I Don’t Mean To Be Too Altruistic

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Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, I don’t mean to be too altruistic, but…” The but is usually followed by the admittance of an act of generosity that they recently committed, like giving money to a charity or volunteering their time to support a cause. But instead of proudly owning the thoughtful gesture, they qualify the good deed so they won’t be labeled a “do-gooder.”

That has never made sense to me. I’ve never understood this attitude or where it came from. Why apologize for doing something good for someone else? I mean, shouldn’t generosity and kindness be something we are proud of? And why worry about being too altruistic? Wouldn’t it be better if people were even more altruistic in their attitudes and their actions?

Personally, I think answer is yes. Here’s why. First and foremost, giving and contributing to organizations and causes absolutely matters to the people it helps. More importantly, it is true that you always get more back than you give. Call it karma, or just needing to know that you matter, but community service makes you feel better about yourself and the world around you. And finally, giving with pride sets an example that encourages and inspires others to do the same. So yes, I believe altruism is a damn good thing and something we should be proud of.

I tend to be a very private person, and the last thing I want to be accused of is being “preachy,” but I also believe in speaking the truth from the heart, so I’ve decided to share my story. Doing meaningful work that makes a huge impact is the driving force behind Cactus and a mission that we have been pursuing as an agency since 1990. But my journey started a few years before that.

After graduating from college, I landed my first professional job at an agency in Denver. I learned the ropes from some true pros, met some wonderful friends and began to explore what a career in advertising was all about. But after a year on the job I was miserable. I did not have an affinity for the clients or the kind of work I was being asked to do. And I definitely felt like a cog in the bill-more-hours-agency-machine. I was at a low point in my very young career and I longed for more. I needed to know that my work mattered and contributed something positive to the world.

Around that same time, a co-worker gave me a book called “Critical Path” and told me the story of Buckminster Fuller, or Bucky as he is affectionately known. You never know how an act of thoughtfulness may affect someone in ways you can’t even imagine. That one book changed my life, and I can honestly say it has been the driving force of my career since I read it in 1989. It set off a firestorm inside of me that burns bright today and I am so grateful for the inspiration it gave me at a time when I needed it the most. After reading it, I saw the world in a different way. I knew my life mattered and that what my dad told me wasn’t just parental rhetoric, but it was actually true –– that I really could do anything I set my mind to.

Why did Bucky’s story have such a profound impact on me? Because his life was living proof that an individual’s work does matter, and that it can have a profound impact on the world. Here’s the short story. Bucky Fuller was a brilliant man, but he considered himself a failure because of his frustration working within the corporate system of America and the bureaucracy of government. So when he was a young man in his 30s, with a wife and daughter, he made the decision to end his own life. At the eleventh hour, he decided that if his life had come to that point and wasn’t worth anything, he might as well conduct an experiment with his remaining years. He vowed that from that day forward, any and all work he would do had to benefit 100 percent of humanity. What a bold statement. Talk about your big, hairy, audacious goal. Really, everything you do. Benefit every human. Really? Yet that is exactly what he did.

Here are his most noticeable accomplishments: 28 Patents; 30 Books; Geodesic domes –– the strongest most sound structure system in the world; Dymaxion House –– a more efficient way to build a better house; Dymaxion Car –– 3 wheels, sat 12 and got 60 miles per gallon; Dymaxion Map –– a new map of the world that doesn’t distort actual land mass like a globe does; World Game –– think the opposite of War Games and the notion of dividing and conquering; Coined new concepts –– Spaceship Earth, Synergy, and Tensegrity; and Fullerenes –– carbon molecules that were named after him because they are shaped like geodesic domes.

So, yeah, he mattered. I would call Bucky Fuller probably the greatest altruist that ever lived. He proved that only good things can come from being an altruist and being proud of it. Bucky had a profound impact on the world and his contributions are enormous. Altruism fueled his life and he went on to create for five more decades. His life and work encouraged thousands of others to do the same. And I am one of those people he inspired.

So in June of 1990, I founded Cactus with two partners who took that leap of faith with me. From day one, part of our vision was to help support the growth of non-profit organizations by bringing to them the same level of branding and marketing usually reserved for big companies. Together with my business partner Norm Shearer and the other 48 people at Cactus continue this commitment today. And we believe that we can do meaningful work that makes a huge impact for all sorts of great brands in the private, public and non-profit sectors.

Over the past 23 years, we have had the honor of working with 78 cause-related organizations. Most of the work was pro bono, some of it was heavily discounted and even some of it was paid work with big media budgets. But all of it meant more than a job to us. It meant that we were bringing the power of branding, marketing smarts, creative solutions and world-class production to non-profit organizations, government agencies and foundations. This work has included a diverse range of issues, including sustainability, environmental, public health, tobacco cessation, mental health, obesity, housing, employment training, violence prevention, substance abuse, health screening and prevention, human services, fine arts, culture and outdoor recreation.

I am proud to work in an industry where creative agencies of all sizes and types contribute thousands of staff hours and millions of dollars in pro bono services every year. Our industry has enormous power because of our ability to solve any problem through innovation, ideation and creativity. And I’m happy to see more and more agencies talk boldly about doing work that makes the world better rather than worse.

The most famous example is creative icon Alex Bogusky, who after moving to Boulder and leaving CBP, publicly renounced the sins of his past and made a commitment to get to get back creating positive change in the world. Alex has a huge following and a loud voice and I was really glad to see him use it that way. It surely inspired even more creative agencies to do the same. The important thing to remember is that we all have the power to influence society, in either direction.

The reason I started to do some soul searching on this topic was because of a recent invitation I received from AD2, the young leaders of the Ad Club of Denver. They asked me to give a talk about the value of public service work in the creative community and a behind-the-scenes look at the Man Therapy campaign. The event is a fundraiser to support AD2’s public service campaign for this year’s non-profit partner, We Don’t Waste, an organization that works to ensure that good, quality food from restaurants and caterers does not go to waste. The event is $20, which includes free food and craft beer from our friends at the Odell Brewery. The event is Thursday, December 5 at 6 p.m. at Thrive in Cherry Creek. Please RSVP for the event at http://adclubdenver.com/ad2-public-service.

Keep up the good work.


Somehow ruthlessness has been paired with success in our psyches. The near anomaly is the altruistic climb to to the top. These ideas should be available to our young ones, so they can see that there is another path. At the end of the day, it is the help I have provided that seems to give my life value not so much the dollars I have hornswoggled. Well said Mr. Conrad.

While idly listening to the radio this morning, I had to turn it up as a story came on; it was about a famous celebrity who, before his recent death, had anonymously bought a ring for a less fortunate couple after overhearing them in a jewelry store. It reminded me of your article and I have to agree that it would be a great thing if "anonymousness" became less popular amongst acts of charity.

Personally, I love to hear of good deeds; it restores my faith in humanity. There were a group of photos that recently circulated the web depicting random acts of kindness - they made smile just as the radio story brightened my mood today. I believe that not only do these kinds of stories make us feel good, they're inspirational and encourage others to do the same.

I would also like to take this chance to personally thank you for speaking at our event tomorrow and very much look forward to meeting you.

Thank you so much Joe for everything you do at Cactus, in Denver and for the community at large. We really appreciate your presentation at our fundraiser and look forward to seeing the Man Therapy campaign and our own campaign with We Don't Waste grow in the coming months!

The Ad2 Denver Board

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