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In today’s world, brands and companies are leveraging their power through volunteerism for social good. By mobilizing willing volunteers, not only are they providing a positive social impact but gaining a competitive edge along the way. In this episode, Corinna Bellizzi sits down for an exciting conversation with the co-founder and CEO of Give To Get, Grady Lee, about social impact and corporate volunteerism. Grady talks about how Give To Get came to be and the impetus that brought things together for him. Learn more about social activism and how to leverage corporate and brand power for good by tuning in.
About Grady Lee
Grady Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Give To Get, a social impact company that goes beyond corporate ‘do gooding’. With over 30 years of experience in the social impact space, Grady and his team aim to mobilize people in the private, civil, and social sectors towards building a more sustainable, equitable, and engaged society. Grady invites people to act and be a force for good everywhere.
01:55 Grady Lee gets started in social impact work
04:30 The Journey begins with RockCorp
09:08 Leveraging music and pop culture for social good
14:13 Current Programs And Planned Activities
19:42 What’s Next For Give To Get?
24:55 Putting Things Together
30:37 Inspiring The Audience
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Move Into Action: Unleashing The Power Of Brands And People For Social Good With Grady Lee
We have an incredible guest to share with you. One that puts giving at the center of everything he does. He’s worked with A-list celebrities and musicians, and he’s excited to talk to us about what it takes to move people to act. Before we meet him, I have a favor to ask. Did you know that there are a few things that you can do to support any show that you love without spending a dime? As a reader-supported show, every bit helps us reach more people and spread more social good. First, subscribe, rate, and review wherever you read. You can download episodes too. Don’t just read them because all of these actions help us to climb charts so more people can see our content.
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I am joined by Grady Lee. He’s an inspiring individual who puts giving at the center of his life’s purpose. He’s been in the social impact space for many years. I’m sure we can all learn a lot from him. He’s the Cofounder and CEO of Give To Get, a social impact company that goes beyond corporate do-gooding to unleash the power of brands and people. Grady, welcome to the show.
I’m glad to be here.
Thank you so much for joining us. As we get started, I understand that you studied Romance Languages and Literature in your undergrad at Princeton, no less, and then dove headfirst into the world of business for social good. What compelled you on that journey?
The Romance Languages at Princeton was something that I fell into. I started learning Italian when I got there and freshman year at 9:00 AM, which was 9:00 AM part wasn’t a good idea, but the Italian department was warm, welcoming and fun. When it came time to choose a major, they throw a big spaghetti dinner and they say, “That’s a good major.” I said, “Sounds like a good major.” I decided to focus on that and was able to look at Western civilization almost through the eyes of Italy. From opera, architecture, wars, politics, the whole thing. It gave me a little bit of a playground to learn how to think, do what I wanted to do and explore things on my own.
The other thing I think freed me up was there wasn’t a direct path from that major. There was nothing I was supposed to do next. I ended up going out to Colorado and working at a ski resort in Telluride. I had an old roommate who grew up there. We went out there for the summer and then a friend of mine, and I looked at each other one night and said, “I’ll stay if you stay.”
There we were for the next 4 or 5 years. From there is when I started my unplanned journey into the social impact space for music, but it was that freedom and that loose foundation that I credit with the ability to go out there to Telluride and get off the private school track, all of a sudden, you go out there and your blinders open up a bit about what a job is and what you’re supposed to do.
When we look at brands leveraging social impact as a tool, we’re turning social impact from an act of charity into an act of competitive advantage.
There were people who were ski patrolling in one season and they traveled somewhere else. They were a fly fishing guide for the summer. I could not believe that was an actual job. At some point, my friend Toby Garrett and I started talking about this idea together. It became sure, “Let’s go try it, see what happens.”
I also have a background in Anthropology and love of the languages with French and my history but ended up in business. I think sometimes your paths aren’t always as direct as you might think they would be. I would love to talk about the motivation to work in the field of social impact. In many cases, people get their start when they’re in the midst of tragedy because it’s an incredible motivator. I know we spoke a little bit about this. 9/11 is in the rear view mirror a little bit. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. How did you work to ensure that with RockCorps, you were able to engage activists, celebrities, and musicians to support communities that were impacted? I’d love for you to talk about that journey.
We started this a little bit before 9/11, when I went to Colorado, until I and Garrett, my current Cofounder and long-time friend, started producing concerts where the only way to get in was to volunteer. You couldn’t buy tickets to these shows. We would have people go clean up the river, build trails, do the rest of it in Telluride, then when we would get the whole town together to celebrate on Main Street with a concert.
Honestly, I got into it because I thought the shows were awesome and we wanted to do great shows. Everybody volunteering for the show made the show that much better and more interesting, but it was a nonprofit. At that time, Pets.com was insane, internet boom, nobody was thinking about the social impact or doing good in any form. It was a big gold rush. We shelved it and I went to LA to go to business school and get into the film business because I’ve been curious about that. While I was there, 9/11 happened.
I had some friends in New York City and the stories of them being able to go down to ground zero or help the helpers, setting up barbecue, lunch for first responders and all of that community building that was going on out there. When you’re not in New York and you’re out in Los Angeles where I was, there was nothing to do. You weren’t being asked to do anything and the world froze for a minute. You had to figure out how to build your community because that feeling was good, but there was no opportunity to exercise it.
With some friends from the UCLA Business School, film school, and Toby, my old friend, we dusted off this idea as a nonprofit. We open it up as a for-profit opportunity for brands to engage with customers and consumers. We spent a couple of years trying to hone it and refine it, then finally Boost Mobile at the end of 2004, at the beginning of 2005, I said, “We’ll do it.”
We did a show in Radio City Music Hall with 5,000 16 to 24-year-olds, all of whom volunteered for hours. I think we organized about 100 volunteer events throughout New York City over two months, and then we filled Radio City. We put it on MTV too and we had Kanye West, Fat Joe and others. It was a celebration of a community coming together to help itself.
The volunteers, it was their first time in Radio City Music Hall. It was the first time they saw Kanye, T.I. or all their heroes, and it was a mobilizing moment to see it on that scale in that city. It set us down a path of trying to set up the system so that the private sector could benefit from social action. We ended up taking that internationally and it’s framed the work we’ve done ever since.
I got into it because it was cool, fun and it was awesome. All of a sudden, it became powerful. I think that move kept me in it over time. We had talked about maybe doing something else, changing our minds, switching directions, but the world keeps spinning in this direction of people wanting to do something, to engage and the private sector wanting to find ways to engage. There is always something for us to do. We’ve been lucky in that regard.
Let’s talk about that for a minute because it sounds to me like you’re leveraging the desire of people to volunteer towards a greater good for a large group of people who have some common interest, in this case, music. Have you taken this to something other than music and is there a way that corporations can, in your mind, make a difference by leveraging this either event planning or something similar?
The concert became the pitch to cut through the noise, “You want to see Lady Gaga at the Manchester Apollo in the UK? You have to sign up here and volunteer four hours at one of these volunteer projects.” That was the initial reason for the shows because sometimes the messenger is more important than the message. When these cultural icons say, “I don’t care about your money. We’re going to go out and do some work. We’ll get a ticket and celebrate.” That’s a different ask than, “Please come volunteer. We need your help. There are a lot of problems.” The picture was, this will be the coolest thing you do all summer.
Let’s go at it from that angle and using pop culture and using all of these things to try to put a different patina on it, rather than something that you need to do. It turns into something that I want to do and that has shifted over time. The right volunteer experience is its own reward and when we were done with the shows, the research showed that more than half of the people who came, they’d never volunteered before at all.
About 80% of them said they would volunteer again after the show, without a ticket, more than a third come back to the nonprofit we introduced them to. It did set people down a path of, “I have some power, I have some juice here. Where can I leverage it? I’ll go back to that organization that was cool and I had a good time with.”
When we were working with brands in the US, it was Boost Mobile, and then we moved into Europe with Orange, which is a mobile telco provider, they were at first talking about the activation or the concert. The RockCorps gig matched with their brand profile. They saw a huge lift in brand love from their customers. First intention to buy, all of those brand metrics went up 20%, 30%, 40%, to 50%, which is why they kept coming back and doing more.
The surprising thing to them was the impact it had on its own people. These marketing teams loved working on this. We got those teams to go volunteer for their ticket to see the show, and there were no freebies. It became apparent to us that this social impact tool was a way to galvanize internal teams of people, as well as mobilize external teams. The brand and the employer get all the credit for it because they’re facilitating the whole thing.
This was maybe 2008, 2009 and 2010. All of a sudden, who you were as an employer became almost as important as who you were as a consumer brand. Your employer brand became valuable. We started employee engagement efforts where it’s just an organized effort to help and to make the world a little better. It has enormous rewards for groups of people and how people feel about work and their colleagues and how they feel about their own power.
When we look at brands leveraging social impact as a tool, we talk a little bit now. We’re turning social impact from an act of charity into an act of competitive advantage. How do you use your ESG, CSR social impact platforms to attract customers, attract the right employees, talk to regulators, talk to investors? All of that is now a de-risking of companies because they get a social license to operate.
Their employees and customers have been demanding it for years. They are seeing the need to find a way to do this in a way that drives their business. They’re not charities. It’s not philanthropy. It’s got to be integrated into the business and operationalized. We’re finding different ways to do that with a lot of different people.
One of the things that bring to mind for me is there are many budding activists working for corporations that may or may not be collaborating with you and this sounds like a great way for them to get involved and try on working with a particular charity, whether or not they know that they’re going to love it in the beginning. I’d love to know what programs you’re presently running and I’m a little jealous that I haven’t seen any in my area in Santa Cruz County. Perhaps you can talk about where these are presently operating and where you might see more in the future?
When you’re in the live mobilization business, COVID finds a way to punch you right in the face. For the last years, people have not wanted to congregate. We had to flip to more of virtual interaction. It’s hard to scale one-on-one digital interactions. It’s hard to get a group of 100 or even thousands of employees to go point to point with someone and mentor them. Talk to a kid, talk to someone looking for a job or a lot of this teaching and mentoring that a lot of people were doing. They thought this was the best way to go about it.
We wanted to create a group experience that was virtual yet physical and everyone was having a shared experience and a collective experience. We designed kits that we would send individually to everyone’s homes. They would get on a Zoom, Teams or a Webex and they would have 20 to 30 people. They would all open the box at the same time. We’d have the nonprofit on explaining why this was important and what was happening.
Companies have to find new ways to develop culture, cohesion, and productivity amongst their workers. Social impact is a way to do that.
We’d have one of our facilitators explaining everyone would put it together. There’d be dad jokes. Maybe there are cocktails and they would put it back in the box and send it to the nonprofit who was wanting this material, expecting it, helped us design what it is. It created a way for people to connect when everyone was so isolated.
Over the course of 2021, we’ve done about 15,000 volunteers throughout the US and globally. We’ve done this overseas because now your European teams can connect with your North American teams via this mechanic. We send them all the same thing, and then they send the results out to a local nonprofit that matters to them. It’s virtual, so it’s nowhere, and it’s everywhere at the same time.
Now that people are starting to come out of their caves and coming out of our COVID-19 cocoons, we’re starting to talk to people about mobilizations where employees live and work. We are also talking to some cities about how do we bring this RockCorps type mechanic back and celebrate people helping each other and coming together in that way.
I think in 2022, people will start to get comfortable again, at least in the private sector setting, asking people to come back and offering opportunities to come back. That will start to come a little more regular. Now, it’s still a virtual conversation and we’re lucky we were able to thread the line between this group collective effort while still being alone.
COVID has not made anything easy for us when it comes to gathering. I did see a concert online where they were in isolation bubbles in front of a stage and everything, and being at a concert almost like you would have been in the past, but with your own contained little oxygen bubble. I didn’t know if you’d tried anything like that.
I can’t remember the name of the band that tried to show that.
Was it The Flaming Lips?
It fit that band and that audience. That was more of a one-off. I think the big Live Nation’s AEG, they said, “We’re going to hold off until we can get back safely.” Even Dave Chappelle was doing some comedy outdoors. There were some people doing small spread out. For ticket companies to brand it and go do it, it was a whole other matter altogether. The other side of it is the need at that point was people needed funding.
Organizations were their fundraisers getting killed. A lot of companies shifted their activation of volunteering budgets towards straight philanthropy to prop up a lot of these nonprofits who could not keep the lights on in a COVID-19 environment. There were a lot of things happening at that point. I’m glad we’re getting to the other side of it. I’d say we’re on the other side, but I think we’re getting there.
I’m curious to know what’s next for you and Give To Get? First of all, I love the concept. It reminds me a little bit of a buy one, give one, Masami Saito’s project. She was trying to create something where she would offer companies the perspective of, “You don’t have to make a long wait or a big ask in order to start giving back. You can do it small and start small.” What you’re doing is the reverse of them. You give to get something and the get is something that you want, like a concert, an event, or maybe it’s a personalized ability to connect with someone that’s famous.
I’ve seen several movie stars of late, like Jennifer Lawrence, was doing a wine tasting, like, “Come have a wine tasting with three friends and me. Enter this lottery to do it,” and all that jazz. They weren’t doing those things necessary for charity, but it seemed like a great model for something like that. I wonder what you see coming next for you and for Give To Get.
The trick was to get people to volunteer for something money can’t buy. If you could buy something for $30 versus go volunteer for it, most people find a way to get $30 and buy it. There needed to be that golden exclusivity to the whole thing. We see us marching down three areas and then we’ve got a fourth that is a little bit of a wild hair, and we’ll see how that goes. There’s a talent war going on. People are trying to find culture. Some companies have gone 100% virtual with CloudHQ.
They have to find new ways to develop culture and develop cohesion and productivity amongst their workers. I think the social impact is a way to do that. Through COVID and the virtual stuff, we were able to get a lot of new types of clients. As people start to get in-person and as this virtual thing continues, we see this employer brand or mobilizing culture as a big pillar of the business going forward. The next thing is we want to get these concerts and these live events going again. We’ve got two in the offing that we’re talking to companies about how do we start to mobilize people inside and outside the company to do these big high profile local celebrations?
Third, we’re getting into a little bit of the ESG world where environmental, social, and governance were this is the latest thing that companies are starting to bucket all of their social impact work. Environmental sustainability has been around for a while. Everybody is trying to get to net neutrality, maybe even a regenerative approach to their environmental sustainability. Governance is fairly straightforward, but the social is a bit murky.
Based on our history of working with marketing departments, HR departments, CSR departments, meetings, events, and others within an organization, we are trying to find ways to benchmark the S of ESG. We’ve created a data platform called Social Marks, in which we are building out the algorithm to try to show against a competitive set how a company is doing? How is it investing its assets and then making the lives of their people better and the communities around them or where they operate at least?
Once you put those in a competitive set, then you can say, “I’m not doing as well as I thought I was or they’re killing us on this.” It’s a way to spur action and to see where you are because nobody knows where you are. It’s hard to figure out apples to apples, what everyone’s doing. We have tried to put our 25 to 30 years of experience to work, figuring out how to lay that out for someone, so a manager knows they need to invest next.
Between this mobilizing people, employees, consumers, doing this data and a little bit of strategic work, we think that has the opportunity to keep us busy. There are a couple of wild hairs that we’re wrestling with. One, as you mentioned, is different ways to get people to earn. We talked about this NFT model. Maybe there is a way to earn an NFTs. Those kinds of tokens are something that can be levered for social good. Maybe there are impact funds based on some of the data and strategies that we do.
After all this time of being boots on the ground and seeing what people are doing globally, seeing what’s possible, seeing bad ideas and good ideas, we think we have a lot to say on the direction of all of this. We’re starting to put those pieces together so that we can help companies and the investor set make better decisions when it comes to social impact.
I love the focus in particular on that S which I’m sure doesn’t surprise you given the leaning of my show. One of the things that this gets me thinking about overall is when you start out and when you got this thing rolling the first time around. This is something that’s been percolating since we started talking but I want to know what it was like that first event that you organized, how it came together? Who do you work with? How do you contact those A-list celebrities to get them involved? I think there is something there. That story could be truly inspiring to our audience.
There are all these hidden networks in the world and if you don’t know them, it seems a little magical how this stuff happens. The RockCorps story is there were 5 or 7 of us who started RockCorps. One of them was a business school friend of mine, Stephen Greene. He’s still running record in the UK. He and I were wrestling. The first key piece was getting the brand involved and getting the money down because no one believed you until you had the money. You could talk to an artist and nonprofit community, but they’re not listening until they’re sure something’s going to happen. Developing the brand message took the most time.
Once you get the corporate or the money side together, or at least close, then it starts to go. In New York City, it started to go to two parallel paths. One was, we had to go to the nonprofit community and say, “We’re going to get 5,000 people to volunteer. We’re going to organize the projects because I know that you guys are nonprofits. You’re not sitting around with projects not being filled.”
When you’re in the live mobilization business, COVID-19 finds a way to punch you right in the face.
A lot of people in that nonprofit world thought we were crazy trying to organize many volunteer events, but with our time in Colorado, we knew that we could pull that off. We met with the city. Lisa Lipson, our old business school friend, start getting on the phone and say, “I want to bring 100 people to you. What do you need done?”
We would slowly build out this calendar of opportunities for people to volunteer and then we had to say, “We have to somehow get people to register and put them in there.” We developed a website and a system to get people to sign up, register and show up and get a ticket. That was how that sausage had to get made operationally because the theory was, you had to sell out the show. I’m not doing Radio City and having half the people there. That would be a mess. You have to fill every seat, but I couldn’t fill every seat before the last day. I couldn’t be sold out for two weeks and the momentum would slow down. The goal was to get the last ticket on the last day.
We figured out a way to do that and that was a big learning process. Meanwhile, there is a whole other team. One of our partners was Chris Robinson. He’s a music, video and film director. One of the most beloved hip-hop, rap music video directors ever. He was able to make some phone calls and the brands would have relationships with artists.
We started talking to management and agents about scheduling and what we were trying to do and money, you’ve got to pay them. It costs them money to leave the house. There are no freebies here. You start doing all of those two things together, getting the projects up, starting to get one piece of talent at a time, one piece of talent, then brings another.
In New York, we started with no talent at all when we first started to recruit volunteers, but Radio City Music Hall was a talent. They knew it was going to be big. That was our first bit of talent, booking that theater, which was no picnic because it’s a busy big place. You slowly get these pieces together, but you do have to launch without having it all figured out. You assume that you can do it and you’ve done it before. It was more exciting than nerve-wracking. Slowly it starts to get its momentum about halfway through that first summer of 2005 towards the backend of August of 2005t started to take off.
For a show of 5,000 people, we ended up having 20,000 to 30,000 people sign up wanting to go. We would sign up a certain amount. We’d assume a certain amount would not show up and then we did a ridiculous amount of work in New York City in the five boroughs during that summer of 2005. Somehow, we got all these phone tears into Radio City Music Hall, turned the lights on and there they were. You will never know until it’s done, but a lot of those pieces, you had to muscle into place and have some faith that they would land.
I have a series of rapid-fire questions for you for fun and also to inspire our readers. I’d love for you to tell us about your first mentor.
It probably has to be my mom. Frankly, she’s a single mom. I was the only child. It was just was me and her. Growing up watching her work as hard as she did and providing me the freedom to do what I was doing is certainly a model that I haven’t forgotten. I would have to say that’s what comes to mind first.
What about your most recent mentor, whether or not they know, that’s who they are to you?
Toby Garrett and I have been in this a long time. He and I have somehow had this rhythm when I’m up if he’s down and he’s up if I’m down. Watching him get stubborn on that this is going to be a success and watching him navigate and be passionate about all of this are something I look to, lean on and have for a long time. That is part of why we keep doing this is working with each other. I like how he is passionate about real actionable work.
Anytime I get little airy-fairy or get a little intellectual about things, he’ll start to look at me, say, “What are we going to do? Let’s do something.” I’m like, “Do something cool. What are we going to do?” He and I have been doing this for such a long time. We’ve been a lot of times outside of the mainstream and have to look for strength from each other. I probably lean on him as that mentor at the moment.
I’m sure he’d be very complimented to hear that. If you had any moment in your life that you could repeat, what would it be?
I would repeat my four years of college because I had a great time. I would repeat that first RockCore show at Radio City Musical when the balcony of Radio City was bouncing because everyone was jumping up and down. I thought, “I hope these balconies hold.” I’m sure there are a few moments I would repeat with my son being in the mix here, but professionally, I think that first Radio City Music Hall show was something I would do again.
If you could go back and change any one event in your life, what would it be and why?
When we decided to get the decision to get more into the employer side of the equation, I would’ve done that sooner. I saw a lot of potentials there. We were busy going to Japan, South Africa and others, that I would have pivoted a little more quickly into the employer side of this equation from a business standpoint and I probably waited a little longer to do that, frankly. From a business standpoint, I’d probably start this wider social impact work a lot sooner because I think the need was there even before we decided to make the leap.
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
I would like to fly.
If you could solve one problem using that superpower, what would it be?
If I could solve one problem in the world right now, I would focus on energy. If I could figure out a way to power the world without ruining it, that would solve a lot of problems. I’m fascinated by energy. I don’t know how flying would solve that, but I would try. If I were twenty, I would put my effort towards the energy. I think alternative energy is exciting these days.
Lastly, given your connection to music, I wonder if you could have a specific theme song, what would it be?
I would do the theme Welcome Back, Kotter, which is Welcome Back. It’s good to have you back around. I’ve always loved going back to old places, seeing old friends and doing things that I used to do. It’s such a comfortable tune for me and it reminds me of a time but as we go out on our adventures and as we go try to make our marks, coming back home, to the people you care about, to your old friends is such a great feeling to me. It’s almost reason enough to go out on an adventure so that you have the feeling of coming home.
If there was any question that I haven’t asked that you wish I had, what would it be? If not, what would you like to leave our readers with?
You slowly get these pieces together, but you do have to launch without having it all figured out.
I think it’s been a great conversation. I’m not sure there’s a question. Sometimes I ask myself, “Why have I done this for so long?” Not a lot of people have these 25-year careers in one thing. They bounce around certainly. Some of our parent’s generation were at Shell Oil in Houston, Texas, for 30 to 40 years. For people who would read this, the fueling engine that keeps us coming back to doing is watching people find and exercise their real power.
When the world’s coming at you from a lot of different angles, you don’t know quite what to do. You’re not sure your worth or your value in the world, and everyone’s trying to change the world. It all seems very daunting, but the power and the energy you get from trying to change the world around you within arm’s reach almost is a spectacular thing. When you can create an environment or an opportunity for people to realize themselves fully and to see what’s possible in and of themselves, that is something that you want to get back to again and again. As far as doing a career in this, it’s no real picnic and you got to be ready for the fight.
Gwen Ifill once said, “The world doesn’t get better by itself, and it’s going to take people to do this.” The more you can multiply your efforts by unlocking the power of other people, you’ll want to keep going. One of the joys of my life is to watch people celebrate that in themselves and want to do it again. I applaud you for doing this. I don’t have the guts to do what you’re doing and I think people who spend time watching folks who are doing this. There are no magic and mystery to it. It’s going out there and getting your hands dirty and having as much fun with it as you can.
You put the fun in the activism. I want to thank you for that because if I could co-work one of those shows to get access to some of my favorite musicians, I would jump at it.
Nobody doesn’t like it. It’s awesome. Next time we have one, it’s great that you’re coming.
Where can our readers go to find out more about you and also the work that you’re doing with Give To Get?
GiveToGet.com is where our stuff is and you can see different examples of how we activate companies in different ways. We’ll be making some changes with our data tool on our Social Marks and the likes. There are a lot of changes coming, but for now, that’s the best place. Grady.Lee@GiveToGet.com if anybody’s got a specific question. We’re always open to having those conversations.
I want to thank you so much for your time, Grady. This has been a lot of fun.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Now, readers, it’s time for me to invite you to act. It doesn’t have to be huge. It could be as simple as sharing this show with somebody in your community and telling them about Give To Get and Care More Be Better. I encourage you to do that. You can always visit our Action Page on CareMoreBeBetter.com. There are recommendations where things you can do to make a difference around the globe, in your communities, companies and charities that we would encourage you to support. Thank you, readers, now and always, for being a part of this show and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more and we can be better.