The work of charities relies on government grants, foundations and a limited pool of individual dollars. At EcoMedia, his in-house organization at CBS, NationSwell Council member Paul Polizzotto tapped into an alternate stream: corporate advertising budgets. With EcoMedia, CBS redirects some $80 million in profits to nonprofit programs, helping 30 million Americans affected by the most urgent social issues of our time: the environment, health and education, and better lives for veterans. NationSwell met with Polizzotto at CBS’s headquarters in New York City to talk about a better way for business and charities to work together for social change.
What first attracted you to social entrepreneurship?
I wonder if there was some sociological survey conducted, if it would show the growth in social entrepreneurship comes from people raised by hippies. My parents were products of the ’60s, raising kids in the ’70s. I grew up in Manhattan Beach, Calif. My parents were entrepreneurs themselves, with a swim school open half the year. My parents were incredibly compassionate and generous people. Over time, we took in people who had run away: Eventually, we had 22 people living in our apartment. And we didn’t have any means. Essentially, I kind of turned my parents’ way of life into a business model.
How did that happen?
I grew up surfing every day in the very polluted Santa Monica Bay, and we were sick all the time; the bay’s gotten a lot better, but back then, it was pretty bad. I noticed that the contract cleaning industry was washing pollutants and detergents right into the storm-drain system, which goes into the bay. I said, “Whoa, I am surfing in that!” And besides, it’s illegal. It’s a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. At 25, I set out to come up with a way to work on the issue and protect the environment. My zero-discharge business grew, and, essentially, we legalized and legitimized an industry and set a new standard: Either get legal or get out.
After that, how did EcoMedia get its start?
Around the same time, I started to learn about a lot of nonprofits doing remarkable work on environmental regulations. I knew there were a lot of great projects that needed a little bit of gap financing to get off the shelf. I created EcoMedia originally as a nonprofit, in the late 1990s, to fill those gaps by winning grants. But what I found was that we were winning money, and other deserving nonprofits weren’t. It was a zero-sum game. I was competing against nonprofits I thought were doing very important work. I looked for ways to keep doing what I was doing and accidentally stumbled on the advertising world. I thought, “Hey, maybe there’s a way to create an ad model to fund nonprofits, a way to create this entirely new revenue stream coming from ad spends.” I got involved with CBS in a joint venture, and in 2010, we were acquired. We’ve since become the fastest-growing division at CBS.
Where do you see yourself in the media landscape?
I have a very different view, because I’m not from media, advertising or technology. But all of what I’m doing now is squarely in that space. I remember having a conversation with CBS, and they said they thought their ability to improve communities came from content. I said, “I don’t think so: I think it’s your distribution.” I think content’s largely overrated. Look at health: Never before in history has more information been available to more people about what’s good and bad for you. Yet we’re not as healthy as we were 30 years ago, as it relates to health conditions like obesity and diabetes. You think you’re doing your job as a media company by getting the word out, but we’re not seeing the desired impact.
What’s an example of a campaign you thought was particularly effective?
A dear friend of mine, who has since passed, created a surf school to help kids with disabilities and military-service men and women suffering from PTSD, called the Jimmy Miller Foundation. To see how the sport of surfing, which gave so much to me, is being used as therapy is pretty remarkable. We do quite a lot to fund their work. Others that matter to me are putting solar panels on Miami City Hall, the first big city hall in the United States to be powered by them, and in my own hometown of Los Angeles, in the port, there’s a marine terminal controlling all the ships coming in and out of the port that we made energy-neutral. And we send kids with subsidized breakfasts and lunches home on a Friday afternoon with backpacks full of meals for the weekend. There are so many projects, it’s innumerable.