Photograph by Christina Gandolfo
Ben Goldhirsh has spent the past decade trying to figure out how to profit from doing, well, good. He is the publisher of GOOD magazine and recently launched the Web site GOOD.is, which he describes as the “social network for people who give a damn.”
The 33-year-old grew up north of Boston, where his father made millions launching and then selling magazines such as Inc. and Sail. By the time Goldhirsh graduated from college and moved to L.A., his parents had both succumbed to cancer, leaving their son with a relative fortune on his hands. He decided to invest his money and the next ten years of his life in making good deeds seem cool. But it has taken him a few stabs to sort out how. Goldhirsh tried his hand at pushing for social change through movies, founding Reason Pictures in 2006. Of the six films he helped produce—a mix of documentaries and feature-length dramas—two earned Oscar nominations; others were spectacular flops.
The quarterly magazine, which he founded in 2006, has had its ups and downs as well. Last year he fired most of the editorial staff in order to refocus his company, GOOD Worldwide, around the new Web site. Goldhirsh wants to turn GOOD.is into a Facebook of sorts for community organizing—something that doesn’t just connect people but pushes them to take action. For example, they can register on the site the way they do on other social networks. But instead of a “like” button, GOOD.is has a “do” button, letting users post deeds they’ve done (cleaning up a local park, not eating meat on Mondays) and encouraging their friends to join in.
As with Facebook, the company finances itself by selling ads and sponsorships to corporations, many of whom want their brand to appear alongside the upbeat content.
Lately Goldhirsh, who spoke to us in his loftlike offices near LACMA, has been trying to inspire Angelenos to imagine what their city might look like in the future. His LA2050 project sketches a grim future Los Angeles, but Goldhirsh is convinced that with some redirection, the city can shape its own destiny.
You inherited the family fortune at age 23. Did you already have a plan about what you wanted to do?
It forced me to grow up quickly. All of a sudden I’ve got all these resources. I’ve never been a fancy person. I’m not going to go spend it on cars. I’m going to invest it to build something myself and try to add value. Growing up, every story my father told at the dinner table was about entrepreneurs. He looked at entrepreneurship not as a way to create wealth but as a way to respond to problems. And he really celebrated failure as a way to learn. “Go fail and go learn,” he would say.
You left the East Coast and enrolled in the producers program at USC’s film school. That didn’t last long.
I dropped out after my first semester. I had never paid for school myself before. Writing that check felt—well, I don’t want to say it. And anyway, I had the opportunity to learn by doing. So I started Reason Pictures. We made a documentary about Obama, By the People, and others such as The Messenger, about folks coming back from Iraq. We made a lot of expensive mistakes, though, that left a lot of scar tissue.
One film, Racing Dreams, was kind of like a Hoop Dreams for car racing. It won the Tribeca documentary festival but didn’t get distribution. That was a wake-up call. There’s no way we were going to be able to achieve our mission if we didn’t control distribution and have a brand that allows us to reach people.
And that’s what prompted you to found the magazine GOOD?
Yeah. I felt there was nothing out there to support an integrated life: the idea of both doing good and living well. There was this feeling that doing good had been branded as something sacrificial, that you have to either go to the Peace Corps or work in a soup kitchen. I was part of a generation that said, “No. I’m going to do well and do good.”
So you were trying to launch a magazine that made social consciousness feel more sophisticated and hip?
Doing good should get you laid. That was our original thesis. We wanted to do for engaged living what Wired did for technology. When we were kids, tech was nerdy. Today technology is badass, sexy, powerful.
The magazine made a splash when it launched and won accolades for its design. It all seemed to be humming. But then last fall you fired most of the editorial staff. Why?
Truth is, we had lost direction. Blame the CEO. We got into media as a means for doing good. At some point we lost the plot and were just keeping the business going to pay the employees. There was no one on that team who wasn’t busting ass. But we had people who were interested in being journalists and who happened to work at GOOD—not people who wanted to work at GOOD and were excited to use their journalistic skills toward that end.
GOOD.is was supposed to take that to the next level—expose people to positive ideas and then push them to act on them as well. Is it working? We’re starting to get traction. Since September 225,000 people have signed up. That’s not including a few million who come to the site as an audience.
Beyond the numbers, is there any evidence this is translating into action?
In April we created our first community holiday, Neighbor Day. More than 2,000 people in 23 countries hosted events where they invited their neighbors over to get to know them. It’s small, but it’s a meaningful pulse. I’m so jazzed about it.
GOOD is a for-profit company. Why does it need to be run like that?
One reason is because we’re not out there looking for grants. We’re adding real value, and we’re trying to monetize that. Every dollar we’ve made has gone back into the business.
A lot of your revenue comes from corporations. You’ve partnered with Pepsi and P&G. Does that ever get in the way of your mission? If BP came to you and wanted to do a partnership, would you be open to that?
I’m always open to a discussion. If the intention is authentic, then let’s figure out a way to add value to GOOD, to the community and to society. There are a lot of companies that are trying to do good stuff. And if these guys are going to pay the bills—awesome.
Los Angeles isn’t exactly the most neighborly city. How do you spur people here to take action?
A challenging aspect for the progress movement in Los Angeles is how siloed it is. You’ve got your education reform community, your ocean community, your juvenile justice community. You see a lot of awesome people working really hard but having to struggle to make a difference. It’s just tough. But when you work with all the different communities, you see a common DNA. They just don’t have a common context.
Of course not. They’re competing with one another for mind share and fund-raising dollars.
That’s the impediment. We just don’t have the framework for these folks to play together. GOOD.is is supposed to be the platform that gives them the tools to work together and collaborate.
Are L.A.’s rich people doing enough?
I think this city gets a bad rap. L.A. is filled with dedicated people. And not just on the traditional philanthropic side. It’s filled with philanthropists who bust ass with their money and their time and their brains.
Name a few.
Megan Chernin was in this office the other day. She runs the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education, which supports the school system. That’s a hard job. She’s got to add value on the funding side but also come up with solutions. This is not just to go to fancy dinners. I think L.A. has the best talent pool from a civic impact standpoint, from a social entrepreneurship standpoint. It’s a more impressive city than anyone gives us credit for.
If that’s the case, then why isn’t the talent pool bringing more results to the city?
You can’t knock the results you’re seeing on the environmental quality side, on transportation. In other places, like education, you may not see a lot of results, but we’re seeing a lot of people push real hard. So do you blame the players on the team for that or the landscape on which they are playing? I mean, we’ve got a pretty complex ecosystem. We’ve got more than 600,000 kids in the school system speaking how many different languages? There are lots of efforts and lots of solutions afoot in the market right now that are working. We just haven’t been able to put them to scale.
You also run the Goldhirsh Foundation, which gives away $3 million a year to projects in and around Los Angeles, as well as LA2050, an initiative geared to tracking (and boosting) the city’s progress in several key areas. In fact, LA2050 foresees a future L.A. that’s impoverished, congested, and socially disjointed if trends in employment, education, and environmental degradation continue.
We have a 55 to 60 percent graduation rate in the LAUSD. In some areas it’s 30 percent. You know that there aren’t more jobs coming for kids without high school diplomas. In the back of your head you’re saying, “These curves don’t add up.” So there’s a delta that’s going to hit unemployment, the tax base, infrastructure. We already have a polarized city in terms of wealth. When does it start to look like Johannesburg, where people drive around in bulletproof cars?
Do you really think that’s where we’re heading as a city?
It would be stupid to not think so. That’s why we published the report, so we can look at the actual metrics. Do you want to live behind a really high wall? That’s not hyperbole; that’s reasonable projection.
You’ve asked people to come up with solutions that the foundation will fund. The proposals are all well meaning: greening skid row, arts education. But they’re not new, and in order to have an impact they need to be rolled out on a massive scale. How is that delivering on the vision you mapped out?
Well, it’s not. But 60,000 people participated, voting on the proposals. Now we’ve got the beginnings of a base. Now we might be able to effect a conversation: What is your opinion on policy X or policy Y? I have no idea if this thing is going to work, but it’s not going to take a ton of people to aggregate their clout to lead this city.
But can you get people to care? We just had a mayoral election in which fewer than a quarter of the electorate showed up at the polls.
It’s true, we’ve lost the notion that government is us. We’ve lost ownership. But on the other hand, I’m not that concerned because I think this opens up opportunity. I believe we had 200,000 Angelenos on the GOOD site last month. We could be influential.
The city has more than its share of critics and, as LA2050 underscores, more than its share of challenges. So what’s the best thing Los Angeles has going for it? And you can’t say “the weather.”
It’s a super-entrepreneurial city, a superhungry city. A lot of people came here to get busy. Add to that the money in this city. And the problems. If you’ve got money and problems and appetite in the same venue, it’s an equation for action. And you might get stuff wrong along the way, too. I think we’ve got to stop peppering people for getting stuff wrong.