Jenifer Willig knows a thing or two about what motivates consumers and companies. She made a career engaging consumers through advertising for nearly 15 years at agencies like M&C Saatchi NY and TBWA/Chiat/Day SF. Thriving on the diverse mix of clients and industries as well as the balance of creative with strategy and account management, Willig never anticipated leaving the field. Then she met Susan Smith Ellis, the CEO of Product (RED), the organization founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver to fight AIDS in Africa.
Willig was hired to be the Global Chief Marketing Officer of (RED), and to professionalize the brand and build out its partnerships. Willig–who says she has a passion for the private sector getting involved in grand-sweeping social–is now focused on educating for-profits on alternative business-building initiatives that are invested in social change. Since helping (RED) raise over $185 million and attract a social following of over 2.5 million users, Willig co-founded motive, a social innovation consultancy, and Whole World Water, a social enterprise uniting the hospitality and tourism industries to raise money for clean and safe water initiatives.
Growing up the daughter of a military father, Willig was exposed to many different cultures and experiences. Her career has been inspired by this childhood on the move. “Being able to see different parts of this country or other countries that we lived in, inspired me towards challenges,” she says. “One shouldn’t be punished by where they live. It’s not about charity or handouts. It’s really about accessibility. It’s just looking at people around the world and what makes it so much better for me than them and wanting to try to equal that out a little bit.”
Whole World Water launched on World Water Day on March 22, 2013, with co-founder documentary filmmaker Karena Albers. The platform hopes to galvanize the hospitality and tourism industry to get rid of branded bottle water, replacing it with their own high-quality filtered tap water bottled in a sleek carafe designed by Yves Behar, sell it and then contribute 10% of the proceeds to the Whole World Water Fund. Willig sees enormous potential on two fronts: first, to raise billions of dollars (the hospitality industry produces $6 trillion in sales annually) to address the global challenge of providing potable water to the almost 1 billion people around the globe. Second, to reduce plastic consumption around the globe. Early supporters include Banyan Tree, the Maldives, Tao Restaurant Group, Tsago Sun and The Virgin Hotels. Managed by ClimateCare, pioneers in results-based financing, the Whole World Water Fund is a democratic platform open to funding requests from all organizations, NGOs, charities, and social enterprises.
The Whole World Water Fund has unexpectedly inspired a small army of volunteers eager to give their time and talents to help jumpstart the program in their regions. They now have several connectors on the ground in various countries pushing the program to local restaurants and hotels that are difficult for Willig to reach. “That kind of a generosity of people wanting to do something, to make an impact with their time, their effort, has been really fun,” she says. “That’s something we have to figure out: how do we harness these connectors.”
In addition to Whole World Water, Willig is the co-founder of motive, a marketing agency devoted to helping companies rethink their social investment in order to move from corporate social responsibility to social innovation. Change is difficult, especially for larger companies; however, there is a recognition that change needs to happen. She has found that many companies struggle with how to balance philanthropy with the business. “It’s not just about generosity when you talk about the private sector,” Willig says. “It’s about sustainability over time. In order for the private sector to get involved, it has to help their business and in order for it to help their business it has to last longer than a year.”
The conversation is no longer about giving money away but about aligning the mission of the company with sustainable, responsible social solutions. How do you bring what you’re passionate about closer to the business? What’s your motive for being? And how does that coincide with how you’re making your money? “We couldn’t have raised over $200 million with (RED) if we had started it off with just a check because the partners wouldn’t have stayed in the program over the long term,” says Willig. “You want to do something that will help their business grow and give back to the communities where they are doing business.”
Millennials seem more inclined to accept this connection between consumerism and social good. “Brands have a bigger meaning in their lives than governments, than charities, and they understand companies need to get involved in the communities in which they do business and in the issues they care about. And if they do that by aligning with a product or service they’re offering, that’s okay.” She believes there is an enthusiasm for looking at things differently and cooperative efforts between the for-profit and for-good sectors.
Her role requires patience and tenacity in equal parts. “When you’re in advertising, you’re better if you’re the big thinker and the doers are over there. But in this space you have to be able to do both. You have to be willing to be the big thinker but you actually have to be willing to do the hard work, too. You don’t have time to just talk. You’ve got to make it happen.”
What has helped Willig get to where she is today is her openness to opportunities. When she started motive, Willig committed to saying yes to every meeting, every conversation, every possibility. Leaving behind the security and clear leadership path evident in the corporate world, Willig has gained freedom to try different projects, make decisions faster and move things forward in new and unexpected ways. “Going from corporate to social is the impact you can have on people’s lives,” she says. “It sounds so grandiose but the impact could be tremendous and it keeps us going.”