The Power of Positive Giving

by Adam Bluestein
Oct 28, 2016

This issue of Citizen heralds the launch of Givewith, a new philanthropic platform, and is further devoted to telling the stories of nonprofits and individual difference-makers who have effected broad change and paradigm shifts in social impact. So it occurred to us that there’s another good story that we ought to share: ours


Growing up in Manhattan Beach, California, in the 1970s and 1980s, Paul Polizzotto lived in a small, four-unit apartment building with his mother and step- father—entrepreneurs who ran Sun Swim School—and four siblings. The swim school had an outdoor pool, so his parents “had to make all their money in six or seven months of the year,” Polizzotto says. “And it wasn’t much.” Still, he explains, “my parents took in people all the time, including runaways and recovering drug addicts. People would drop off children and not pick them up for years.” That generosity made a lasting impression on Polizzotto, who was barely out of college when he set out to make his own corner of the world a better place.

In a community that was already becoming very affluent, Polizzotto says, “surfing was the great equalizer. It was a way to have self-esteem and confidence.” At that time, however, surfing in Southern California could also be hazardous to your health. “Santa Monica Bay was so polluted,” says Polizzotto, who started surfing at about age 10. “We were constantly sick with upper-respiratory issues, ear infections, things on our skin. Guys would get gamma globulin shots for fear of hepatitis.”

As he got older, Polizzotto grew more interested in finding the source of the pollution and discovered that numerous contract-cleaning companies in the area were violating the 1972 Clean Water Act by allowing runoff from parking lots and industrial-waste sites to flow, untreated, into the bay. At age 25, with no formal training in engineering or environmental remediation, Polizzotto set out to bring the industry into legal compliance and make a positive impact on the bay.

Assembling equipment and technologies from different industries, he created a zero-discharge process that, in accordance with the law, captured and treated all waste- water from a cleanup site. In the early 1990s, Polizzotto’s company, Property Prep, became the first private clean- ing company to get a joint permit with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the Los Angeles County Sanitation Bureau, and the business grew, work- ing with other municipalities, nonprofits, and private- business owners. But soon Polizzotto felt an urge to do more, and a new cleanup opportunity presented itself.


The Clean Water Act required cities and counties to fulfill six “control measures” to help manage runoff. These included both infrastructure and public-outreach programs. By the late 1990s, most municipalities had missed the law’s original 1982 deadline to comply—“by a long shot,” says Polizzotto. But it wasn’t so much a matter of laziness, Polizzotto realized, as a lack of money. “The Clean Water Act was seen as an unfunded federal mandate.”

Inspired by the Adopt-a-Highway program that sprung up in the 1980s, in which businesses and private donors advertise their funding of roadside-trash cleanup, Polizzotto created Adopt a Waterway in 1999. The nonprofit helped fund watershed-cleanup programs—and educate the public—by putting corporate sponsors’ logos on signs that encouraged people to do things like pick up after their dogs and avoid dumping chemicals directly into drains. “We took care of the public-involvement piece and got corporations to underwrite cleanups,” says Polizzotto. Initially, he spent a lot of time persuading city councillors around the country to support the program, but local governments eventually bought in, as did big-name sponsors that funded millions of dollars in clean-water projects.

Soon, Polizzotto started thinking beyond clean-water projects—and beyond signs. In the early 2000s, many cities were putting municipal climate-action plans in place, but they needed the funding to set them in motion. “I knew lots of really cool environmental projects where cities and nonprofits had some money but needed addi- tional financing,” he says. “I knew that signs could help with watershed programs, but we needed more than signs. That’s where the idea for a broader media company came from—could we create an ad model to fund nonprofits addressing issues like climate change and also health care, education, and veterans’ services?”

Fittingly, when it came to his next business move, Polizzotto took inspiration from the natural world. “We say there’s an energy shortage—but there’s no such thing in the universe,” he explains. “In the next hour, more energy from the sun will hit the Earth than we need to power the whole world for an entire year. And yet we allow so much of it to dissipate. And I realized: the trillion dollars spent annually on advertising worldwide is like the untapped energy from the sun; it goes to purchase fleeting ad impressions that simply dissolve into the ether. But what if we could find a way to harness that money—just as we can harness any energy source in the universe—to meet the needs of the underserved? It’s not just an analogy, not just a metaphor. It’s our business model. We unleash the latent energy in advertising and use it to put solar panels on schools, house homeless vets, and put books into the hands of kids who’ve never had them.”


EcoMedia, which Polizzotto founded in 2002, set out to connect nonprofit and public projects in need of funding with advertisers committed to making a difference in their communities—and earning credit for it. EcoMedia sold agencies and advertisers an “eco- advertising” package that included ad spots on TV and other media, plus something extra: a portion of the total ad buy would be committed to a local nonprofit or underfunded municipal project. In exchange, the advertiser earned the right to “watermark” their ads with the nonprofit’s logo—proof of their contribution and commitment to improving the quality of life in the community. In addition, EcoMedia would help clients produce custom content—such as spots highlighting a brand’s involvement in community-improvement projects—and local events.

The timing was good. “Corporate social responsibility” (C.S.R.) was becoming a business buzz-term, with companies seeking to highlight their philanthropic efforts and sustainability initiatives for customers and investors. “There was other so-called green media at the time,” says Polizzotto. “The problem is, it wasn’t having a tangible impact.” The real-world impact of EcoMedia’s programs, on the other hand, was apparent almost from the get-go, with clients such as Office Depot, JetBlue, and Enterprise Rent-a-Car—through local ad buys—helping to fund the installation of solar panels at Long Beach Airport, in California, wetland-enhancement projects in Sacramento, the planting of 1,000 native trees in the city of Miami, and the installation of solar panels on Miami City Hall, making it the first big-city headquarters powered by solar energy. In 2009, for its innovative work in funding $1.6 million in environmental projects and programs in Miami, EcoMedia won an Award for Excellence in Public-Private Partnerships from the United States Conference of Mayors.

EcoMedia’s success also began to attract potential buyers. CBS—which had collaborated with EcoMe- dia on an energy-conservation initiative that raised over $600,000 for “green makeovers” of schools in San Fran- cisco, Miami, and suburban Chicago—and EcoMedia were philosophically aligned. In addition, the media giant gave Polizzotto “access to virtually every media platform—network and local TV, radio, outdoor, and digital—under one roof and a chance to scale the business model nation- ally,” he says. The acquisition was completed in 2010.

Kicking off in 2011 with the EcoAd program, which focused on environmental initiatives, the partnership soon rolled out the WellnessAd and EducationAd programs, dedicated to addressing the country’s wellness and education challenges. In 2012 and 2013, EcoMedia won Edison Awards acknowledging the tangible social impact of its advertising products in local communities. Today, EcoMedia is one of the fastest-growing divisions within CBS, and the CBS-EcoMedia partnership has provided some $80 million in funding and resources to roughly 200 nonprofits, impacting the lives of an estimated 30 million Americans.


“Being a serial social entrepreneur is a bless- ing and a curse,” says Polizzotto. “The blessing is that the work I do is immensely gratifying. The curse is that I can never really shut it off. My business takes me to communities all around the country where the needs are so great. Faced with that reality, I have no choice but to continue to try to find new ways to serve the underserved.” Polizzotto’s latest project, Givewith, was inspired by his cab rides around New York City, a new experience for the lifelong West Coaster. Thinking about the screens in the backseat that show sponsored content and allow riders to pay with a credit card, he thought, Why not also include a button saying, make my ride carbon neutral? The rider wouldn’t have to contribute anything—a sponsor would do it for them, by making a donation to a carbon-offset program. Polizzotto explains: “When you see the message, ‘Carbon neutrality brought to you by Toyota Prius,’ as a passenger you feel better about the ride in a specific way, and you associate that with a brand that wants that association.”

Polizzotto’s backseat epiphany became Viewers to Volunteers (V2V), the online giving platform that launched in spring 2015. Whereas earlier EcoMedia products focused on an advertiser’s commitment to social good, V2V gave consumers the opportunity to make a positive social impact. On the Viewers to Volunteers Web site, and through the mobile app, users watched sponsored videos on topics like sustainability, health, and education—and clicked on a button directing the corporate sponsor to support an effective nonprofit engaged in that cause.

“I was concerned by donor fatigue,” says Polizzotto. “In the Digital Age, there are so many ways to ask people for money. The last thing I wanted to do was divert donations from one worthwhile charity to another. Instead, I was determined to find new funding sources for nonprofit organizations. With Viewers to Volunteers, and now with Give- with, we’re not asking people for their money. We’re simply asking, ‘Do you care?’ If the answer is yes, we provide a real-time opportunity to get engaged and be part of the solution—without making a personal donation. In our model, brands underwrite consumers’ philanthropic acts.”

Givewith, a new platform launching in late fall 2016, makes the connection between digital consumers, brand sponsors, and worthy nonprofits even more immediate and organic. Givewith puts a twist on the idea of sponsored content. Rather than forcing you to watch a sponsor’s video or pop-up in order to get access to an online video or story that interests you, Givewith will provide you with a “frame,” tagging the content as “a story you can do some- thing about,” as Polizzotto puts it.

Say you’re watching a video on a news site about new cancer treatments. At the bottom of the screen, you’ll see a prompt asking if you’d like the sponsor to support a cancer-research organization. A print interview with a celebrity who helps out at a food bank might give you a chance to send the sponsor’s support to the food bank. Click a button that says make it happen, the support is directed to that nonprofit, and a message informs you how the company—with your help—just changed something in the real world.

After that, you can walk away—no spam e-mails to follow you—or you can go deeper, to learn more about the nonprofit or to find more content on specific issues, with additional chances to play a role in the process. The best part, according to Polizzotto, is that everyone wins: the brand, the nonprofit, the publishing partner, and the consumer. By directing a percentage of their advertising budgets to the Givewith Network, brands earn a chance to reach far more customers and make an exponentially greater positive impact on the world.

“Consumers spend money with brands that share their social concerns,” says Polizzotto, who believes that when brands measure the performance of their Givewith campaigns, they’ll see an impact not only on their reputation but also on their revenue. “I’m not saying they’ll replace pure advertising,” he says, “but companies that are serious about C.S.R. will devote a percentage of their total ad spending to ‘Give Unit ads’ and ‘Give Impression ad impressions’ rather than to traditional ad units and ad impressions, like getting a percentage of your energy port- folio from renewable sources.” Nonprofits benefit from the influx of spending. And Polizzotto hopes that Givewith’s painless-giving model will help usher in a new generation of philanthropists.

“I don’t have a job,” Polizzotto says. “I’m on a mission. I never set out to get into advertising or tech—I just wanted to make sure we were doing the best we can to address the challenges of the underserved. Almost twenty years in, I remain as committed and passionate as ever about finding new and creative ways to make a positive social difference. With Givewith, we’re making it possible for anyone with a sense of empathy to take part."