Entrepreneurs Pitching In

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In the aftermath of a catastrophic wave, entrepreneurs cook up creative ways to help.

There was no champagne on New Year's Eve at the Jericho, New York, offices of Integrated Direct Marketing, but there was a good deal of celebrating. Three of the marketing firm's 12 employees were working late on an e-mail campaign for a longtime client, a men's Catholic missionary group, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which claims thousands of members in 71 countries. What made the client, and its mission, so relevant on this particular holiday is that the Oblates happened to have more than 400 volunteers already set up in offices in Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia, which had just days before been devastated by a deadly tsunami that, to date, has killed more than 150,000 people in coastal Asia.

In the days after the event, Integrated Direct's employees, led by account executive Anthony DeBetta, worked furiously to pull together an online fundraising drive for the Oblates, who were even better suited than volunteer groups like the Red Cross to help out. And though it was late on New Year's Eve, and DeBetta and his team had planned to leave the office hours before, their persistence paid off. The fundraising campaign--directed at 26,000 people who had already donated to the Oblates' cause--began raising more than $1,000 an hour for tsunami victims. By New Year's Day, says DeBetta, the company had helped the missionary group raise $15,000, and the effort is ongoing. DeBetta says the goal is to help raise $250,000 by the end of January.

"When we heard the news we felt helpless like everyone else," he says. "The campaign helped us get out all the pent-up energy. It's been so successful--it's definitely a cause for celebration."

Thousands of companies around the country have been pitching in to help tsunami victims, as DeBetta's firm did, and the results are everywhere. Cities and communities have declared "tsunami relief days," in which they encourage local business owners to donate a percentage of sales to the relief effort. Business and charity groups have banded together for raffles, rallies and fund drives to support the cause. AnswerNet Network, a three-time Inc. 500 winner and the world's largest telephone answering service, offered its services by answering phones during a live UNICEF fund drive, broadcast on NBC, which raised $9.9 million. And at least a handful of business owners have come up with some truly unusual ways to aid the effort.

Julie Kenney, president and founder of a celebrity gift-bag boutique called Jewels and Pinstripes, is hoping to assemble the biggest and most expensive gift bag ever. And given her progress so far, she might just do it. Kenney's usual business strategy involves lining up clients, mostly high-end retailers, who want to get their products in front of A-list celebrities. Kenney assembles a gift bag that includes freebies from these clients, and then both Kenney and the companies cross their fingers, hoping the freebies will be worn, used, or otherwise endorsed by celebrities who receive them.

Over the holidays Kenney spent time brainstorming ways to help tsunami victims, and now she's assembling a colossal gift bag, to be auctioned on eBay in early February. Proceeds will go to Save The Children, and the funds will be specifically earmarked for tsunami relief. Kenney is hoping the bag itself will be autographed by celebrities like Halle Berry, Kevin Costner, and Tom Hanks, and the list of freebies is already quite exotic: She's received a $250 inflatable guest bed; a $4,000 pair of diamond-encrusted blue jeans; a $3,600 four-night vacation in Cabo San Lucas; and a $950 jeweled purse. Her deadline for gift-bag collections is January 26.

From Jenny Kompolt's perspective, the outpouring from celebrities has been quite remarkable. Her company, the Kompolt online auction agency, helps celebs and others set up high-profile eBay auctions, most of which benefit charities. The likes of Bon Jovi and Warren Buffet come to her when they need help giving money away creatively. And since the new year, her phone has been ringing off the hook. Ellen DeGeneres auctioned a Toyota Prius for $36,800, which she donated to tsunami victims, and Jay Leno is set to auction off a Harley Davidson Road King.

Other businesses, like WorldWinner, an online gaming company with headquarters in Newton, Mass., have been taking tips from their customers about how to help out after the disaster. One of WorldWinner's regular players suggested that the company donate the proceeds of a gaming tournament to tsunami victims, and WorldWinner's five-day event, featuring games like Skillgammon, Hangmania, and Word Mojo generated a total of $4,300.

Though many of these companies might be small in size, they and many others have found big ways to make a difference. Their efforts might translate into money for the relief effort, but it's their entrepreneurial solutions that make the donations possible.

Last updated: Jan 13, 2005




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