Q&A with Aria Finger, DoSomething.org’s CEO

Aria Finger is harnessing the power of young people to create change in a global movement for good.

Aria Finger is harnessing the power of young people to create change in a global movement for good.

Her organization, DoSomething.org, is the largest tech company dedicated to engaging youth in campaigns about issues they care about, with 5 million members in 131 countries worldwide. In 2013, she founded DoSomething Strategic, a consultancy that helps brands create purpose-driven relationships with consumers and that has raised over $10 million to date. Finger graduated with an economics degree from Washington University and was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2016.

Before we start delving into some of the secrets of your success, I thought it would be fun to start by having you share a campaign or accomplishment that you’re personally proud of that you’ve done with DoSomething.

Sure! So, I was involved with the creation and launch of a campaign called Teens for Jeans. Ten years ago, a third of all homeless people in the United States were under the age of 18. We saw this and said, “We need to do something about this.” So we called family and youth homeless shelters and asked what was the number one item that a homeless teenager would want, and they said it was a pair of jeans. You can wear them to school 50 days in a row without washing them, you fit in, you can wear them to your after-school job. We thought, “We can run a campaign on this.” And we launched Teens for Jeans.

We ran the campaign for several years, and at its height we collected and distributed a million pairs of jeans in just four weeks. It clothed half of all homeless children in the country, and it was a great reminder that the power of one simple action at scale can have an enormous impact. And this was led by 17-year-olds. We’ll be kicking off our eighth year this coming January.

That’s amazing! Congratulations. So how do you think about storytelling, and how does it factor into the work that you all do?

It’s so critical. In these partisan and political times, we’ve seen cause after cause and issue after issue be reframed by both the right and the left as their own, or as partisan, or as the other. So there’s really no way to think about the time that we’re in other than through storytelling and framing. Often, the only way you can dispute a story is with another story. Cold hard facts and figures — it’s hard to get excited around them. But when you hear a story, it activates in you that you need to take action.

Can you talk a little bit about the balance between storytelling and action?

Often you have folks who are good at storytelling but bad at adding an activation component, and vice versa. Both are very hard, and people have expertise in one or the other. What that means is that the world needs more partnerships: partnerships between people who are excellent at telling stories, and people who are excellent at moving people to action.

Speaking of moving people to action, you guys have been enormously successful at mobilizing the Gen Z audience. What insights can you share when it comes to reaching this group?

When you’re young, you experience life differently. Things that we see in black and white, young people see in high definition. Emotions are higher, they’re more into risk-taking behavior. They’re open to new ideas — for instance, the majority of young people don’t see gender as a binary. The majority see gender as a spectrum. And so that small fact alone is really important for the way that we interact with them, the way that we activate them, the way that we support them. So a lot of it stems from the time of their life they’re in. That was true of young people 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s true of young people today.

And how is it that you pay attention to how young people see the world today? What are some tools that you employ to make sure you’re paying attention to their perspective?

We of course use explicit data, just like anyone else. We survey young people, we have focus groups. We have high school and college interns in our office all the time, so that we’re interacting with them on a daily and weekly basis. And all of that is critical — but I think what is more critical is looking at the implicit data.

What are they doing? What can we learn from what’s going on? It can be something as simple as, if we put a Facebook and a Twitter share onto our campaign, we’ll immediately have people emailing us and saying, “Hey, I wanna unsubscribe. I wasn’t aware that you had to have Facebook to do this campaign. I don’t, please unsubscribe me.” So I think it’s really interesting to pair the data that we have out in the world with the actual experiences of young people.

I will also say, just totally practically, DoSomething has a Slack channel that’s solely dedicated to Gen Z news. So, what is the latest with TikTok, what are the causes that are going on, what young person walked out of their high school — just sort of everything and anything that’s happening in the world of Gen Z. That way I don’t have to be smart about Gen Z — I have 60 other people who are helping me.

In the past you’ve kind of correlated this with the need to have young people on staff, which is in some ways a no-brainer, but I think that it doesn’t always happen. Can you talk a little bit about what you look for when hiring the right team?

Yeah, absolutely. Diversity is sort of a buzzword today, and people often use diversity as a codeword for racial diversity. And racial diversity is critical at DoSomething, but when we talk about diversity, we are as expansive as possible. We mean men and women, we mean people of all races, and of course that includes having the young person’s perspective.

The extension of that is, when you talk about diversity, you have to talk about inclusion. If the young people on your staff are just getting coffee for folks, or you’re not actually listening to what they’re saying, that’s a huge issue. I’m actually managing, right now, two of the youngest members of our staff, and it’s a dream to be in weekly meetings with them and hear their perspective and hear what’s going on. So I think the inclusion piece is just as critical as the diversity piece when it comes to all kinds of diversity, but especially young people, since they’re so often dismissed in the workplace.

How are you seeing this approach pay off?

Oh, I mean, in every way. It’s been proven again and again that diverse groups create better outcomes, because you’re able to look at things from every point of view. That’s as simple as, well, we’re doing a campaign and we want to reach southern youth — oh, I hope we have someone on staff who loves country music and can weigh in. We’re doing a campaign and we want to reach gamers — oh, I hope there’s someone on staff who has a background with Discord channels and the gaming industry. So there’s no way it wouldn’t pay off, because DoSomething, much like many other companies, traffics in ideas. And we are only as successful as our most creative and fun and exciting and inclusive ideas. So without that diversity, you know, I wouldn’t be able to come up with campaigns that reach all young people — because I don’t have any of those experiences.

So, speaking of some of your successes: what are some of the most important tools or frameworks that have helped you all be so effective in mobilizing an audience to take action?

When we talk about our campaigns, our goal is to have a simple call to action around each of these initiatives so that anyone can get involved. And we have a few rules.

One is “no money, no cars, no old people.” We don’t want money to be a barrier, so there’s no registration fee for DoSomething. When we say “no cars,” we mean it shouldn’t require a car, but more broadly it should be accessible to all young people no matter where they are. And then “no old people”: You should be able to, as a 17-year-old, lead this. Wonderful if you have help from your parents or teachers or cool, fun aunt, but you should be able to lead it and be proud to do that.

And then when we talk about the brand of our campaigns, we often talk about “big, loud, and easy.” “Big” means there should be FOMO. You should want to join this because everyone else is doing it. Then comes “loud.” We are not shy about our opinions and our ambitions. We are loud and proud to do what we want to do because some of it entails you convincing your friends or lawmakers or your principal.

And then the third piece is “easy.” You know, it shouldn’t be hard to make change. There should be an easy access point, because you can’t always dedicate your life to something. There should be something you can do after school, or on your phone, or on the weekends — not to mention the fact that this should be easy to do because it should be fun. If it’s horrible and boring, you’re not going to stick around. So our hope is to create a community of folks who want to stick around. It’s not only okay to have fun, it’s required to have fun — otherwise the community won’t continue.

I love that, that’s great. I’m wondering if we can talk a little bit about how FOMO factors into your thinking around campaigns, and how you help create a sense of FOMO?

I give this example a lot: prior to the 2018 election, every single news article that came out, the headline was “Young People Don’t Vote.” It’s like, “Old people vote all the time, why don’t young people vote?”

I always liken it to a party. You go up to a 20-year-old and you say, “Hey, there’s this party, and it’s just full of 70-year-olds, and they’re not that much fun, and they’re talking about issues that are really only important to them, and they’re going to look at you weird and not treat you nicely. Do you want to come to the party?” It’s like, “No! Of course not! Get me out of here!” It’s easy to forget, but it’s such a no-brainer.

So instead, we need to say to young people, “Let’s go to the party. You have the power to run the party! You have the power to set the agenda for the party! And instead of talking about things that only matter to homeowners, which you will never be because your government has saddled you with so much student debt, let’s talk about the things that are on your agenda.”

We’ve seen that when young people speak up, lawmakers start to listen. They have tremendous power, and I think we can use that idea of FOMO, who’s at the party, to really galvanize folks who are on the fence, or give people the psychological safety they need or the confidence they need to say, “Oh yeah, I actually do believe that. I was a little nervous about stepping forward, because I thought someone might bully me, or yell at me, but now I have the psychological safety to step forward and I’m going to use that.”

So, I would guess that one of the big challenges with reaching a younger audience is that the tools they use to communicate are evolving regularly. Do you have any insight to share when it comes to navigating all the various platforms kids use today?

Yeah — it’s the worst. It was a lot easier to reach all people, let alone young people, in 1980, when you just had an ad on CBS. The problem was that a group like DoSomething would never get access to CBS, so it was actually a lot harder.

So in the decentralized and bifurcated media world, it is certainly harder to get a mass audience, and sometimes that can mean it’s harder to get common ground. From school to school, they might watch totally different TV shows and love different influencers and just be experiencing life in very different silos — so it certainly makes things difficult. For a small organization, you cannot be everywhere. You just won’t do a good job. You have to choose and make a few bets on where to go, and that sometimes means not being on a platform that young people are on.

The flip side of that is that getting in early is so important. One of the reasons that the current YouTube influencers have so many followers is just because they were early and the algorithm prioritizes them. So making early bets is really important. That’s sometimes difficult, because you’re making a bet on a platform before it’s fully formed.

The last thing I’ll say is that sometimes we ignore platforms where lots of young people are that aren’t brand- or organization-friendly. It’s perfectly acceptable for us to say, “Hey, this is a platform that all the young people are using, and that’s fantastic, but it’s not a place where they want to hear from a brand or an organization, and so we’re not there.”

So we sort of look at those three different criteria: you can’t be everywhere, getting in early is important, and it’ okay not to engage if it’s not a brand- or organization-friendly environment.

Are there any other insights that you’d share with storytellers or brands or nonprofits that are trying to reach a younger audience?

This is so uninspirational, but creativity loves constraints. Be specific. It might seem like the best thing to do is to leave things open-ended and let people sort of run wild with their creativity, and of course we want that to happen, but it’s like a brainstorm. You walk into a brainstorm with a blue sky, you get nothing. The minute you put a few constraints on it, you actually get bigger and better and more innovative ideas, and so that’s what we try to think about for our campaigns. How specific can we be, and how many constraints can we put on it so that people can unlock their creativity? I think that’s been really important across our campaigns.

We run a campaign called Give a Spit About Cancer that’s all about swabbing your cheek. It could have been like “10 Things to Do About Cancer This Month,” but one, 10 things is paralysis, and two, we had a unique way to make a difference and we wanted people to focus on that. It was very specific. But then, you know, people ran Swab and Sweat parties, and then people had a swab challenge…the creativity was endless once we put them in that box. So I would just think about how specificity can actually unlock folks’ potential.

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