fight if you are exposed to COVID. So that’s one thing.
And I think that when you think about people who are living with HIV, they are obviously immunocompromised. What that means is that if you come down with… if you get exposed to COVID and you test positive for it, the virus stays in your body for a longer period of time before you can get rid of it. That allows variants and mutations to happen. And we all know now, we’ve become very familiar with variants, as I just had Omicron right before Christmas. I think that what we have to do is we’ve got to focus on people who are living with HIV, getting them to stay healthy. Because when COVID comes in, it could have a catastrophic impact, not only on people who are HIV positive. But as we were talking about, you’ve got to get your meds, you’ve got to get tested. It’s not easy necessarily to socially distance if somehow there is a surge.
And so I think that, from our perspective, we have to think about these communities of people and certain areas of people who have HIV and may be immunocompromised, the same way we have to think about them globally. This isn’t just an African issue or Sub-Saharan African issue. All over the world we’ve got to be looking at people who are immunocompromised and thinking about them when we’re thinking about trying to end the COVID pandemic.
“And I think there is something in this area of the fact that whether it’s AIDS or COVID or something else, it’s hitting the marginalized communities. There’s almost like a racial injustice or discrimination in who is getting hit the hardest. And I think that where (RED) has always been is relating to consumers at that emotional level, and I think that’s probably where we’ll need to focus and maybe be less disease-specific, but more, ‘What’s the impact, and who are the people that we want to help?’ ”
Denver: Jen, tell us a little bit about how this all took place inside of (RED), because here you are laser-focused on AIDS. COVID now is playing this disruptive impact in you being able to effectively do what you do. And if I’m wrong, tell me if I’m wrong, but there seems to have been an evolution of your mission in terms of, “Hey, we’re going to have to adjust in order to remain effective and remain relevant.” Tell us how that went, how the board got involved, and how you made that determination.
Jennifer: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting because I think back, I think it was around maybe 2015 when Ebola came out, and we started having similar conversations and we started thinking about, should we be focusing on Ebola? Should we expand? And what’s going to happen? And what’s our strategy? And how do we think about it?
Obviously, we know what ended up happening with Ebola. We did stay very focused on HIV and AIDS. Some of this is led by the Global Fund, and where do they go since that’s where our money goes. But when COVID came, this was a really tough, strategic issue that we needed to think about because obviously, we can all remember, especially here in Manhattan, when COVID first hit in the United States, it was ground zero. It was here, a couple of blocks away, where people didn’t have PPE; ambulances couldn’t get into the hospitals. And we started thinking, Oh my goodness! Do we need to start funding domestic COVID programs? And we had a lot of conversations. Should we be rallying companies to get into St. Luke’s down the street?
But what I felt like was really important and we had a lot of conversations about this is (RED) is really focused on the developing world and really focused on Sub-Saharan Africa. And if we walked away from that, it just didn’t feel very authentic for (RED). And I think that we had a lot of conversations with our partners; they also agreed, like we can’t, I mean, there’s only so much money that we can generate, and if we pulled money out to do that, that means we’re not putting the money to work on the ground where we’ve been promising it. So I think that was part of it, like geography was one part of it.
The other part of it is, are we abandoning the AIDS community that we’ve been serving, and how will that community feel? And I think what was really important for us, and again, talking with our board, talking with our partners, that’s a really important thing. These are partners who are pulling from their bottom line. And these are business people… they understand, it’s really trying to make sure that we’re doing exactly what we were just talking about, which is tying the AIDS fight to the COVID fight, and understanding the Global Fund had put together this COVID-19 response mechanism. They were going into markets and understanding exactly what was needed from a PPE standpoint and other things.
And that was, I mean, because look, these diseases don’t sit in isolation. When you’re sitting in Lusaka, whether it’s AIDS or COVID, the healthcare workers need PPE; they need testing… they need all of that. So that was really where we went, which is: How can we work with the Global Fund and get them the funding that they need and then go to our partners and say, How do we create a messaging strategy that helps their consumers? So if I’m an Apple consumer, and I’m going in to buy a red iPhone, I don’t want to think, “Oh, this used to go to HIV, and now it’s going to COVID.” No, Apple understands these are two pandemics. We’ve got to support both of them, and that’s what we’re doing through (RED).
And actually we’ve seen a great response. I think people get it. And so I give them credit for that. For us, it’s really important to do this in collaboration with our board, with the Global Fund, who are the experts, and our partners.
Denver: It’s always easy to look back at COVID too and say, “This is somewhat natural,” but when it came, I didn’t think it was gonna be around two years from now necessarily to the extent that it was. We’ve had wave after wave. So if you’re looking in the rearview mirror, it makes a lot more sense than it did when you had to make the decision because you don’t know what the future is going to look like. It turns out it was a great decision, at least from my perspective, but you’d never really know at the time.
Would you say that you’re now even thinking of pandemics at large as far as the organization is concerned.. that it’s just not going to be COVID, it’s going to be when things of this nature come that impact with our central work, that we kind of have broadened our peripheral vision to include all that?
Jennifer: And I think that, look, I’m sure you feel this. I feel this. I am over the COVID, like as you said, two years, we’re going on three years, this just feels like it’s never going to end. And actually it won’t end. And there’s a lot of reasons.
Denver: Right. Now we know that.
Jennifer: Exactly. And we know how to end it. And we will see what happens, and we’ll see what history gets written over the next year or two. But I think for us, I mean, it’s interesting because looking back on it, those were not easy decisions, it’s not. And I do think it was right, I really do. And there were some people who disagreed very strongly with me and maybe still do, but I know that I feel like, and in my conversations with our partners, I know that it was the right thing to do.
But I think where we go from here and we think about our mission, I think that it’s a fascinating time and place. And I think that we are at the risk of making the same mistakes that we made with AIDS as we are now with COVID. We thought AIDS is taken care of here in the United States. That’s now just a disease for those people over there. What a shame if we do that all over again. And so that’s one thing that we have to think about. But what you have to think about even more than that is: Where are consumers’ heads at? What is going to be a relevant message to them?
And so I think that, as you mentioned, are we going to talk about pandemics more broadly? I mean, I think that’s what we will do. That’s what we will fund. I think what we have to figure out is, what’s the message that’s going to get consumers to care? Because I think right now, that’s, I would say, one of our biggest challenges, is how do we get people to care?
And I think there is something in this area of the fact that whether it’s AIDS or COVID or something else, it’s hitting the marginalized communities. There’s almost like a racial injustice or discrimination in who is getting hit the hardest. And I think that where (RED) has always been is relating to consumers at that emotional level and I think that’s probably where we’ll need to focus and maybe be less disease-specific, but more, “What’s the impact and who are the people that we want to help?”
Denver: Yeah, I think one of the myths of the sector has always been having to be laser-focused on your mission, and such bad connotation has come from mission drift. And mission drift, I think, means you’re chasing the money and are all over the place. But the fact of the matter is, and I think this pandemic has taught us, you have to morph your mission to stay relevant because to be just wedded to it and almost oblivious to the outside world is not a wise way to run an organization.
Jennifer: It’s not. And it’s easy though, in this confluence of media and this constant shift, to just try to be all things. And I think (RED) has been really hard on ourselves to make sure we don’t do that. And our board is also pushing us to say, even when it got to COVID, “Are you sure? Are you sure that’s the right thing?” And I think that we are laser-focused on making sure that we don’t do that. Like when I don’t see us all of a sudden being about climate change or I mean, all of these issues are really important, but I think when it comes to (RED), we can’t try to be everything to everyone.
And I think that we’ve had the luxury in the past when it has been so focused on HIV, to be talking about very specific things like $.20 cents a day is what it takes to keep a person alive, like there’s numbers that you can use. I just wonder if at this point, because of where we are in the world, we do need to ratchet it up and be at that more emotional level while the impact will still be very focused though.
“And really, what we like to say at (RED), is we don’t want to go always into the foundation. We want to go into the marketing department. We want to go into the creative departments, and we really want to talk with them. What are your marketing objectives? How can (RED) help your business? This isn’t just about getting the check. Of course we want the check. We want to work together to create heat. And getting back to what I was saying before, use that heat to get people to care.”
Denver: Yep. Now, we’ve talked about your partners a couple of times, so why don’t you go into a little bit more depth about what is the business model.
Jennifer: The business model for (RED), I think, is a really fascinating one and one that has evolved over time. I’m hoping that as you were just alluding to this idea that these organizations have to think about strategically, where do we want to go and be really smart about it, (RED) started it. I think a lot of people are familiar with the Gap campaign. You go into a Gap store, you buy an inspired t-shirt, and a piece of that goes to the fight. And that is truly our bread and butter. And you’re still going into Apple stores, God bless them, they’ve generated almost $270 million for this fight through their (RED) products.
Jennifer: And so (RED) products will always be a part of what we do. But what we like to do is think more creatively and strategically about what other ways can we engage with brands. So if you think about, like, the Bank of America, they make a commitment, and then they activate their customers in different ways. They do a multi-year commitment which, as a marketer, is really great because what we can do is try a campaign, get some data and learnings, and then use that to try the next campaign. So whether that’s engaging people to round up when we do our EAT (RED) campaign when you’re at a restaurant, or they sponsor the Chicago Marathon. So we did this thing called One Step for (RED) where we partnered with Nike, and we tracked how much people walked and ran, and that unlocked money. So models like that are really interesting to us.
Someone like Salesforce, when we first partnered with Salesforce, even though philanthropy is in their DNA and Marc Benioff, there’s probably no CEO out there that talks about it more eloquently. I think from a Salesforce perspective, we were like, “Wait, but how do we do this?” And as it turns out, like Salesforce has an incredible group of companies that they’re working with, that we have the ability to not only do they come in and provide technology to (RED) to help us run our company better, we then are able to tell that story and share it with other CMOs and CEOs through their incredible event platforms. So I think the beauty of (RED) is to go and talk to companies.
And really, what we like to say at (RED), is we don’t want to go always into the foundation. We want to go into the marketing department. We want to go into the creative departments, and we really want to talk with them. What are your marketing objectives? How can (RED) help your business? This isn’t just about getting the check. Of course we want the check.
Denver: Yeah, that, too.
Jennifer: Right. We want to work together to create heat. And getting back to what I was saying before, use that heat to get people to care.
Denver: Mm-hmm. Ram Pickup, I saw the other day.
Jennifer: And, oh my God, I am so proud of this partnership with Stellantis. We launched it with Fiat in Turin, Italy. It’s like the only trip I’ve taken in two and a half years, then the home of the Cinquecento in Turin. What an incredible trip that was! And what an incredible brand Fiat is to the people of Italy, for all of Europe! It’s an electric vehicle so it’s great for the environment, but it also supports (RED) in terms of our fight against COVID and AIDS. So Fiat, and then with them, they also turned the Ram truck red, and I think many of us are seeing the commercials during the NFL playoffs here.
Denver: That’s where I saw it.
Jennifer: Oh my gosh, my poor Tom Brady, but that’s a whole other podcast.
Denver: That’s another show.
Jennifer: And then, they’re going to be turning a Jeep red, too. So that is an incredible brand. They are doing amazing things, and we have always wanted to have a red car. And how incredible we got three of them, so really excited about that.
Denver: That is fantastic. You’ve been doing this.. and at this for over a decade, Jen. How have the partnerships between corporations and NGOs changed in that time?
Jennifer: It’s really cluttered. First of all, I think there’s a lot of, I don’t want to call it competition because that sounds so cutthroat, but when you’re walking into the CEO’s office, he’s got a bunch of other organizations walking in. And what makes one more important than the other? These are all really important issues. And I think that over the past 15 years, we started to see this. There used to be, I don’t love to call it CSR, I know that’s what it is, but I like to think of (RED) as more of a marketing thing. But sometimes the CSR was the person who was sitting in the corner, and now they’re part of the C-suite.
And I think every company understands the importance of social responsibility. And as a result of that, they’ve got way more of a focus on and they’ve got way more people coming and knocking on their doors. So I think that makes it for (RED) all the more important to be really smart and strategic and creative to set us apart. Because again, these are all really important issues, but you’ve got to break through the clutter and help them understand why they should be partnering with (RED) instead of something else.
Denver: Have you seen any impact on these politically charged times where every time you take a stand or don’t take a stand, you’re under the spotlight? How has that impacted things?
Jennifer: It’s like everywhere. And I mean, look, I am the head of an organization. I can’t imagine being the CEO of a Fortune 50 company because it just feels like everywhere you turn, you can’t do the right thing.
And I think from a (RED) standpoint, what makes it really challenging is, yes, these companies are under a microscope, as they should be, but many of these companies are doing really good things. And they’re only getting… the headlines only pick up some of the bad things. So I think from a (RED) standpoint, I think what’s really important is finding those companies out there that are doing a partnership with (RED) because they really care. You want to make sure there’s an authenticity to why they want to do this. (RED) has worked with a lot of very big names in the industries, and sometimes that becomes the shiny object. And I think from our standpoint, we’ve got to weed through all of that and understand, “Why do you want to do this?” And understand, “Are you just trying to do this because your company just went through something bad?” And you’re… that will never work, we will not do that for (RED). We need to do this because we all have a vested interest in the impact.
“But it’s something about bringing a bunch of like-minded people together for greater good for a short period of time and generating a bunch of money and also generating a bunch of awareness, that’s a huge win. So always trying to find things like that, I think, will continue to be an important thing for (RED).”
Denver: Yeah. Oh, I concur. It’s tough being a CEO of a Fortune company these days. And part of the biggest headache they have are from the employees themselves because they make a product, and then they sell that product to someone that the employees don’t agree with their stand on things. And then you’re like, Wow, they’re part of the federal government. And if I don’t sell it to this group, I’ll lose all, and then we’ll be having layoffs. It’s a complicated mess.
Jennifer: It’s impossible.
Denver: It really is. Innovation. Tell me about innovation. You guys have been so innovative, not only in terms of the way you’ve evolved your mission, but everything you’ve just been talking about in terms of partnerships. What is it about the mindset or the culture that fosters innovation?
Jennifer: I think innovation has always been at the core of (RED) and I attribute it partly to our co-founders, Bono and Bobby. I think they are always pushing us. And perhaps that’s why Bono is who he is because he has always pushed himself to think differently and do things that have never been done before.
Obviously, I’ve been at (RED) for 14 years. I’ve been doing this for a while, and innovation is the thing that really, I love it and I hate it at the same time because you’re always raising the bar, but that’s what we should be doing. But it’s never easy. And so I think for us, you’ve always got to be out there. You’ve got to be thinking about the zeitgeists. You’ve got to be very well-read. You’ve got to see who’s doing what.
And I think from a (RED) perspective, the thing about innovation is it’s risky. But I’m okay with that because I think you’ve got to go out and try things, and it may not work. And I think there was some quote about if you’re going to… fail quickly; we’ve got to dip our toes in the water. And so I think from a (RED) standpoint, this has always been where we’ve been successful. When I think (RED) was started at the same year Twitter was started, if you can imagine that.
And so I think that when you think about what can we do, you know, we’re very much focused on innovation right now. And what that means for us is things like the metaverse, getting into gaming, getting into NFTs. We like to think about: Where are people congregating? Where are they working together and doing things that we can go and infiltrate? So that’s one thing. And also, where is their money being made? Because if there’s money being made, how do we get a piece of all of that money to do good and to have a real impact?
And we’ve got to be thinking about those things and always being out there. We did something a few years ago with Apple, the App Store where we turned 25 apps red. It was a genius idea because there was a win for the app developers because they got featured on the homepage of the App Store, but there was a win for us because they were giving money every time someone participated. So I think that was a really new concept.
But it’s something about bringing a bunch of like-minded people together for greater good for a short period of time and generating a bunch of money and also generating a bunch of awareness, that’s a huge win. So always trying to find things like that, I think, will continue to be an important thing for (RED).
Denver: Yeah. Of all those things, what’s got you really excited? I mean, we have cryptocurrency, we got the blockchain, we got NFTs, we got gaming. Give me one that you’re working on right now that you’re particularly excited about.
Jennifer: I have to say, I think gaming is a huge thing. And not just because I’ve got teenagers, but I just think that is such an engaged audience. I mean the metaverse is almost like a cliche, but I just think where we’re going in the future, the gaming space, brands getting in there, whether it’s a fashion brand or a music brand, or retailers, like that is the space that people are going to be getting into. And it is fascinating to me how much money is being transacted in that space.
Jennifer: So for me, who’s somebody who’s responsible for generating money and also getting the word out there, and also what’s really important is thinking about demographics of (RED). We’ve got to think about: How do you get that next generation? My kids didn’t know about The Gap, and my son is 15 years old, so he was just born when (RED) was started. So we’ve got to think about: Where are those places we can get (RED) out there? And what I have found is that when you do that, they think it’s really interesting. And might I say that my kids think my job is a little interesting.
So I think that those are the types of things for the longevity of (RED). You’ve got to also think about: How can we engage with that younger audience? Getting someone to buy a Fiat or a Vespa, those are all great, but thinking about that younger generation and getting them to think about (RED) is really important.
“But I do think that one of the biggest challenges for (RED) or for the world right now is trying to figure out where people are and what sort of passions they have and getting in there…And then I would say, being really nimble because those things are going to change, and you’ve got to stay ahead of it.”
Denver: Yeah. I had Susanna Pollack on the show a while back. She’s the CEO of Games for Change. And I was just blown away in terms of all the things they’re doing. And one of the things that gets you too is that they had these gaming competitions where great gamers will go at it. Then I see that they have bigger audiences than the Superbowl who are watching other folks play a game. And I’m like, I guess people do care.
Jennifer: It’s mind-blowing, but let’s remember, Denver, that is the thing, right? Like we have to get, this is what’s very hard for me. I’ve got to get myself out of my 50-year-old-female mindset and put myself in there. I don’t necessarily get it. I watch my son who will sit and watch someone else play a video game for hours. And what I realize is a bunch of other people are, and like, you’re talking about the e-sport thing. There, instead of filling Madison Square Garden with the Knicks game, they’re all going and watching the e-sport teams go up against each other. It is a completely new world, but it makes sense.
Denver: As much sense as going out to Yankee stadium and sitting three and a half hours with a pitch every 35 seconds, you know what I mean?
Jennifer: I mean, can you imagine?
Denver: And watching a baseball game.
Jennifer: But imagine what will happen with MLB when you think about the immediate gratification of this next generation who are in this very fast-paced, athletic world. It’s just going to be very interesting to see how that changes things with very…because it’s the same concept. There’s a loyalty to your sports team just as there’s loyalty to your e-sports team. There’s a strategy to the game, just like there’s a strategy to the Yankees and Red Sox. And so I think that it is a really important space to keep an eye on, and I think if (RED) is going to stay part of that zeitgeist, it’s a place that we have to be.
Denver: Yeah, last word about that, too. It’s actually more relevant because when I go and watch a baseball game, I ain’t going to pick up a ball and a bat and go out and become a major leaguer. All these kids who are watching this… or the young people or old people… they’re trying to get better. And they’re looking and saying, “What can I emulate there so when I’m playing my friends, I can beat them?” So there’s a sense of more relevance to it.
Hey, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve got right now, and what are you doing about it?
Jennifer: Yeah. So what you were just alluding to, I think, is also what I was starting to think about too, which is my biggest challenge is, I think, a challenge that we’re all facing, which is I think the world has the attention span of a flea right now. And it’s very hard to get any stickiness with anyone. And I think even in the gaming space, not so long ago, Fortnite was the biggest game ever. Now it’s, “Oh, I wouldn’t play Fortnite.”
Denver: Yeah, it’s so over.
Jennifer: Yeah, exactly. I’m exaggerating. I’m sure there’s a lot of people playing Fortnite. But I do think that one of the biggest challenges for (RED)– or for the world right now– is trying to figure out where people are and what sort of passions they have and getting in there… And then I would say, and being really nimble because those things are going to change and you’ve got to stay ahead of it.
And I think, if nothing else, the COVID fight has taught us that. We would just finish our messaging about, like, getting vaccines delivered. And then all of a sudden it’s, “Oh, we don’t need the money for vaccines. We need this, we need that. Oh, now it’s about a variant. No, now it’s not about a variant, now it’s about vaccine mandates. Oh no, it’s mask mandates.” And so I think…
Denver: We got a little cynical in the entire process, too. I mean, it’s, you know, what next? Does any of this make a difference?
Jennifer: Exactly. And the speed at which all of that happens, whether it’s in the gaming space or the COVID space or all of the above. And so what are we doing about it? We have got to remain nimble, and we’ve got to listen, and then we’ve got to adjust, and we’ve got to listen, and we’ve got to adjust, and we’ve got to keep thinking about new ideas.
And then the last thing I’ll say on that also is we’ve got to be diversified in our thinking. So gaming and NFTs…amazing, going out to beauty brands, going out to airlines, going out, right? Like we’ve got to keep a lot of conversations going and thinking about where is the space where money is being made, and where customers are having a good experience, and companies are doing the right thing. So we’ve got to be having a lot of those conversations at the same time.
Denver: I had a guest a while back who said that, “This is the fastest that it has ever been, and it will never be this slow again.”
Jennifer: Oh, that’s terrifying.
Denver: You know what I mean? And he was right, you know?
Jennifer: That is terrifying. It makes me want to retire.
Denver: There you go! You’ll never do that, thank goodness.
Talk about leadership in a crisis. What have you found to be the keys to leading your team and your extended team through this crisis? And what has happened that will inform (32:08) your leadership going forward until you retire?
Jennifer: Yeah, exactly. Look, I think the biggest thing about leadership right now is something I think we can all as heads of organizations relate to, which is this new workplace. I don’t even know where to start on that one. I was talking to someone the other day, and they said, “Oh, do we have a new date for when we’re going to try to return to the office?” I said, “I’ve given up on dates.” Because every time I set a date, it just…
Denver: Another variant pops up.
Jennifer: I’m done with that. So, “I’ll just keep you posted.” And I think that leadership challenge that I think so many of us who are running organizations and companies are faced with, I would say, has been a really tricky thing for me. I care so deeply about my team. We are only about 25 people, and it is very hard to do what we do, in the same way. Yes, we’ve been very productive. Yes, we’re all getting our work done. But it is not the same when we are not together.
Denver: How’s it different? Where has it suffered, and maybe are there any silver linings that have come from it?
Jennifer: I think one silver lining is you’re able to recruit people from other parts of the country, and so you’re able to open the aperture a bit on talent, which has been really helpful. But I miss my team and I miss, sort of, the stuff that just happens when you’re in a room together. You miss just friendships and caring about each other. And obviously, we all do, but there is just something different when we’re not together.
And then I miss going out and seeing our partners. I love going out, whether it’s to Cupertino or Detroit or Mexico or wherever. Those are why I do what I do, is the personal interactions with people, and that includes my team. And we’ve done a lot of work to try to stay in touch and keep the team connected and do fun things. And hopefully at some point, we’ll be able to do like a happy hour again and get the team together for brainstorming. But it is really hard, and it tests your leadership.
I had only just gotten into this role in January of 2020, so I think I was about six weeks into it when we locked down. I’d obviously worked with the team for a long time and knew the team. But my leadership focus is my team, always. And I think part of that is because we are so small, we can’t do what we do without having the most incredible team. And that team won’t do what they do if they don’t feel motivated and inspired and respected and everything else. So I feel very strongly about my leadership focus being on them, and then doing what I can to step up and be out there and doing what they need me to do. Doing things that might get me out of my comfort zone, that is something that I feel I owe them. And in return, I want them to do the same.
Denver: Yeah. It’s difficult. The most wonderful, strong culture is going to suffer when people never see each other face to face as human beings for periods, extended periods of time. And there’s nothing you can do about it no matter how strong it was.
Let me close with this, Jen. How do you believe this extraordinary confluence that we’ve just been talking about of events over the past two years is going to shape philanthropy and global development over the next decade?
Jennifer: What I will say is: I think it’s going to shape it like never before. So I’ll start there, which is somewhat terrifying in terms of how I’m going to follow that up. But I think it’s gonna really, I mean, I don’t know any stats on this, but I have to imagine that this pandemic has taken a huge toll on organizations and their sustainability, right? It is very hard right now to generate money and to come up with new ideas.
And a lot of nonprofits do events and networking and all of that, and that’s just been at a standstill. But I do think that where this is going to bring us is we’re going to just have to continue to be really innovative. Organizations are going to have to be very strategic, and I think for some, that’s not easy. I think some who are a legacy, want to just keep doing what they’re doing, and I don’t think that’s going to be good enough. I think that they are going to have to adjust in new ways that I’m not sure all of them are going to be able to do.
I think there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny as there should be on what everybody’s doing. I think there’s got to be a lot of transparency, which I love. I think transparency is always a good thing in terms of: What is your impact? How are you getting there? What are you truly doing? And I think that will separate out, and I think the strongest will continue to survive. So I’m very excited, although I’m also very scared of all that lies ahead because nothing is easy, but I’m so grateful to have this job. I love what I do, which I hope is apparent.
Denver: Yes, it is.
Jennifer: And I love my team and I love the opportunities like this to be able to talk about it.
Denver: Yeah. And you know what, it just seems like we’re going to have shorter and shorter time horizons. Just the way we’ve been talking, you used to plan for a year or six months, and they are going to be sprints because things change so much. You really have to have just very short term– 30 days, 60 days– boom, move on; fail fast, as you said before, and just keep on going along those lines.
Jennifer: Yeah, I have no idea what the world is going to look like in November, December. I’m trying, but like I don’t know what it’s going to look like next month.
Denver: Save the ink and paper for the five-year plan because nobody knows.
Jennifer: Who cares?
Denver: Yeah. Tell us about the (RED) website, some of the information that visitors will find there, and how they can get involved, whether it’s Buy a Ram truck, or any other way.
Jennifer: Yes. So red.org is our site. We have all of our partners on there. We tell incredible stories about the impact because at the end of the day, that’s what this is about, right? This is about making change and creating healthy communities in the places that we serve. This isn’t just about generating a lot of money and putting out some great ads. This is really about impact. And I’m so proud of our site and everything we do there.
And obviously, we’re in 2022, so you’ve got to go on Snapchat and Tiktok and Instagram and Facebook and all the other (RED) channels. We really make an effort to engage our audience and create some loyal followers that can help us spread the word. But yes, you can always go and buy a Ram truck or a red Vespa.
Denver: Or two.
Jennifer: Exactly. But you can also go on our website, there’s things like t-shirts, and tea, and cups, and there’s things that are, hopefully…how many times are you going to buy a red iPhone? We’ve got to put things out there that are at a more approachable price point.
And one of the things I’m really proud of, and you’ll see it on our website is we came up with this campaign last year, which is about using your credit card rewards points to turn into cash donations. So you can very easily go on our site and see how to do that. But you can just, these are points that are just sitting there, many of us aren’t traveling which is what we usually use our points for, and so when you go on through our partnership with PayPal, you can use your credit card rewards points and turn them into donations, which I think is just genius. So all of that is on red.org
Denver: You got Code (RED) and you guys, is it (RED)EEM or is it…
Jennifer: I’d like to say (RED)EEM, and that’s the campaign. We like to keep our (RED) words inspired to be like the way you would normally see them, but with the creative use of the parentheses.
Denver: Tell me about the parentheses. That’s my last question. I know the RED means emergency.
Jennifer: I don’t know if this is an urban legend or not, but the way I always described the parentheses is it’s like an embrace. So the use of the parentheses is not only a branding element to set us apart, but if you think about the parentheses going around a brand like an Apple or Salesforce or Starbucks, you put the parentheses around that brand and then you elevate it to the power of (RED). And so you’re embracing the brand, but then you’re elevating it further based on the impact that they’re making. So I don’t know if I just made that up, but I have always thought about it that way. To me, it makes a lot of sense. And it is exactly the way we approach our partnerships.
Denver: You sold me. Thanks, Jen, for being here today. It was such a delight to have you on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Jennifer: Same here. Thank you so much for having me.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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