Harnessing Creativity to Help Those in Need

This is a call for all great creative thinkers whether you’re in the arts, entertainment, advertising, publishing, marketing or media. Hell, we’re all in the same business anyway.

The economy has hit us like the rock inside the snowball. Homes and jobs are being lost at a historic rate. The cost of everything is going up, including food, heat, transportation and, from what I understand, there was actually a plan to have an obesity tax and health club tax (am I the only one who sees the irony in that?). In short, everything is going up except our confidence in the system that was designed to protect us.

The crisis du jour is: in this environment of cut, cut, cut, save, save, save, who will give, give, give?

There’s no delegating this one, it’s us, us, us. This is a mission for the best creative problem solvers and the biggest, broad-stroke thinkers in our business. This is about people who are struggling to make ends meet and have lost a third of their savings and retirement money, using the one gift even the economy can’t take away in order help those who are much worse off — the great gift of creative thinking.

This could be creativity’s finest hour. Or decade.

My suggestion is that you get to know a cause or public service from the inside, then figure out how to help. Creative thinking is the new currency. Give in whatever way you can, from providing creative and marketing strokes of brilliance to donating media time. Or simply ask an organization: what can I do to help? Remember, small is only small to you. Small heroics by many are how the underdogs beat the heavy favorites; you can take that to the bank. On second thought, maybe that expression is now fundamentally flawed.

A year ago, I became involved with the Coalition for the Homeless in New York (coalitionforthehomeless.org). I visited Camp Homeward Bound, a sleep-away camp in upstate N.Y. for kids who live in NYC shelters. There I fell in love with hundreds of smart, articulate and very photogenic young dreamers from our streets. Not to mention some of the most inspiring volunteers I’ve ever had the honor of meeting. If you want to know where all the heroes are hiding, watch these counselors at work.

I also saw the Coalition’s phenomenal First Step program. It’s an employment program for women who are down but not out, possibly abused and raising multiple kids alone in shelters with little hope and even less money. The First Step program teaches these women business skills of various kinds, then helps them get placed with participating companies. The results are stunning. Their personal transformation is nothing less than inspiring. Special credit goes to their employers as well. Nicely done. It’s a creative idea that is changing hundreds of lives.

Now there’s the feeding centers, some of which will close thanks to “across-the-board” budget cuts by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. To me, “across-the-board” cuts are an illusion of fairness. One that takes the decision-making process and conveniently removes prioritization, leadership and understanding.

Unfortunately, bailout money seems to be reserved for those who falter by getting tangled up in their own excess and incompetence.

Now, am I making a plea to all companies and individuals to step forward and contribute in some way to the Coalition for the Homeless? Of course, but any good and needy cause will do. The key thing is to choose one that’s important to you and get to know it intimately. I can’t stress that enough.

That relationship will cancel any doubt you had about whether you can afford to help. It will also help you figure out what you can do to help them discover new and innovative solutions they wouldn’t have seen on their own. By the way, there’s another by-product of getting close to a great nonprofit organization: you’ll start rooting for those who choose public service as a career path at the expense of bigger paydays simply because they believe that the path of compassion will lead them to a richer destination.

So suddenly there’s a new call for creativity and bold-stroke brilliance. A call to help prop up the growing number of struggling citizens in communities all over the world. After all, who better than the creative community — with all the viral, social and cultural expertise we tap into everyday — to help those in the most desperate conditions? Who better than the most ingenious problem solvers in the world to figure out new ways to help the financially forgotten, the people on the fence between life and death, poverty and purpose.

Who better than people who pride themselves on individuality and self-expression to pick a cause, make it personal and use it to pump a little hope back into people’s lives? This is our time to put our creative soul where our heart is.

2009 may not be a great year for the economy but if we play it right it may be a heroic year for creativity (am I the only one who sees the irony in that one?)

Rich Russo is ecd at Euro RSCG Adrenaline, and a member of the board of directors for the Coalition for the Homeless.