As Mesh Gelman, the 34-year-old Orthodox Jewish owner of a bed, bath, and window furnishings designer in Manhattan, crowded around his desk with his staff to watch Barack Obama's inaugural address, the newly sworn-in president said something that so moved him, he took it as a sign—if not from God at least from the new leader of the free world.
"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness," Obama orated. "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and nonbelievers." Obama touched on the "bitter swill of civil war and segregation," emerging "from that dark chapter stronger and more united," expressing a belief that the "old hatreds shall someday pass," and that "as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself." Interpreting this as a call to action, Gelman turned to his design director. "He just said 'patchwork,' a quilt," he told her. "There's something there." Gelman fumbled for a pen and paper and scrawled "Patchwork Heritage."
From these unlikely beginnings sprouted Blanket America, an innovative approach to charity that juxtaposes social good with the mechanism of capitalism. Here's how it works: Buy a patchwork quilt with the tag "Blanket America" and Gelman, through his company, Extreme Linen, will donate a plain blanket (retail value: between $15 to $20) to someone in need. In fact, his goal is to give away 1 million blankets this winter through Gifts in Kind, which will distribute the blankets to local charities and act as a third party auditor. And starting next week, you'll be able to help Gelman's cause with the Viral Loop-Blanket America widget.
I got involved with Blanket America after Gelman read some pieces I'd written about the social media campaign I'd created for Viral Loop with design firm Studioe9 in New York. Intrigued by the possibilities, he asked them to create a campaign for Blanket America. But with the launch date looming—and winter approaching—there wasn't enough time. So Studioe9 asked me to donate the Viral Loop Facebook application to the cause for a month. Hence the newly re-branded Viral Loop-Blanket America widget, which has an installed base of several thousand users. It will be completely redesigned to express the Blanket America cause and spread across Facebook.
One thing will remain: The core functionaility of the widget. The Viral Loop Facebook app tells a user what he is worth to Facebook in dollars, based on his level of engagement, number of friends and their level of activity, and his influence, which is based partly on his ability to spread the widget. What does that have to do with Gelman's charity? Everything, because Blanket America and the Viral Loop widget are expressions of the participation economy. This means that participants do more than just consume. Participation is built directly into "consumer" choice. Look at Facebook. If it weren't for you, me and about 300 million other users it would have little value. Facebook needs you, and the more you participate, the more valuable you are to Facebook. Everything you do on Facebook ripples through the community and serves to keep others engaged, which benefits Facebook.
Blanket America creates a different mechanism for charity. For every item a user buys, another is given away to someone in need. Therefore each act of consumption is also social instead of anti-social. Demand and donation become synonymous. When someone targets their needs, they are also targeting someone else's needs.
Unlike charities that offer a percentage of proceeds to the needy or the "Newman's Own" model, which donates all profit after taxes to charitable causes, Blanket America counts on consumers acting like consumers, doing what consumers do—and the seller takes on the charitable responsibilities. Zynga, the app maker, recently sold special seeds in its Farmville game, with players using real dollars to buy virtual goods, and raised more than $320,000 for two non-profits in Haiti. Gelman, in contrast, believes that charity begins at home, and the best way he can accomplish this, he says, is to "influence the consumer at the point of consumption."
The idea of making a consumer choice a driver of profound social engagement is tantamount to acknowledging that users, by virtue of their participation, are essentially valuable and not just a bottomless pit to dump inert product. Not only are you worth something, you are worth something to others. Viral Loop was developed, in part, to show how value is created in a social economy. With Blanket America, we can also show how the idea of "value" itself is really much more than just you, and as you build your value the implications are both immediate and vast.
It's a fascinating dynamic. The more you buy, the more you give, and the capitalist (i.e. the seller, who makes out in the bargain, too) takes on the responsibility of earmarking a percentage of that profit in the form of an actual physical object. Gelman doesn't plan to stop at blankets. He wants to brand "Blanket America" on all sorts of products—clothes, toys, kitchen appliances, household goods, available through classic retail stores, over the Web and via QVC. Ultimately he hopes that consumers will look for it like they used to look for the "Made in the U.S.A" label, or purchase eco-friendly products today. This could all be thought of a new kind of consumer advocacy. Not only are consumers drivers of value through consumption, they are the drivers of change.
Gelman designed the Blanket America Heritage Quilt to represent the idea of our "patchwork heritage." As a nation, he says, our different shapes and sizes were sewn together for one common purpose. The front is made up of fabrics representing the original colonies. On the reverse is President Obama's inaugural speech. But the customer and the needy aren't the only ones to benefit.
"Wal-mart showed volume more than makes up for margin," Gelman told me in his Garment District Showroom. "If you are a company and you buy into the Blanket America model, you might make less money but sell a lot more goods. Then everyone wins."