To call Robert Fogarty an accidental entrepreneur is a bit of an understatement. If you haven’t heard of Fogarty’s Dear World, a venture that grew out of a not-for-profit fundraiser called Dear New Orleans, it’s likely to hit your radar screen soon. He’s a photographer whose striking portraits feature people with heartfelt messages written on their hands, arms, and faces in black marker. The images live primarily online, where they’re attracting more and more viral attention. And Fogarty has gone from collecting crumpled dollars in a bucket for his photos to getting large organizations to write big checks. So his dilemma is this: how to define his venture (art project or company?) and how to scale it without sacrificing the values he holds dear.
In June of 2009, Fogarty started a New Orleans-based not-for-profit organization called Evacuteer.org, which organizes and trains volunteers to help with the city’s public hurricane evacuation program. “We got our 501(c)(3) status in six weeks and I thought all these checks would rain down on us,” says Fogarty. “I didn’t realize how hard it is to raise money for not-for-profits.”
So he and a friend decided to do a fundraiser for Evacuteer at a club called Republic New Orleans. Attendees paid a cover charge and each was asked to write a love note to the city on his or her body. Fogarty, a journalism major who knew little about photography, asked a friend to snap their photos and he posted them online the next day. “I got all these texts and e-mails,” he recalls. “I knew that night that this wasn’t a one night only event. I sat down with a filmmaker buddy and a photographer buddy and said, “let's keep doing this.”
Fogarty, who had been working for Mayor Nagin as a community aid, decided to incorporate his new venture as Dear New Orleans in January of 2010, racking up $5,000 in credit card debt to buy photography equipment. His pals gave him a quick photography tutorial, and he did his first shoot at a bar on Super Bowl Sunday, when the New Orleans Saints played the Indianapolis Colts. He charged patrons $5 to write on their hands and pose for photos. “A lot of the messages ended up being Saints-themed ones,” says Fogarty. The home team won that day, New Orleans went crazy, and Fogarty’s online images drew a barrage of traffic. A month later he left his job at the mayor's office and started shooting photographs in bars for “dollars in a bucket.” What he earned in the evenings allowed him to build Evacuteer during the day.
Over the next several months, it became clear to Fogarty that his work—“this really simple portrait where you show person’s face along with their message”—had serious impact. He took photos of Haitians in New Orleans after the earthquake in Haiti; he coaxed residents to write love notes to the Gulf Coast on their hands after the BP oil spill; and he helped Tulane students raise money for Invisible Children, a not-for-profit organization that works to end the use of child soldiers. “I knew that Dear New Orleans could scale,” says Fogarty. “It didn't matter what the topic was, as long as it mattered to the person you were photographing.”
Organizations started hiring Fogarty and the checks for his work kept getting bigger. “I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Harvard social enterprise conference in March,” he says. “That's where we launched Dear World and that's where things turned around.” This year, he’s done work for Tony Hsieh’s book tour, the Kauffman Foundation at this year’s Inc. 5000 Conference, Verizon, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the New Orleans Saints, among others. For each event, he charges $2,500 - $10,000. “My feeling is that if you have the money to pay Dear World to learn something new about your employees and your organization, then that gives me revenue to do work just because it matters,” he says. For instance, he recently traveled to Tuscaloosa to photograph tornado victims. “I think the next iteration of this is to build a platform where you could contribute money to some of the most moving portraits, like a tornado victim,” he says.
Fogarty’s goal is to grow and invest in Dear World as a stand-alone brand. But he’s adamantly opposed to doing “white label” work for corporations solely for promotional purposes. For instance, the photographs taken for Verizon were at a Take Back the Night event and the theme was ending sexual violence. You won’t see Fogarty taking photos of people extolling the virtues of 4G! So as he continues to scale his venture, his challenge is this: can he successfully turn his “art project” into a business while remaining true to his values?
The Experts Weigh In
Bill Witherspoon, CEO
The Sky Factory
How do you monetize this? He has to have product differentiation because there is going to be competition—the idea will be used and abused. What's to keep Colgate-Palmolive from doing this? What's to keep a jock whose only purpose is winning from pulling open his shirt with Nike written on his chest? So he has to keep me, the client, channeled to some higher good. That is his product differentiation. As long as he does that, he will be able to monetize and he will develop loyalty. He should even embed donations to charitable cause into his fee. This strengthens the channel of goodness.
Jake Nickell, Co-founder
This doesn't seem like a business to me. But it could be a powerful platform as a non-profit. Is there a way for this to be a platform for any nonprofit organization to communicate their mission, and to drive awareness to their cause? It's a neat way to do something interactive—what if anyone could upload their picture in support of a cause? Fundraising campaigns could be led by his photography and feature well-known people or people affected by the issue. But there could also be community-contributed photos, where people pay to upload their photos, and a portion of that money goes toward a cause.
Tom Szaky, Founder
They are beautiful photos, but this kind of feels like a trend, and trends come and go. How will he be able to keep up interest for people writing on their hands? It behooves him to assume that he is going to trend out in a few years, so he should look at the kernel in his work that has lasting power, and that’s the idea behind the photographs. Maybe his play is that he turns this into a cause-related advertising agency, and the photographs are just one of his platforms. Then he should look at what other modules fit into that mission.