Agents of Social Change

Does the thought of Larry Bud Melman advertising "Toast on a Stick" on "Late Night with David Letterman" bring a tear to your eye?

Did you ever see The Cure on tour?

Do you love your flip-flops and often wear them to work?

Are you skeptical about entering the workplace after watching corporate scandals like Enron blow up on the front pages?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above, you may be just what Changents is looking for: Members of Generations X and Y.

Changents co-founders Deron Triff and Alex Hofmann. (Photo courtesy of Changents)

The founders of start-up Changents -- a blend of the words "change agents" -- post stories and videos of individuals who they and site readers see as making the world a better place. It's sort of an online bazaar connecting innovators with people who want to innovate. Readers can comment, find ways to get involved with a featured person or group and e-mail the story to friends or peers.

With the advent of online social networks and instant connectivity, tracking your individual impact "is sort of the narcotic of the new generation of philanthropy," said co-President Alex Hofmann. "You can forward a story, you can post the story. We call it 'rippable.' When people respond, your ripple begins to grow."

The company, run primarily by its two founders based in Alexandria, Va., and Boston, is working to monetize, through online advertising and corporate sponsorships, a forum where 20- and 30-year-olds can network to build a better society.

"People want to feel that the actions that they're taking are tangible," said Hofmann. "Sending 10 bucks to the United Way at the end of the year" is good, but people may "not be sure where it goes... They want to see and understand [the impact of] their actions."

In the firm's first blog post made in late July by Hofmann and business partner Deron Triff, they write: "Changents is not about 'go hug a tree' or 'chain yourself to a bulldozer' -- unless, of course, you have the time and inclination do that. We don't. Actually, there are plenty of places for people to gripe about things or talk about things. Instead, we want to be the cool, fun (and funny), free-thinking, personally-gratifying place for people who do something about social and environmental things, have a blast doing it, want to tell stories about it, and are willing to pass the keys along to others."

One individual currently profiled on the site is an independent recording artist who performs under the name Braddigan. He is using his music to help a community of people who are living in and making their living from a garbage dump outside Managua, Nicaragua.

"His bio [and] great storytelling is at the heart of our mission," said Hofmann.

Hofmann said the firm's research, with the help of a company adviser, Carol Cone of Cone Communications, has shown that Generations X and Y are tapped into global causes and issues that affect their daily lives.

"It's no longer an 'over there' sort of thing with a philosophy that those problems don't affect us," Hofmann said. "These age groups feel like they are A) aware and B) that these things do affect their lives" -- whether it's the price they pay at the gas pump or choosing to volunteer for a worthy cause during spring break instead of going to a wild Florida party.

Changents aims to "move the needle on the issue that you care about," whether it's the environment, health care or something else, according to Hofmann. A user can elevate his or her personal profile, "create awareness about yourself and connect with other 20- and 30-year-olds to create social change in a personal way but don't know how to do it."

Plugging Into Technology

A large part of what Changents is trying to do is built on technology.

Gens X and Y are known for being tapped into mobile technologies and are looking for more personal ways to make a difference.

"All of the different story-telling mechanisms that the Internet provides, whether it's blogging, whether it's downloading songs or the ability to deliver content -- all those things come together... to a very tightly focused niche audience. ... It wouldn't have been possible to do [Changents] 10 years ago," Hofmann said.

Good magazine, a publication aimed at readers with the "sensibility of giving a damn," is a charter sponsor. Changents also hopes to expand its reach by placing its content on different kinds of media platforms.

Hofmann considers site participants "rock stars of social change," which may be his ultimate compliment. The first line of his bio reads, "Alex only ever wanted to be a rock star." But since the Minneapolis band The Replacements "are long gone and KISS isn't hiring," his bio says, Hofmann and Triff started Changents after working together at the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

In a different phase of his life, Hofmann was the guitar player and songwriter in the band Vainglorious. He worked as a freelance concert tour manager for major label acts such as Radiohead and PJ Harvey and also worked in various project management jobs with large entertainment firms such as Sony Online Entertainment.

"I have already been an entrepreneur in an organized way," said Hofmann, who says his days as a tour manager helped him develop a thick skin and cultivated his ability to be a "shameless cold caller."

One of the hardest issues for the co-presidents to wrap their brains around was "kind of distilling your vision down to executable reality," Hofmann said.

"We sometimes try to do too much at one time. We had to get everything perfect and just right...and it's easy to sometimes undervalue simple, near-term opportunities that you can do that are smaller in scope, but still impactful that pave the way for bigger things."

Changents got advice from Avid Technologies founder Bill Warner, who is a member of Changents power-packed advisory board.

"He said to us, 'Guys, plant a sapling' and think about 'what can you do this week using the resources that you have that will build it and people can experience it,'" Hofmann recalls. "Bill was right. It took us a while that we could accept something less than our grand vision."

When Hofmann and I met at an Alexandria coffee house to chat about his firm, he bounds through the door a little breathless and bleary-eyed like any start-up owner. He actually has more on his mind that morning.

"Sorry, I had to go chase down that woman with the double stroller and find out more about it," he apologizes. His two greatest personal agents of change were born three weeks prior and the second of the girls was due home from the hospital that afternoon.

"So, yes, twins and a start-up..." he muses without fully expanding on the thought.

Well, to paraphrase KISS, now he can rock all day and roll all night

By Sharon McLoone |  November 20, 2007; 1:10 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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What a great idea!

Posted by: isupportchange | November 20, 2007 9:08 PM

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