ONExONE: Marketing Charity to the Masses

Text by Karena Akhavein

Is it a PR agency or an aid organization? Founded in 2005 and raising over $1 million in its first year, ONExONE is one of a new breed of über-charities, an “umbrella” corporation that groups together a number of philanthropic organizations, melding business sense and marketing with philanthropy to maximize efficiency. The brainchild of a top fashion executive, Diesel Canada’s Joelle Berdugo Adler, who launched the initiative in memory of her husband, Lou, ONExONE employs a uniquely potent combination of tactics—including signing Hollywood heavy hitters as mouthpieces, cultivating corporate sponsorships, and creating star-studded, entertainment-intensive gala evenings—to raise funds and awareness for a host of deserving charities.

Despite its many partners, ONExONE focuses, as its name indicates, on the unique and individual. “You save one life,” says Adler, “you save the universe.” The philosophy that one person can make a difference is key. In ONExONE partner organizations, helping one individual or issue, making one change, is the key to universal improvement. The h2o Africa Foundation, for example, exists because access to safe, clean water can make the difference between life and death, between someone being able to pursue their education and grow up to contribute to society and their local economy. HealthyKids International addresses large problems like the aids crisis, but also common diseases that could easily be prevented, such as malaria, and straightforward issues like nutrition, where a single good meal a day can drastically improve a child’s health. Organizations such as Right To Play and African Children’s Choir address self-esteem, teaching children that each one counts through simple activities such as music and sports.

Helping one nation can awaken awareness about the issues facing others, as illustrated by another ONExONE partner, Wyclef Jean’s organization, Yéle Haiti. The theory goes that by helping Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, one creates a climate of aid and understanding in other nations suffering similar conditions and circumstances. And one high-visibility supporter (or two, in the case of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who debuted her first baby bump in Haiti) can make all the difference, which justifies ONExONE’s pursuit of celebrity spokespeople such as Matt Damon.

One celebrity can attract others. Matt Damon acts as a talent scout—he has brought in Ben Affleck, among others. “I have to make calls,” says Damon, “Sheryl Crow is going to play at one of our events. It’s the easiest call in the world to make. I just tell what the charity is about, and everyone wants to do anything they can.” Personalities such as Kate Hudson, Carlos Santana, Wyclef Jean, Shakira, Richard Gere, Sarah Ferguson, David Arquette, Brad Pitt, and Josh Groban have attended ONExONE events. Damon also plays auctioneer at gala events, where many lots have a Hollywood spin, such as the opportunity to attend the Ocean’s Thirteen premiere, or the chance to be present at the shooting of Damon’s upcoming film, The Human Factor, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Doctor Eric Hoskins, the president of War Child Canada, is fine with celebrities stealing his thunder at charity events. “They bring with them the television cameras, the journalists… a fan base that will listen to them, so they have a great capacity to reach out and to be heard and listened to,” he says. Once the celebrities have dazzled and the musicians have entertained the audience, “we try to provide the follow-up and give them information and opportunities to act on their interests.”

ONExONE clearly knows how to throw a party. In the past few years, the Canadian organization has piggybacked its events on the Toronto Film Festival to help generate buzz and attract celebrities, and at its first United States gala event in San Francisco on October 23rd, there were impressive performances by the African Children’s Choir, Santana, and piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick.

Though entertainment is a given at ONExONE’s events, people like Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, economist and founder of the un Millennium Project, provide the other crucial dimension: inspiration. Experts and “storytellers” such as Sachs or Olympic speed skater, Clara Hughes, of Right To Play, or Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza, or Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino, parents of 21 adopted children and founders of Child Haven International, attend ONExONE events to share their knowledge and personal accounts of growth and achievement. These unique narratives illustrate how philanthropy is realizable by all, and if one story touches a person who will then get involved with ONExONE charities, it was a success.

Matt Damon, far from being just another vacuous celebrity spokesperson, also has stories to share. His travels through Africa give him a more intimate understanding of issues and lend him credibility. “I think it’s annoying to anybody when they see somebody mouthing off about something they don’t know anything about,” he says. At the Condé Nast World Savers Congress last September, Damon talked about his h2o Africa Foundation water initiative and the ONExONE documentary he’s producing called “Running the Sahara,’’ which follows three international runners on their journey from Senegal to Egypt, a 4,300-mile trip that changed their lives. These two projects go hand in hand, as the runners were able to identify communities in dire need of clean water along their route, and report back to h2o Africa, which endeavored to create wells there.

“Since last year, when we announced h2o Africa at ONExONE,” Damon explained in an appearance on CBC TV’s The Hour, “we’ve raised over 2 million dollars. We’ve got 59 well projects that are either complete or in the works right now.” He expresses how pleased he is with the way donations are put to use, lauding the transparency and accountability of ONExONE’s system. “We know exactly where the money is going,” he says, “and to whom it’s going and to which projects.” And that’s the bottom line: more than star power, more than the gala events, more than the corporate sponsors, branders and public relations experts, what truly defines ONExONEis the integrity and focus of its founders, supporters and ideals.