May 15th, 2017 / Business

The Heart Series recap — a social good conference for conscious companies

Last week, I attended the 5th annual Heart Series at ROW in Downtown LA. THS is a 3-day conference for conscious companies, centred around business innovation, and more broadly: bettering the world.

Some of the people speaking were from companies like Toms, Feed, Movember, Known Supply, Generous Coffee, Oh Joy! Participant Media and the After-School All-Stars to name a few.

I knew nothing of the Heart Series conference and had never heard of it, but my wife Terrie, who is transitioning into designing for social good discovered it through The Good Trade newsletter. They were offering a big discount and combined with my Headspace employee learning and development budget, I was able to join. I had always been interested in how business and social good work together.

I attended the conference with the goals of:

  • Expanding my understanding of how business and social issues work together
  • Learning from professionals working in the social good space about their successes and struggles
  • Shape an opinion and perspective on how I, as a designer, can better contribute to the world
  • Report some findings back to my team and inspire them with what can/has been achieved elsewhere

Brands and transparency

Adam Garone, co-founder of Movember made a point during his panel discussion that more than ever, brands have two-way conversations with their consumers. This is both a gift and a curse, since we’re able to speak with and learn so much from our fans. At the same time, we’ve got to be able to receive criticism. Today’s consumer is more conscious and intuitive than they have been in the past. One bad move, and you’re trending on Twitter for the wrong reasons.

This hits close to home for me, since Headspace is so well-trusted by our members. They tune in to our app regularly when they’re dealing with stress, anxiety, and so much more. Our members see us as a friendly companion who guides them through life, and hold us to a high standard.

Storytelling is crucial in driving social impact

Holly Gordon, the Chief Impact Officer of Participant Media educated us on the importance of storytelling when driving social impact. It seemed obvious enough to me, that yes, we need to craft smart campaigns around these initiatives for them to be as successful as possible — but in fact she was talking about real full-length storytelling in films like Roma, RBG and An Inconvenient Truth.

Stories, especially films, can accelerate causes by 10–20 years. For example, by reimagining his childhood in Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón, helped inspire domestic workers stand up for their rights.

In highlighting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how her early legal battles changed the world for women, RBG has helped shift the perception of what a lawyer looks like, inspiring young women to become lawyers, and further retain women in the field of law.

But what next? The most successful social initiatives empower individuals, not just spread awareness. They have a call-to-action — something to do next so that the message and purpose can spread beyond the campaign.

Design and tech can impact real change

Chief Giving Officer at Toms, Amy Smith, noted that Toms were already known for their pioneering one-for-one program, and in an effort to evolve their giving model, launched a campaign to end gun violence and donated $5 million dollars to the cause.

This led to 58,000 postcards sent to representatives within 12 hours, and eventually the HR8 Bipartisan Background Checks Act was passed on February 13th. A seamless brand, user experience and capable technology were all major factors in building momentum and getting stacks of postcards on reps’ desks.

How do you pick a cause? In Toms case, they stand for “the idea that we can create a better tomorrow,” so this background check cause fell in line with their broader company mission. Amy stated that during their research phase, they found that a majority of Americans, regardless of political stance, support background checks for guns, and that to spark social change and business impact, they should start with something that was not a divisive issue. This raises a question for me: who determines which causes are “good” and worth supporting? Is this a CEO decision? A company-wide vote? What happens when supporting social causes affects your bottom line negatively? I wrote about something similar in 8px Magazine.

For Toms, it was also important to tap into communities and conversations, to get a pulse of what was going on, what the true needs were, and create some inroads with stakeholders before taking this on themselves. For Ben Higgins of Generous Coffee, his advice was to “Find what pisses you off most and attack it.” Made me laugh… great advice.

Generous makes and sells coffee, but also creates jobs for parents, feeds children, helping to improve education, and helps create a world we all want to live in. More on their story here.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the former The Bachelor reality TV star, but Higgins’ message around using his influence to do good was on-point. With his 1m+ Instagram followers, he felt his experience on reality TV was a waste if it was only to inflate himself, and felt a desire to do good in the world. He doesn’t take a pay check from his work with Generous.

Partnerships are key for both sides One of the broad themes of the event was that rather than going-it-alone, brands were partnering up with organizations that knew the social causes intimately, then and making themselves available with donations, resources, and support in exchange for tying themselves to the issues.

Lisa Baxter of After-School All-Stars made it clear that on the organizations’ side, there is a desire to find brands who are truly willing to walk the walk and not only reap the profits of being tied to social issues. The people doing the ground work have high expectations of their partners, since this partnership may positively impact their business.

“Don’t wait, collaborate.” — Kohl Crecelius

Collaboration over competition For me, the most inspired talk of the event was by Kohl Crecelius, founder of Known Supply. How cute is their logo? 👇

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He spoke about the work they do, helping to connect consumers with the makers of their clothing, by making us more aware of the implications our purchases have on communities who actually make the items. You can read more about their story here.

Since the social good space is getting more and more competitive, Kohl emphasized the spirit of collaboration over competition.

Ben Higgins of Generous Coffee had a similar message about competition: “Competition in this space is weird.”

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joy cho / oh joy! spoke about her new tableware collection with Target, which was elemental in reaching the masses and contributing to good all the while. For every collection purchased, a meal is given to

Feeding America to help end hunger throughout the U.S. It seems we’re entering a new phase of social enterprise, where collaboration is necessary big or small, so that we don’t create a future where we’re all trying to outdo each other in our efforts and in the end make little impact, both socially and financially. Pick one cause to focus on, and really own it, and if others enter the space, work together and double down toward a common goal.

Key takeaways

  • Do good things. Try to be a good person.
  • Think globally, act locally.
  • Give yourself room to try things and iterate. If you fail, try again. Be honest with your shortcomings and hopefully your audience will understand.
  • Social good is on-trend. Before you buy, do your own research. Just because a company presents itself as socially good, doesn’t mean they truly are.
  • There’s a massive opportunity for brand/product design to contribute positively in the social impact space, especially at the strategic level.

I enjoyed the conference overall, and want to give kudos to the organizers and presenters. Providing lunch and snacks was a nice touch. I especially loved the Beyond Burgers on Day 2.

Soon after the Heart Series was over, my wife introduced me to a quote by Maslow from Book of Life which seems fitting to wrap this up:

Towards the end of his life, Maslow expressed a hope that businesses could in time learn to make more of their profits from addressing not only our basic needs but also — and as importantly — our higher spiritual and psychological ones as well. That would be truly enlightened capitalism.

The mix of social good + business is still in its infancy. With some exceptions, companies in this space feel like they have a social impact team that operates separately from the business, not yet fully integrated.

I’d love to see a future where we go beyond this, where social good is a through line, and enlightened capitalism is the expected way to do business. Where questions like “How are you giving back?” and “Is this actually good for people?” are just as important as “What’s your revenue model?”