Interview: Stephen Greene, Chief executive, RockCorps

Putting on an exclusive gig with Orange to inspire young people to volunteer.

credit: David Devins
credit: David Devins

When Stephen Greene was running a disability charity in Michigan in the early 1990s, he got frustrated with the sector's difficult relationship with the big brands. "You'd go to a corporation for support," he says. "You'd walk past the brand director's office, which looked really nice and had loads of activity, then the media office, which was a bit smaller but nice too, and you'd walk on until you got to the community relations folks. But I always thought 'What if we could go straight to the brand director? What if our social activity could be part of the brand itself?'"

Greene went off to business school at the University of California, Los Angeles, and set up a management consultancy. By the time he had returned to the sector 10 years later to set up youth volunteering promotion group RockCorps, corporate-charity brand relationships were commonplace.

This summer, Greene is bringing RockCorps to the UK, where it will be known as Orange RockCorps, after its sponsor. The organisation is offering 16 to 25-year-olds tickets to an exclusive gig at the Royal Albert Hall in exchange for four hours' work on community projects. The line-up will be varied to cater for different musical tastes. So far American rapper Busta Rhymes has been confirmed as the headline act.

Greene acknowledges the appeal of the Orange brand and says the company is a powerful ally. "Corporate relationships are not a panacea for all things social," he says. "Everybody knows that Orange wants to sell text messages - but to do that by engaging young people in their communities is much better than to do it by buying 10 more Justin Timberlake commercials."

There is also something egalitarian about rewarding young people with concert tickets. "You can't buy your way into the front row at a RockCorps gig - you can only volunteer for one, so my four hours is the same as your four hours," Greene says.

The UK operation will involve 60 community projects working with 20 charities. The gig itself will be attended by 5,000 young volunteers at the end of September. In the first project earlier this month, 70 volunteers overhauled a school playground in Hornsey, north London.

Greene is keen for more charities to get involved and suggest potential projects. "When I was running a charity, if someone had brought me 100 teenage volunteers on a Saturday morning, I would have broken out into a cold sweat," he says. "But we do the logistics - the registration, the staff, the supplies - and we bring the DJ and the turntables."

The scheme has been given the thumbs up from Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, director of volunteering organisation CSV, who Greene met for tea when he arrived in the UK. However, others are concerned that it will change the motivation for volunteering, and could open the door to a 'hierarchy of altruism'.

Greene argues that the ticket incentive is there only to introduce people to volunteering. In the US, he says, 35 per cent of RockCorps volunteers have gone on to volunteer elsewhere. "People tend to volunteer later in life, but starting early means they're more likely to do it again," he says. "This gives them the first push off the couch."

Is it harder to persuade young people to get involved in their communities than older people? "Young people are more willing to give than ever, but there's a gap between stated desire and action," Greene says.

"But we're not here to change what volunteering is - we're just here to bring a new crowd in."

GREENE CV

2003: Chief executive and co-founder, RockCorps, Los Angeles, New York and London

2001: Consultant, Stephen Greene & Co, Los Angeles

2001: MBA in finance and entrepreneurship, University of California, Los Angeles

1991: Executive director, the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, Michigan

1988: Partner, Wearable Art Inc, which designed and sold batik and tie-dyed clothing on tour with rock band Grateful Dead.

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