Purpose At Work: How Omaze Reinvented Philanthropy To Unlock Exponential Growth And Impact

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From high growth startups — like Harry’s — to global enterprises — like Home Depot, today’s top companies are thinking and acting in ways that better the lives of all stakeholders. In short, they lead with we. That’s because purpose has become such a core business driver that it’s quickly becoming table stakes, if not, competitive. Brands that innovate around impact to scale growth and social good carve out a market advantage and that requires creating and scaling the difference you make in other’s lives in new ways.

A company continually trailblazing in the social entrepreneurship space is Omaze. “We raise money and awareness for charities by offering the chance to win once in a lifetime experiences,” Matt Pohlson, CEO and co-founder of Omaze, tells We First.

Omaze has an incredible story of bravery, discovery, and collaboration that offers valuable insights to brands looking to marry growth with purpose in new and inspiring ways.

Purposeful beginnings:

The son of a Laguna Beach criminal defense lawyer and the founder of No One Dies Alone, Pohlson’s parents instilled an appreciation of giving into the young founder from an early age.

“Laguna is very conservative,” Matt says. “While I believe in market solutions, especially in social impact, you have to recognize that capitalism needs some counterbalance to make it a meritocracy.”

“My father believed that structural systems lead people astray. A lot of these systems are biased along racial, class and gender lines,” Matt says.

While Pohlson lived in Laguna Beach, he joined an extracurricular basketball team in Compton. “My friends on that team had a very different experience than my friends in Laguna. It made me aware of certain advantages and disadvantages,” he recalls.

Several years later, Matt and Omaze co-founder, Ryan Cummins, moved to Los Angeles to focus on cause-centered entertainment. “We had a real passion for using storytelling to inspire action,” Pohlson says.

The co-founders had numerous successes in the media industry such as starting Girl Rising, receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant, working as directors on the Live Earth climate action concert series and running the Clinton foundation’s 10th Anniversary Global Television concert. They collaborated with household names like Bono, Jay Z, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Oprah Winfery and many others. “Despite our best intentions, we realized we weren’t doing that much good,” Pohlson explains.

After reassessing priorities, Matt snuck into a pitch competition and won. Omaze began by offering experiences with celebrities, selling merch and other ventures that they used to support charities. Business was going well, then Pohlson legally died.

A life changing experience:

When he was born, Matt’s stomach was twisted into a knot. His stomach hurt one night and even though he was throwing a dinner party that night and was supposed to have a meeting with the Omaze COO, he reluctantly went to the hospital. Scar tissue from his stomach surgery decades ago had broken off and caused an obstruction. While in the hospital, his blood pressure plummeted.

“The flat line went on for four and a half minutes,” Matt recollects. “The doctor shook his head as if, to say this is done. My mom pleaded with him. ‘Please don’t call it.’ All of a sudden, my eyes opened up. I popped up, lifted my right arm and gave them a thumbs up.”

“I was ego-driven before the accident. That experience changed me,” Pohlson says. “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is fear. I had a lot of fear. That helped me get through a lot of that fear. It helped me realize that optimism is a super power and love can create a ripple effect. That changed my perspective in terms of the company.”

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“I questioned whether I should continue to be CEO. We were just doing celebrity stuff and I felt like there was a limit to how impactful we could be.” Soon after, Omaze had a game changing discovery that altered their business strategy.

A transformational realization:

“Every entrepreneur takes some kind of leap. You realize that everything you want is on the other side of fear,” the leader says.

About six months before Pohlson went into the hospital, Omaze did a campaign with Daniel Craig where they offered off a trip to New York during which the winner got to drive an Aston Martin around a track with the actor and keep the car. The goal was to raise $300,000. Instead, it raised $2.1 million.

After such great results, Omaze’s marketing team did an experiment. They bought a $250,000 McLaren and planned to offer it off without any celebrity endorsement. The goal was to raise $500,000. That campaign launched the day before Matt was hospitalized.

When he got back to the office, the Omaze CFO told Pohlson about the results of the McLaren campaign. It yielded $1.9 million. From that day forth, Omaze pivoted. They went from doing around 300 celebrity experiences every year to about 75 and stopped doing apparel givebacks that were performing well.

“We went all in with stuff we could control like a sprinter van or a new house in Miami. Omaze exploded, both from the business and impact perspective,” Pohlson says.

Innovative Impact Strategy:

Impact has become competitive. Consumers increasingly seek companies that act on purpose in powerful ways. In that sense, brands that scale impact also scale their bottom line.

The Omaze strategy is useful for both for profit and nonprofit organizations. There are two fundamental strategies the company deploys; celebrity campaigns and prize campaigns.

“Let’s say we do a celebrity campaign,” Pohlson explains. “The winner gets to ride in a tank with Arnold Schwarzenegger and crush things. It raises a million dollars. We will spend 25% on creating and marketing content with Arnold on Facebook. We’ve also got the hard costs plus refunds and credit card fees. Of the remaining $750,000, $600,000 goes to Arnold’s charity. Then $150,000 goes to Omaze.”

With the prize campaigns, things work a little differently. Omaze will take a luxury item like a $250,000 McLaren, which comes out to about $350,000 after shipping and taxes. The purposeful company will then spend another $350,000 on marketing, bringing the total up to around $700,000. That will produce a return of around $1 million. Omaze then connects with a charity and donates 15 percent of gross and keeps the rest.

The lesson here is that scaling impact isn’t about trying to collect individual eyeballs. Rather, it’s about collecting communities of eyeballs. Each of these celebrities command a fan base in the millions. By partnering with them, Omaze condenses time and more effectively accelerates social good.

Building a culture of purpose:

While Omaze has a powerful effect on the world, the brand also inspires the internal community. “It starts with our virtues,” says the CEO. “We have virtues instead of values because values are what you believe in, virtues are what you do. Intent without action is almost worse than not having the intent at all.”

“We look for people that maximize the ripple effect. Virtues inform our culture and then our culture informs our brand.”

The future of charity:

Omaze has netted more than $140 million for charity but Pohlson won’t stop there. He is set on raising $1 billion for charity in one year.

“We’re fighting against a lot of social outdated norms that hold back the nonprofit world.” Pohlson explains. “We don’t let nonprofits do what we let for-profits do. We don’t let them advertise. We don’t let them invest in scale. We don’t let them pay top market rates.”

Omaze is set to change the norms on charity. By altering the way business and giving are conducted Omaze is building their business and a better world. By leading with ‘we’ in truly innovative ways.

“We get to make dreams come true. Optimism is a fuel for dreams and makes people realize what they thought was impossible is actually possible. We want to scale that.”

Written by

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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