NEW YORK—MTV has a history of programming that promotes issues such as voter registration and mental and sexual health. Its audience expects it. But so do MTV employees, who want to address social issues with volunteer opportunities, including a recent “makeover” to help promote a nonprofit that gets former prisoners jobs.
“We know that our employees—more than 50 percent are Millennial—expect this from us,” Jason Rzepka, MTV’s senior vice president of public affairs, said recently. When the network launches a new volunteer campaign, there’s keen interest from employees and no shortage of ideas that lead to the most creative approach.
Take a recent volunteer project the network did for Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a New York City-based organization that provides placement services for people who have recently been incarcerated. Over a three-month period, MTV President Stephen Friedman and a cadre of 15 employees provided CEO with a social media strategy and other marketing help.
“There were tons of people who wanted to be a part of this project because there’s such a hunger and desire to do meaningful work when you come to work [at MTV],” Rzepka said.
Opportunities like the CEO project are critical for attracting and retaining top talent, Rzepka said, because although people are usually excited to get a gig at the pop culture icon, they’re even more excited to stay “if we offer opportunities like this.” When the project ended, 80 percent of MTV employees who took part said they’d recommend something like it to a colleague.
Speaking Oct. 8, 2103, at the Commit Forum conference, presented by Corporate Responsibility Magazine, Rzepka said that MTV sees its “pro-social program” as much more than writing “a novelty check” to a nonprofit or doing “nice things” just so the network can write about them in its annual report.
“We view pro-social and public affairs as using MTV’s superpowers for good,” he said.
Ensure the Right Volunteer Fit
MTV worked with CEO to bolster its branding, marketing and communications. It shot a new corporate video, conducted a social media audit, and created a toolkit and strategic plan.
Founded more than 30 years ago, CEO has about 200 employees in 10 offices across the U.S. and serves 3,000-plus people a year.
MTV worked with Catchafire, a New York City-based organization that matches nonprofits with professionals who want to volunteer their time and skills. Catchafire invited hundreds of nonprofits across the U.S. to apply to see which would benefit most from an MTV overhaul.
After narrowing a pool of 70 potential groups, MTV chose CEO because it believed that prison reform and recidivism deserved more attention and that the topic would resonate with staff.
“That was something that was very appealing to us—not only can we have that knowledge transfer and give a great intellectual and creative challenge to the team, but we would love to be able to dial up the profile and the attention” to the issue, Rzepka said.
Tips for Pro Bono Programs
Panelists offered these recommendations for pro bono programs and employee engagement:
Get the right fit and match. Mindy Tarlow, CEO and executive director of CEO, said the group was excited that a company as iconic as MTV was interested in helping the nonprofit. She added that one reason the partnership worked was that there was a good match between her organization’s needs and the skills the network offered.
Consider an intermediary. Rzepka said having Catchafire as a go-between was critical because the group helped scope out the project, set up milestones, and provided urgency and deadlines to “keep us honest and accountable.”
Expect surprises. MTV participants went through CEO’s life-skills education class, a five-day interactive job-readiness program for new enrollees, to try to put themselves in the shoes of someone just released from prison.
“Everyone was so taken aback and moved and had a new empathy,” Rzepka said.
It’s a two-way street. Rachael Chong, founder and CEO of Catchafire, said the nonprofit shouldn’t be the sole beneficiary of the arrangement; rather, the corporate partner should receive something, as well: “a great fulfilling experience, employees being excited and proud of the company they work at.”
Be mindful of other constraints. Rzepka admitted the network “jammed” a lot of work into a small time frame. A follow-up poll was “tremendously positive,” although many participants said the project did, at times, “push us to our limit,” given their other day-to-day work. “That’s something we want to be mindful of moving forward,” he said.
Follow up. In a survey, 90 percent of MTV employees who worked on the project said they “enjoyed” or “really enjoyed” the experience, 100 percent found the project “personally fulfilling,” and 80 percent were “likely” or “very likely” to recommend the experience to a colleague. Comments included, “This was inspiring,” and “I was more excited to come to work on the days I was working on this project.”
Rzepka conceded it’s often difficult to quantify the impact that such programs have on morale or engagement, but, given struggles to get the best talent, “I can’t stress enough how critical a part that was and how much it makes us want to do this again and again and again and make it part of our core offering with talented employees we’re trying to attract.”
Projects like the one MTV did aren’t representative of the traditional pro-bono initiative, Chong noted. At Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Catchafire invited the entire 4,000-employee staff to take part in pro bono projects for 30 hours each.
“It affects the entire workforce, which is why key decision-maker buy-in is critical,” Chong said.
Rzepka said he’s thankful his boss, Friedman, doesn’t question the return on investment. He hopes more organizations follow suit to help address pressing nonprofit needs.
“I think it’s really critical at a senior level that people … stop questioning the value of this,” Rzepka said, adding that “the more that [support] takes hold philosophically, the better.”
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.