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The Name of Action
by Matthew Porter

Cisneros’s medicine cured The Santa Fe Cancer Institute Foundation of a moribund annual fundraiser. Recalls Cisneros, “We told them they wouldn’t be approving the concept or the creative product. They agreed.” The results were transformational, attendance in 2010 is up 400 percent since Cisneros assumed creative direction of the Sweetheart Auction.

Eff’n fantastic.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.’ If you can't join ’em, invent. That’s what Erin Huizenga did when she created EPIC in Chicago—an unusual new approach to philanthropy that is capturing a lot of attention.

Says Huizenga, “In 2008 I was working full time at VSA. I had enjoyed many experiences through my career, but felt unfulfilled. I was tired of the way we [creatives] are always ‘talking to ourselves’ at award shows, conferences and other gatherings. I wanted out of those airless rooms. I wanted action. I wanted insight. I wanted progress!”

Boy, did she get it. Unable to find an organization that could turn creative capacity into positive change, Huizenga invented one. She began canvassing friends and acquaintances to find out what they missed in their professional lives. She identified what philanthropic works might bring them joy. She rewrote her business plan twenty times, sharing it with no one until she was satisfied. “Then, I started to ask people to lunch or coffee to tell them about my idea. I called perfect strangers whom I’d never met, but respected.” Her model resonated. Her enthusiasm was contagious. By January 2009, EPIC was a legal 501(c)(3). Soon after, it had its first client, Girls in the Game.
EPIC pairs several teams drawn from pools of volunteer copywriters, designers, art directors, strategists, account planners, project managers, public relations experts, programmers and photographers. Eligible nonprofits apply online and submit documentation. Their annual budgets cannot exceed $1M and must focus on education, children or family services. Creative teams are led by the director(s) of one agency or studio, a “host” where work “rallies” are held one night a week for eight weeks. A non-profit representative attends every rally. In its second year, EPIC has helped fourteen nonprofits.

EPIC is a model worthy of replication. First, it puts creative capacity to good service. Second, potential volunteers are peer reviewed to ensure quality. Third, it offers surprise and variety. Fourth, rallies have tight schedules and produce results. Fifth, host agencies provide safe, educational work environments. Finally, it pairs younger designers with mentors. The Perfect Chocolate Giving Cake. Huizenga says the recipe will be available soon.

On Wednesday August 31, 2005, two days after Katrina struck, broken levies inundated New Orleans. Leif Steiner of Moxie Sozo was walking down Boulder, Colorado’s famous Pearl Street Mall. People shopped, dined and relaxed while TVs everywhere displayed corpses of black folk floating in the streets of a deluged American city. The jarring juxtaposition of comfort and chaos shocked Steiner. He rushed back to his desk and came up with an idea for hurricane relief on the spot.

The Hurricane Poster Project was born. (The donated posters were sold online and all profits went directly to the Red Cross.) It led Josh Higgins to create the So-Cal Fire Poster Project in 2007. Three years later, it led Higgins and Steiner to create the Haiti Poster Project. A project started on an angst-filled whim became a model for fast, effective creative relief action. Has the idea run its course? There’s more...

On the early morning of September 8, 2010, Leif Steiner noticed ash and embers falling from the sky like snow. His house was filling with smoke. He and his companion managed to get out of his house with the clothes on their
backs and a few things in their hands.

The fire raging outside would consume 10 square miles and 169 homes in three days, including his own (and the entire archive of Katrina Relief Posters). Firefighters said flames rose up to 10 stories and temperatures exceeded 6,000º F. Steiner remembers, “Going down my mountain road, I was afraid my tires would melt, but it was drive or die. My home was incinerated. When I returned, I saw a row of books I loved in the basement. I could read their spines. When I touched them, they crumbled to ash.”

The ash-grey ghosts of one thousand memories could drive a person to insanity, inward, numb. When a liberal giver becomes a survivor in need, is he materially transformed?

“It’s interesting,” says Steiner, “a lot of people are focused on all that they lost. But I keep thinking about all the people offering me lend me a car, or give me a book or some cherished object. If the fire had not happened, I would not have that gift. This horrible fire has rekindled friendships. Rather than loss, I am thinking about new directions. I’ve taken a fork that I otherwise would not have taken. It is my nature to take quasi-dangerous vacations. This year, I’m thinking of a relaxing place where I can just sit and read and reflect on what life has in store for me next.”

You get back what you give. Today is a gift to give. Give it to someone. CA Porter
Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.