Q&A: Joffrey Ballet President and CEO Greg Cameron

In an era when many of the traditionally great cultural arts organizations struggle, the record-breaking financial and attendance success of Joffrey Ballet’s 2017-2018 season particularly stands out:

  • Revenue up 11 percent year over year.
  • The season opener and closer — “Giselle” and Alexander Ekman’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” — earned revenue that makes them two of the top five best-selling productions in Joffrey’s history — except for “The Nutcracker.”
  • Christopher Wheeldon’s reimagined, Chicago-themed “Nutcracker” earns $4.6 million in just its second season.
  • Stunning collaborative performances with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Los Angeles Opera of “Orpheus and Eurydice” — the latter performed as part of a month-long residency at The Music Center of Los Angeles.
  • Sold-out performances at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.
  • Education outreach programs that create opportunities for artists and nurture the next generation of audience for ballet.

Because success begets success, it’s not surprising that the Joffrey also received a $1 million grant from the Alphawood Foundation to fund a three-year audience expansion and sustainability project, as well as a recent $5 million endowment gift from the Paul Galvin Memorial Foundation Trust to establish The Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director position in honor of long-time Joffrey supporter Mary Galvin.

So what’s at the heart of all this extraordinary success?

The 10-year tenure of internationally renowned Ashley Wheater as Artistic Director, world-class performers and staff, and a connected and highly engaged board, women’s board, and other development arms help. But, make no mistake, much of this success can be traced to the 2013 hiring of Greg Cameron.

Heart for the arts meets smarts with him.

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Ashley Wheater and Greg Cameron at Joffrey’s 16th annual Gala on April 20, 2018. (Photo by Steve Becker Photography.)

A natural connector, strategist, collaborator, story-teller, and motivator, Cameron is a lifelong Chicagoan and champion of the arts. His career reads like a march up the city’s leading arts organization ladder — including service at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Art Institute of Chicago, and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where he rose to the roles of Deputy Director and Chief Development Officer, and Chicago’s public television and radio stations, WTTW/WFMT, as COO.

Cameron evidences his deep commitment to Chicago through broad based civic service too. His board and committee service include Enrich Chicago, Forefront, UIC, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Fashion Committee, Chicago Community Trust LGBT Committee, Terra Foundation‘s Art Design Chicago Advisory Committee, and Choose Chicago. Cameron even serves as a State Street Commissioner.

I confess to a significant soft spot for Cameron, because he quickly embraced Make It Better’s innovative, collaborative, community-building strategy and helped forge a strong partnership between our organizations.

“We’re tired of first dates,” Cameron declared. “We want to go steady with you!” He serves as a particularly thoughtful judge for our Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards too.

Because Make It Better believes that great arts for all makes communities stronger and better, we hope this Q&A will inspire a multitude of other arts organizations to similar success too. 

Susan B. Noyes: Bravo and congratulations on the Joffrey’s extraordinarily successful 2017-2018 season! Thanks for the opportunity to celebrate with you and inspire others too.

Let’s cut to the chase. Were you born to do this work?

Greg Cameron: Feels that way. I’ve always loved the arts, but I was never a good artist. I could paint by numbers, or I could connect the dots. Early on I realized that I was a good dot connector. I could connect people to each other and get them involved with the things they believed in.

I ran a makeshift theater out of my garage and sold more mints than anyone else for my local YMCA. It seemed natural to turn these passions into a career raising funds for cultural organizations that I love too.

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A young Greg Cameron (Photo courtesy of Joffrey Ballet.)

Please tell us about your other loves too. What do you love to do when you aren’t working? 

To be honest, I do not think of my support of the Joffrey mission as work. It is more of a calling. On any given day I might be part pastor, politician, psychologist, or philosopher. Trusted and dedicated colleagues ensure that even when we have challenges, we have fun!

Of course, I enjoy quiet time with my partner, Greg Thompson. When we are not attending a Joffrey event we might be at the Museum of Contemporary Art “meeting” a new artist, engaging in a Steppenwolf performance, seeing a film, attending a reading, exploring Chicago’s amazing culinary scene, or entertaining friends with a home-cooked meal. I am the sous-chef and Greg is the chef de cuisine.

Our priority is each other followed closely by family and friends. They bring us joy and keep us curious. 

What are your Chicago favorites — restaurants, buildings, parks, sports, other? 

In my 60 years as a Chicago resident, I have been to three Cubs games, two Bulls games, and one Bears game. I do not attend frequently, but I love when they win. My favorite breakfast spot is NoMI in the Park Hyatt. For dinner, I love Avec, Proxi, Cafe Bionda, and several neighborhood Mexican cantinas.

As for buildings, I love the Thompson Center, even if I’m in the minority of popular opinion. My other favorites are the Chicago Cultural Center, anything that has to do with Mies architecture, and the ever-changing State Street.

As a Lakeview resident, there is nothing better than a jaunt to Lincoln Park. It has everything — the lakefront, public art, the Conservatory, the Zoo, the Green City Market, and the Chicago History Museum. 

What are you most excited about for the upcoming 2018-2019 season? Can it top the extraordinary success of this past year, which included a celebration of Ashley Wheater’s 10th Anniversary too? 

With Ashley’s artistic vision and the technical and theatrical skill of our company artists, it just continues to get better. I am particularly excited about our “Anna Karenina” co-commission with The Australian Ballet. It will be on par with our world premiere production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” in 2016. The artistic team is different, but equally accomplished in all areas of the performing arts, whether it be the choreographer Yuri Possokhov, Emmy-winning designer Tom Pye, or one of Russia’s most esteemed composers in Ilya Demutsky.

As I write, Yuri is creating the work on the company artists. Mark your calendar for the world premiere on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

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“Anna Karenina” (Image courtesy of Joffrey Ballet.)

What are the best techniques for other arts organizations who would like to expand audience and financial support too? 

Lead with mission and tell your story. Do not try to control the so-called “consumer experience.” Take baby steps and ask your supporters to join you on the journey.

Please share your best mentor advice. How does one prepare to successfully lead an arts organization that relies as heavily on philanthropy as the ballet does in the 21st Century? 

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

When you listen to other people and their stories, you create authentic and lasting relationships. These relationships sustain an organization in times of scarcity and abundance. And of course, always remember to thank people multiple times.   

Anything else you want to tell us?

Get involved in what gives you joy and makes you smile. If more people embraced the words of Mother Teresa, “Peace begins with a smile,” Chicago and beyond would indeed be a better place to live, learn, work, play, and dance!

Thank you!

Q&A With Laura Scher of CREDO

Laura Scher was a successful social entrepreneur long before the term became a buzzword. She didn’t just engage in corporate social responsibility, she made it the foundation of the successful corporation she founded and grew — CREDO.

In 1985, an era of Wall Street excess when many operated by the mantra “greed is good,” Scher and two other cofounders started a company focused not on money but change. The company was then called “Working Assets” and the business plan was groundbreaking: make it easy for people to power social change through everyday acts of commerce.

Working Assets began with a credit card. Each time a member used the card, Working Assets donated a percentage of the purchase price to nonprofit groups dedicated to progressive change. This was the beginning of what is now called CREDO Donations. Working Assets also funded grassroots advocacy through its Action arm, known now as CREDO Action.

The company took off and eventually added long-distance phone service too. In 2007, iWorking Assets rebranded as mobile carrier CREDO Mobile. The name has changed, but the mission remains the same: offer excellent consumer services that support the progressive values of its customers.

Since 1985, Scher’s brainchild has generated over $85 million for nonprofit groups working for causes like women’s rights, social equality, and climate justice. Nonprofits funded over the years include Planned Parenthood, Rainforest Action Network, and the ACLU. Groups are nominated by members (customers), chosen by CREDO staff, then donations are directed to three groups each month by members who vote at credodonations.com.

Another arm of the company, CREDO Action — which now empowers over 5 million activists nationally — has achieved thousands of vital policy victories on the local and national stage through the years too.

Reflecting Scher’s personal creed — to always do more, give more, progress more — the company recently expanded into the field of renewable power with the launch of CREDO Energy. It creates demand for green, sustainably produced wind power and allows members to green their state’s power grid. CREDO Energy is currently rolling out in select states across the country — and already available in Illinois.

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Laura Scher and Susan Noyes

I met Scher through Make It Better’s partnership with Marin Magazine and its “Celebrating Women” event in May. She lives in Tiburon, currently serves as CREDO’s executive chair, and teaches business at Stanford University. She’s an impressive and inspiring woman. I’m particularly proud of Make It Better’s recent custom Better Letter for CREDO too, which included articles about:

The following Q&A with Scher from 2015 will help you get to know Scher and her 30-plus year socially responsible business better. Such an ingenious concept — make it easy for customers to fulfill basic responsibilities (like paying for cell phone service) knowing that they’re also making the world a better place by doing so. We hope her words will inspire even more social entrepreneurs.

1. Why has CREDO been successful?

We’re like a lot of small companies that succeed. We have a good product, great prices and we have excellent customer service.

And then we offer something no other phone company does. It’s the feeling you get when you buy a product or use a service that gives back. Like driving a hybrid car or buying fair-trade coffee. People feel good when they use CREDO because they know we donate millions every year to progressive causes they believe in and they get to vote to decide where the money goes.

If you care about our world, then CREDO is a no-brainer. Literally. You make a call or you use your credit card and you make the future better — without even thinking about it.

2. Obviously you’re proud of building a company like CREDO. What gives you the most satisfaction?

The victories we win for progressive change. For example, CREDO was instrumental in stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have been a disaster for our climate. We fought against Keystone for over five years. We raised more than $2 million for groups opposing the pipeline. We generated 42,000 phone calls, over half a million public comments and 4 million petition signatures against it…

CREDO is the largest corporate donor to Planned Parenthood, so I’m proud that action by our members helped convince the Susan G. Komen Foundation to reverse its decision to defund Planned Parenthood. For years we fought destructive oil drilling in the Arctic Refuge. And we’ve been working for marriage equality and LGBT rights since the day we opened our doors.

3. What do customers say about CREDO when you meet them?

What makes me most pleased is when I meet people who have been with our company for the entire 30 years, who had our socially responsible credit card back when that was our first product. Then, when we went into the phone business, they had our landline, they had our pager — we used to have pagers! I’m feeling old now — and today they have our cellphone service. Obviously we’re doing something right. We have so many loyal customers. I remember setting up a booth at a Holly Near show in Oakland in the ’80s and signing up people for our credit card. I still see some of them today and now they have a CREDO iPhone.

4. When you’re not making change in the world, what are you doing?

I work with social change startups, advising them. And I’m a busy mom of a high school student! When I really have nothing on the agenda, I hike the trails of Marin. It clears my head and gets me ready for what’s next.

5. You haven’t slowed down since you stepped away from the day-to-day at CREDO. You’re still with CREDO as executive chair, you teach at Stanford, you’re on several boards. How do you stay on top of it all?

I teach at Stanford as a way to inspire the next generation of social entrepreneurs, the young people who will follow in my footsteps. At the same time, I tell them you don’t have to be the CEO of a socially responsible company to make change in the world. You can make change simply by choosing to do business with companies that share your values. There are a lot of us out there nowadays — like CREDO.

Please Join Our Better Giving Circle

All giving circles are good. But, we’ve got a Better Giving Circle. We hope you will join it this year.

As you likely know, a giving circle is a form of participatory philanthropy where groups of individuals donate their own money and/or time to a shared cause, seeking to increase awareness of and engagement in the issues covered by the project. Giving circles are great social vehicles too.

Giving circle examples abound — from church knitting circles to Women Moving Millions (individuals who pledge $1 million or more to support nonprofits helping women and girls around the world). The Impact 100 (100 women donating at least $1,000 each, who study multiple nonprofits and select at least one to receive their pooled funds) is an excellent example of $1,000 Giving circles in the Chicago area. Rotaries, other service clubs, and philanthropic boards are giving circles too.

We believe that amplifying this basic human urge to come together, network, and give support to others is a faster way to a better world.

Amplifying and connecting ever growing giving circles is core to our publishing mission, too. We built our highly successful platform by doing just that right from our start 10 years ago, through our media sponsorships of nonprofit fundraisers. Doing it right takes time, and a lot of resources though, so we’re asking for your support to help us keep growing the circles of good.

Our Better Giving Circle allows you to underwrite a media sponsorship by donating $1,000 to your favorite nonprofit. The organization then enjoys our impactful connection-growing, evergreen online content, and significant support for at least one fundraising event. 

And now, the fun part: You will also be invited to join other Better Giving Circle members and champion your cause at our gala dinner, curated by Make It Better dining editor Julie Chernoff, next fall. You will enjoy not only a great dinner, but also meet 99 like-minded, philanthropic friends. 

You can view a similar networking event to what we will do in our MIB TV video of our 10th Anniversary Celebration. As you will see, the positive, powerful energy and connections are palpable!

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One other “gift that keeps on giving” comes with the Better Giving Circle too. We provide your nonprofit with a free platform and amplification for all matching grants of $10,000 or more, and we look for other media sponsors to help promote it too. Please see our articles about these three recent matching-grant initiatives as examples:

As you can see, our Better Giving Circle media sponsorships are a win for you, win for your favorite cause, win for the world.

Please join us. But, please hurry to do so, as the number of 2018 Better Giving Circle media sponsorships is limited to only 100, and those are going quickly!

Thank you!

Make It Better Celebrates Our 10th Anniversary and Launch in the San Francisco Bay Area

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Last week, Make It Better Media marked two very special milestones, our 10th anniversary and our launch in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a celebration at William Blair‘s stunning new space at 150 N. Riverside in Chicago. I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the extraordinary group of powerful, positive connectors who came together with us for an inspiring night looking back on 10 years of impact, and forward towards many more. If you couldn’t be there, I hope you’ll read my presentation and join us for our next special event. 

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Welcome!

And thank you, thank you, thank you for coming to celebrate Make It Better’s 10th Anniversary in Chicago and launch in the San Francisco Bay Area through our acquisition of two outstanding regional magazines there. We are honored that you joined us tonight.

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Big thanks, really ENORMOUS thanks to William Blair for sponsoring our celebration.  Isn’t this venue stunning? And don’t they put on a great party?

Make It Better thinks of our work as supporting the very best local businesses, nonprofits, and thought leaders while growing a powerful network that connects them to each other and our affluent, well-educated audience. This ensures maximum impact for all participants. You — this group, gathered in this room today — are a perfect example of this too.

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Creating maximum impact for successful businesses, investors, and nonprofits is exactly what William Blair has been doing in Chicago for 80 years.

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Make It Better has been creating virtuous circles with our expertise for only 10 years.  William Blair has done that for 80. So we particularly are honored to have earned this opportunity to work with this great firm after only one decade. Special thanks go to someone who is no longer with us — Dick Kiphart, one of my mentors. But also to Ned Janotta, Jon Zindel, Laura Linger, Joe Tabet, Laura Coy and Isidora Lagos.

Anniversary_CENTERMAIN_FINAL1106PM4Speaking of Laura Coy, director of community engagement and vice president of its foundation, her passion is inspiring next generation professionals and philanthropists. She learned this multigenerational approach from the best too — her father, who led the John Deere Foundation. He taught her, “We can do well by doing good” — the penultimate Make It Better sensibility.

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We are most grateful for the sponsorship support of the Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy, represented here by Dean David Figlio, Jeff Hammock, Nichole Pinkard, and Amy Pratt; the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, represented by Marcy LarsonSidley Austin, represented here tonight by Julie Allen and Honey SkinnerKirkland & Ellis, represented by Scott Falk; and VISIT Lake Geneva, represented by Joe Tominaro.

Again, these organizations and individuals represent the best in our community. We are honored to collaborate with each of you too.

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Make It Better co-founders Mindy Fauntleroy and Julie Chernoff (who is also our dining editor) are here tonight. They and our talented Make It Better team embody our tagline: Powerful. Positive. Connections. Each has worked brilliantly to grow our organization and are an integral part of tonight’s success. Please stand. And thank you!

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We’re grateful to the Music Institute of Chicago and The People’s Music School for music by some of their most talented musicians. Let’s please thank the Kairos Quartet one more time too.

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Particular thanks to The People’s Music School for being one of Make It Better’s most innovative, collaborative media sponsorship partners too. We are really looking forward to their sweet jazz with our sweets after this workshop and to growing an audience for their talented young musicians and subscribers to our Better Letter through their upcoming Music Hack at 1871.

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Thanks to Wansas Tequila and Alberto Rojas for our craft cocktails. Alberto created Wansas to celebrate a culture and community that he loves. Similarly, we’ve launched and grown Make It Better to celebrate and connect the smart, big-hearted community that we love.

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Finally, and most importantly, thanks to my husband, Nick, for his unwavering support of my work and to our oldest son, Nick, and oldest daughter, Skatie, who are here tonight representing their own successful businesses and nonprofit causes.

My family is my greatest blessing — these three are proof of that, as well as everyone else in our sprawling, diverse, complicated, fabulous clan pictured here.

So, who else is in this room with you right now? And what are we going to do together? The answers are simple.

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YOU! Powerful, positive connectors are in every seat of this room. The solutions to more difficult problems than you currently imagine are in this room too. We are going to collaborate together to prove that. Ideally, we are going to inspire you to leave this room with enthusiasm for our “1, 5, 10 Amplification Strategy” too.

To be even more precise, you — this special group — includes some of Chicago’s most thoughtful philanthropists and family foundation representatives as well as a philanthropic powerhouse who has come all the way from South Africa. As the guest who has come the farthest to be here, Liz Steyn, please stand.

As background, please know that Liz and her family hosted Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison and was instrumental to his  coalition building. This was in large part because Liz, with her consummate Make It Better sensibilities, told her successful entrepreneur husband that they just had to do this.

CEOs and executives in charge of corporate social responsibility, strategic communications, marketing or foundation giving are here. So are leaders, board members or champions of some of our most impactful regional and national nonprofits, and champions for excellent international NGO collaborations — like The University of Chicago’s Center for Global Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Chicago’s great cultural institutions, which famously provide community outreach and education to underserved populations, are here, as well as representatives of some of the finest health care institutions in the world.

But importantly, representatives from smaller businesses or nonprofits, which are true local treasures and who can attest to the powerful positive impact of their relationships with Make It Better, are here too. These organizations are some of our most cherished relationships.

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Pick a problem, any type of problem, that needs to be solved and there is someone in this room with knowledge about and strong connections to an important program that is already making thoughtful inroads to the solution.

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Please allow me to do a special shout out to the Metropolitan Planning Council. We started collaborating with them about a year ago to promote their River Edge Ideas Lab and other efforts to facilitate more clean up and development of the Chicago River System. This led to our successful Water Issue last spring.

Because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we proudly take credit for Chicago magazine’s October issue with “rivers” as their cover story too.

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Many of you already know the story of Make It Better’s birth and evolution. So please be patient as I share the CliffsNotes version of this for the rest of our group.

It’s a commonly asked question — Susan, why in the world did you start this nontraditional publication?

The answer is simple — because this is my journey; it’s what I’m supposed to do.

About 14 years ago, when the two oldest of my six children had started college and the youngest was in 3rd grade, I realized I needed a “what’s next” plan for my life. I had the opportunity to practice what I’d preached to my children, too — just find what you love and the rest will follow. That launched me on almost two years of rumination — “So what do I love?”

Organizing a lot of moving pieces.

Connecting people and ideas that should be together.

Writing and the power of a good story.

And then I read Katharine Graham’s autobiography. AHA! — I could do all the things I love as a publisher.

With the help of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, I learned my business model:

  • prioritize online first,
  • identify an audience,
  • do massive research about them — where they get their information and who wants to advertise to them.

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I started with what I knew — North Shore mothers — and brought together a group that represented the best of our community, including Mindy and Julie. We called ourselves the “Kitchen Cabinet.”

We launched a little website called makeitbetter.net on May 1, 2007. Our mission: To be the most trusted, easiest to use community resource that helps make your life and the lives of others better.

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We called it Make It Better because 92 percent of this group is likely to change their brand loyalty if they believe it will make the world a better place, and because that is what this cohort is just naturally inclined to do — make it better for their spouses, kids, friends, favorite nonprofits, and business communities. If there is a little time left over — they make it better for themselves too.

We embedded every strategy we could think of to use that new fangled thing — the internet — to amplify fundraising, volunteering, and giving back efforts.

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Flash forward a decade and here we are: a multi-platform publishing machine well ensconced in the greater Chicago region and launching soon in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here is a timeline of all the activities that brought us to this exciting Make It Better inflection point:

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It’s actually a little exhausting to think about all this activity. And a little embarrassing to admit that we made some big mistakes along the way that aren’t included in this — like launching e-commerce.

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For a plethora of reasons, it’s more important than ever to empower women around finances and wealth too.

  • By 2030, 2/3 of U.S. wealth will be in the hands of women
  • Women just became the majority of U.S. millionaires
  • Women are set to inherit 70 percent of the $40 trillion-plus in wealth transfer that will occur over the next several decades
  • Women start and grow the majority of new small businesses

Women want clear advice, good communications, and strong ethics in their financial communications too.

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Delightfully, men joined our audience too. They want to connect with the best resources for their family, community, and themselves and to make a difference for others.

The concepts of social impact, venture philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, and other variations on a theme of maximizing each dollar, hour, experience developed simultaneously to our growth too.

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Particularly intriguing — the millennial children of our initial audience grew into adults who quite simply expect mission, meaning, impact, sustainability, and the opportunity to make a difference for others to be embedded in all aspects of their lives.

I’m bullish on our future because of this group — millennials.

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Luxury lifestyle has merged with meaningful lifestyle. Emma Watson’s Instagram is a perfect example of this.

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Advertising legend Cheryl Berman, also here tonight, was chairman and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett when she started working on the Make It Better brand 12 years ago. Early on she identified the issues that led to today’s national trends too. We’re grateful that her DNA is deeply embedded in Make It Better.

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It’s relatively common knowledge that Warren Buffett invests “like a woman” — meaning that he uses cautious metrics and invests for the long run.

This combination — using common sense and high standards to talk about money — including social impact in investment strategies, means that even finance, investing, business is being transformed by Make It Better values too.

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Make It Better grew by giving media sponsorships to every little nonprofit who asked, writing articles that brought the mission of each organization to life — with the intention of making a reader laugh, cry, think, and want to take action — as well as highlighting the event in multiple locations throughout our publishing ecosystem.

We always look to include or highlight sponsors and important partners or collaborators too.

Eventually, we had to start saying “no” to some of the nonprofits. We learned to discern which organizations would truly take advantage of our work. In other words, we became venture philanthropists.

As a way to still provide an opportunity to all nonprofits who asked for help, we formed the MIB Foundation and launched our Philanthropy Awards.

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Any nonprofit can apply for the award. The application encourages them to demonstrate the characteristics most valued by all venture philanthropists too, and connects them to an Academy of Experts and thought philanthropists. We are particularly grateful to Nancy Searle for her leadership refining the mission and core values:

  • Effectiveness
  • Excellence
  • Efficiency
  • Leadership
  • Scalability

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We’re particularly proud of the collaborative relationships and sponsorships that have developed from these awards too — including free or discounted tuition at the Kellogg Nonprofit Executive Education program for finalists and winners and additional coverage by co-sponsor CBS 2 Chicago.

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Winners of these awards report spectacular results, but so do nonprofits with whom we’ve worked as media sponsor.

At this time we invite representatives of five of the organizations to give you one fun fact about their relationship with Make It Better.

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We stumbled into the forefront of powerful trends as a publishing company. In order to maintain that and accomplish our goal to grow Make It Better globally, we’ve worked with two SEO experts.

One was a gift from Google of time with their leading expert — a true legend in the field — Avinash Kaushik. He said, “What you are doing truly is changing the world. But, you need to make your social impact even more apparent with everything you publish.”

The other was Brian Provost, who coincidentally now is VP of search for CBS. Cut to the chase, Brian’s advice was that because we started writing about nonprofits and community events so long ago, Make It Better enjoys a “gold mine” of the most valuable thing on the internet — links to and from our website to the sources Google trusts the most:

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His advice: Just keep making sure that every article you publish has references and links to at least five sources likely to link back to you and share with their networks of at least 10 — but hopefully 10,000.

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This became our 1, 5, 10 Amplification Strategy: 1 article, 5 trusted resources who share with their networks of at least 10.

The more we’ve worked with this strategy, the more we fall in love with it too. It’s the perfect tool for those who are the natural collaborators, connectors, and creative problem solvers who drive change for the better the fastest in this world.

Best of all, it builds a network of trusted resources. All of those links are like lines from boats to each other and back to the mother ship, creating a rising tide of helpful content that raises all boats.

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I can even see how a big enough tide of this type of content would be a good antidote to fake news. But, I’m not going to try to convince you that Make It Better has that much power — at least not yet.

What we are going to do together right now though is demonstrate just how helpful and powerful this strategy can be for you and your organization.

Most of you came intending to facilitate a 2018 media sponsorship for the cause most important to you.

We’ve very intentionally put nine randomly selected people at a table with one Make It Better team member. At this time, the 10 of you are going to work together.

Please introduce yourself, explain how you found your way here tonight, describe the cause you want to promote and what five trusted sources you will be naturally inclined to ask MIB to reference in the article we write. But also, please listen for and discuss ways to help each other after the introductions. Hopefully, some wonderful, unexpected connections that are similar to the best of what happens online will occur. 

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Also, please be mindful that MIB will officially launch in San Francisco with an event similar to this in the spring, too.

We plan that your discussions will take you about 20 minutes. We’ll be taking notes so that we can be as helpful as possible with follow up content.

Enjoy the conversations and connections. We look forward to hearing about potential impact and opportunities to help afterward. 

Anniversary_CENTERMAIN_FINAL1106PM36Thank you for sharing your passion for a cause important to you.

Now, I’m delighted to share my new passion with you — growing Make It Better into the San Francisco Bay Area through our acquisition of two highly successful magazines in that area: Marin Magazine and SPACES, a shelter publication with a footprint that includes Napa, Sonoma, and Marin counties as well as the highest HHI homes in the city of San Francisco.

Their publisher is here tonight too: Nikki Wood. Nikki please stand! Our collaboration between Make It Better and her publications is well under way and pointing toward great success. In short, our Chicago print magazine is improving because it is adopting their print format and model. And they are highly enthusiastic about learning our online and events strategies.

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Now it’s time for sweets — sweet music, more sweet connection building, delicious sweet desserts, and our favorite MIB swag.

Thank you again for coming and participating in our celebration. Your presence is the sweetest gift of all to us. We hope that you leave here excited to do these things too:

  • Trust that you will do well by doing good too
  • Encourage collaboration and virtuous circle building
  • Subscribe to our Better Letter and encourage others to do so too (It’s free!)
  • Share your powerful, positive connections with each other and the world through a 1, 5, 10 Amplification Strategy
  • Join our social networks

Thank you!

#BetterTogether: From Go Green Wilmette’s First Fair to Environmental Commitment Across the Country and Around the World

One of the fun facts about Make It Better is that our business launched more than a decade ago in tandem with Go Green Wilmette’s annual community fair — on May 1, 2007, at the Wilmette Recreation Center. It’s no coincidence that Make It Better’s commitment to the environment and the Go Green movement have both grown and flourished.

Go Green Wilmette was the brainchild of environmentalist extraordinaire Beth Drucker. She also helped start Make It Better — serving as our volunteer Environment Editor — and has been featured in our content since then.

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Beth Drucker and son Will

GGW grew so quickly that Beth stepped back from Make It Better to focus on it full-time.  GGW was such a good idea that surrounding communities soon started their own Go Green groups too, including:

Other Go Green Illinois members include:

The GGW fair also took off. It has become an eagerly anticipated annual event: Going Green Matters. The 2017 fair, held at the Michigan Shores Club, attracted more than 1,000 participants and included an electric and hybrid car show, giant “Geosphere” presented by The Geographic Society of Chicago, art show, and scores of other presenters on smart environmental living practices.

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Image courtesy of GGW.

Make It Better flourished too! And the rest is history. The website grew up the North Shore and into Chicago, launched multiple platforms — Better Letter email newsletters, print magazine, awards, events, videos and more. Through our recent acquisition of Marin Magazine and SPACES Magazine, we’re growing into the San Francisco Bay Area, too.

Strong partnerships with other environmental organizations also helped Make It Better grow, including the Chicago Botanic Garden. We’ve held or proudly sponsored many events there, including our Re:Work Conferences and World Environment Day. We’ve even collaborated on contests with CBG, including parking pass giveaways.

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Photo courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden.

We are most proud of our content about and collaborations with some of the other leading environmental resources in Chicago too, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Nature Conservancy, and Metropolitan Planning Council’s River Edge Ideas Lab.

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James Corner Field Operations’ idea presented during MPC’s River Edge Ideas Lab

We embed sustainable living in our content more than ever — like this article on great Chicago nonprofits that protect the earth all year.

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Alliance for the Great Lakes (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.)

It’s truer now than when we launched Make It Better 10 years ago — collaboration is the best way forward for humanity, the environment, businesses, the world. Everyone needs to live and do business thoughtfully to ensure that future generations get to enjoy our precious world too.

If you are an avid environmentalist or an organization committed to sustainable practices, please send us your ideas. Please connect with our powerful, positive content by subscribing to our Better Letter and encouraging your friends to do so too.

We are all #BetterTogether.

Help Save Make It Better’s Print Magazine — Take This Survey, Become a Requester, Win Our $500 Shopping Spree

As you may know, Make It Better started 10 years ago as a little, volunteer-run online community resource for moms in Evanston and New Trier townships. It was known simply as makeitbetter.net. Our mission was (and still is) to help our audience make their lives and the lives of others better because that is what affluent, well-educated parents are naturally inclined to do.

Makeitbetter.net rapidly grew in ways that we never predicted to become Make It Better Media. It now includes a bi-monthly print magazine, bi-weekly email newsletter called the Better Letter, signature events and awards, vibrant social network (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and my own accounts), MIBTV videos, nonprofit fundraising help and event sponsorships. We even started our own foundation and Philanthropy Awards!

Make It Better Media now provides powerful, positive connections to such an engaged audience (as well as the businesses and nonprofits they support) that Tribune-owned WGN Radio’s Justin Kaufmann called our platform and statistics “impressive” during my interview with him earlier this week. Please take the time to listen to it. Justin is a fantastic host.

Listen Here

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The secret to Make It Better’s success is simple. With every article and activity, we create virtuous circles, which strengthen our community. We’ve built a powerful online network of trusted resources — businesses, nonprofits, websites — in the process too. Experts now refer to this as our “internet gold.”

Eight years ago, we launched our print magazine to reach a broader audience. It was entirely underwritten by advertisers. But recently, we’ve discovered that we actually can be more impactful if we return to an online-only model. Online connections and memories from great events last long after the impact of a print magazine fades.

However, we also know that many of our readers really, really like the print magazine.  Therefore, if you are one of those readers, or if you just love a good print magazine in general, we ask for your participation in our “what’s next” decision too.

Please take this short, confidential survey and be entered to win a $500 shopping spree too: makeitbetter.net/mibsurvey

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South Africa’s Social Entrepreneurs

South Africa suffers a reputation for horrendous human problems alongside amazing nature. News about what is right within the country rarely breaks through the cacophony of wrongs reported across the Atlantic Ocean. So, during a trip there earlier this month, imagine my delight to discover many inspiring examples of successful social entrepreneurs who are moving the country forward.

In fact, these individuals have created or are growing the bright spots in this beautiful country.  They’ve built businesses and grown nonprofits around their passions or to give back to a place they love while also developing opportunities for others. In reality, South Africa offers our country examples of a better way forward too.

Intriguingly, two of the South African families with whom we spent time — the Vardys and the Steyns — were close to Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison. Their insights and examples helped formulate Mandela’s vision for governing the country post apartheid. But, wherever we went, we experienced other inspiring examples too.

Londolozi and The Varty Family

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More than 40 years ago, as mere teenagers, Dave and John Varty founded Londolozi as one of the first ever non-hunting, eco-tourism models of conservation in Southern Africa. Londolozi means “protector of all living things” in Zulu. The brothers did this in order to keep the land they loved in their family following their father’s sudden death. Please learn more here.

Most of the world thought the boys were crazy. However, they not only proved the naysayers wrong, but they also launched the ecotourism industry, which ultimately lifted broad swaths of rural Africa out of poverty and has spread across the globe. Tourists pay well to stay in luxury accommodations, dine on locally-sourced food and experience extraordinary nature and wildlife at the side of well-trained, well-informed guides. The direct result of this is that surrounding communities enjoy employment, economic opportunity, education and other benefits.

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Sunset cocktail hour — a safari tradition.

As Dave explains during a talk he gave during our visit and in his book, “The Full Circle,” “What emerged was the Londolozi model for conservation development — linking land, wildlife and people together in a hospitality and interpretive wildlife viewing experience.”

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Dave Varty

My photos are inadequate to demonstrate the wonder of our safari experiences, which inspired a more profound awe for nature. (Watch videos on my Instagram page here and here.)

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South-Africa-zebra

Soon, the Varty conservation development model had become a blue print. They exported the model all over Africa and others copied their approach too. The model was even endorsed by former South African president and humanitarian, Nelson Mandela, who visited Londolozi during the year following his release from prison. In the words of Madiba, “Londolozi represents a model of the dream I cherish for the future nature preservation in our country.”

Buntu Philosophy and the Good Work Foundation

The Vartys now explicitly run Londolozi as a social enterprise, based on the Zulu philosophy of Ubuntu — “I am because you are.” During his talk, Dave asks guests to remember, “We are because you are. Because you are here, we employ 250 people, which supports 2,500 when you include their families and helps all the surrounding communities too.”

Londolozi also supports an NGO called the Good Work Foundation. Varty claims that this foundation is creating an education revolution and uplifting rural communities by giving them access to world class education through cutting-edge technology. They have established a number of digital learning centers in areas surrounding Londolozi. More than 10,000 students per year pass through the schools.

The Vardy vision is to do far more to develop Londolozi as a “socially, economically and environmentally responsible business” that creates new systems of living that use land and humans to their highest potential too. They are bold social entrepreneurs indeed.

The Steyn Family, Mobaneng and the Ottery Youth and Education Center

Mandela also spent a great deal of time with the Steyn family, according to the Financial TimesDouw Steyn is one of South Africa’s most successful insurance, technology and real estate entrepreneurs. His wife when Mandela was released from prison, Liz, a former social worker, insisted that they do all they could to help him and the transition away from apartheid. Liz and Douw are now divorced. She is still a determined, feisty social entrepreneur.

Steyn’s sons Louis and TJ act from similar convictions too; most definitely they are their mother’s sons. They set up a foundation in her honor — the Elizabeth Margaret Steyn Foundation (EMSF). We were fortunate to spend time with all of them and see their social entrepreneur successes in action.

Louis and TJ were raised in Johannesburg, a city that has suffered substantial crime and decline in the past decade. Determined to help, they recently redeveloped the area known as “Maboneng Precinct” — transforming abandoned buildings and infrastructure into a hip artistic and entertainment district supporting a plethora of other entrepreneurial efforts. They intend keep this virtuous circle of investment and growth going too.

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TJ is on my left and Louis is on my right at dinner in a restaurant at Saxon Hotel, which was the home they grew up in.

Because the current government is widely perceived as corrupt and inept, it is not likely that public support will help fix what is broken in this city. It will be the Steyns and other social entrepreneurs like them who are determined to redeem and rebuild the city they love, creating opportunities for others as they do.

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Maboneng. An excellent example of before and after renovation work.

Liz acts on her belief that “when you transform one child’s life, you transform their family, you can transform their community too. One-hundred percent!” She served as a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Childrens Fund because of this. She now runs EMS similarly. She proudly gave us a tour of the Ottery Youth and Education Center to demonstrate a program that works and is worthy of greater support. Here, students receive skills training as well as the good education that is possible with small groups, in brightly colored classrooms with attentive, caring teachers.

The computer center, donated by EMSF, was recently dedicated too. But Liz laments, “We need to double the size of this school, which will compound the improvement for others.”

She continues, “The corporations doing business in South Africa are the most logical supporters for this type of school.”

Train the next generation of employees while reducing the population still disenfranchised from apartheid days. With this suggestion, Steyn champions a win/win virtuous circle similar to the ecotourism model.

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From left: Liz Steyn, Principal Moosa Mahadick, my daughter Skatie, me, and my son-in-law Ed

She has more than enough passion and determination to make it happen too. “I’m terrible at looking out for myself. I would just give everything away.” She giggles, “But I am ruthless at asking on behalf of others!”

Principal Moosa Mahadick offers the YouTube video below as further explanation of the Center’s work, but a better one is in development. During our tour, we met two UCLA graduate students making a documentary about the school.


We experienced many other examples of the social entrepreneur spirit and virtuous circle making that seems to be at the heart of current South Africa success too.

Camp Jabulani and the Endangered Species Research Center

Lente Roode turned the farm she grew up on into a refuge for young abandoned cheetahs and elephants who otherwise would die. Eventually this became the large Kapama Safari Park, the smaller and more luxurious Camp Jabulani (named after the first elephant she rescued), which is a member of Relais & Chateau and the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Research Centre (HESC).

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This is Jabulani, the first elephant rescued by Lente Roode, after whom the safari camp was named.

HESC, which is CITES accredited and a member of PAAZA, WESSA and WWF, is so successful that it now breeds and successfully releases cheetahs into the wilderness, helping to replenish the dwindling population.

We’re so impressed with the work, that we adopted one of the babies, “Victoria Love,” from the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, founded by Lente Roode.

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My son-in-law Ed with Crunchy, a cheetah at Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.

One of the most successful wine makers in South Africa is a social entrepreneur too — Zelma Long of Vilafonte. Long is a Sonoma County, California resident who is internationally respected as an oenologist and vintner. Just for fun and intellectual stimulation, she’s also earning her PhD in native performance arts. The South African wine industry brought Long to the country to consult in the early 90s. She and her husband were so impressed that they found partners and launched Vilafonte a few years later.

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Photo courtesy of Vilafonte.

Long uses her wine platform to highlight and preserve other aspects of South Africa that she loves, including that it is the “cradle of humanity.”

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Zelma.

One of their wines is named “Seriously Old Dirt” to highlight the fact that the dirt in which the grapes are grown is millions of years old, as opposed to merely 60,000-120,000 years as is true for U.S. wines, like those grown at her Sonoma County home.

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Photo courtesy of Vilafonte.

More impressive, though, is that Long and a South African partner launched the Cape Town wine auction, with the famed Napa Valley wine auction as their vision. It quickly became a powerful virtuous circle.

“It is an annual auction, only four years along, that this year earned R22 million ($1.7 million) specifically for the purpose of education for the formerly and currently disadvantaged children of the winelands.” She continues, “All proceeds go to charities; the costs of the auction each year are borne by donors. It is exceedingly well run not only on the money raising side, but on the money distribution, goal setting, and evaluation side, of the charities to whom the proceeds go.”

Beneficiaries include:

The Trust financial statements are audited by PWC.

“The Cape Wine Auction Trust mandate to support education in the South African Winelands is being achieved through a simple yet unique model of giving. We fund passionate, well-managed beneficiaries in the field of education and support them to maximize the value of the funding they are given,” Long explains. “We ensure that those we fund get to know each other, learn from each other and support one another. This collaborative mindset has already resulted in enormous impact and increased efficiencies.”

Long exudes love of work, place, people — a true social entrepreneur. “Our South African Vilafonte wine and vines project is now 20 years old. We have felt privileged to work this patch of the earth, experience the beauty of the Cape, and watch the amazing, talented, energetic mélange of cultures that is South Africa.”

Love of South Africa and its culture brought successful international banker Paul Harris and his wife back to South Africa after great success in South American banking. They purchased “Ellerman House” — a large home built during colonial times overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Town, determined to showcase the best South African art, décor, wine and food with it.

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Landscaping beside the Ellerman House Spa and Villas.

As Harris explains here, “We want our guests to experience the best of what this country has to offer. To create this experience, we have an indigenous garden, serve only South African wine and cuisine, and have a renowned collection of local art representing the best of past and present. We also employ a diverse staff that provides guests with the warmest in true South African hospitality.”

“Indigenous” and “renowned” are understatements. The grounds and art are jaw dropping and soul-filling fabulous. No hyperbole.

Ellerman was the last stop of our South African journey. By the time we arrived, after experiencing social entrepreneurism and virtuous circle creation behind the most obvious successes everywhere else we went in the country, we weren’t surprised to be welcomed with a call out to their Giving Back opportunity.

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Ellerman House, at the entry of the Modern Art Gallery

The Harris family raises money each year with a charity art auction at the hotel. The proceeds are used by their Click Foundation to expand the reach of multiple community pilot programs. Harris invites others who wish to help to contact the Ellerman House.  “You will share in the joy, excitement and pride of being part of this exciting country, where we can all make a difference in forging a brighter future for South Africans.”

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My favorite painting on display at Ellerman House.

Example after example offered by South Africans of developing land, people and communities to higher purpose should inspire more social entrepreneurs in the U.S. It certainly inspired me!