Want to go backstage at a taping of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart? How about a grueling workout led by General David Petraeus? (It's hard. I know. I pitched the idea to him as I was struggling to keep up with his 5:30 a.m. pace.) Thanks to a new campaign, some lucky winners will get their chance. But why are these two titans of comedy and combat working to support a little known St. Louis veterans profit with a big idea?
In the fall of 2004, Jon Stewart sat on a CNN stage. On one side, were two dye-in-the-wool republicans and on the other two die-hard democrats. The show, Crossfire, was well-known for partisan hacks going head to head. Stewart, uncharacteristically serious in tone, exposed the limitations of combative left-right political conversation. He took a success and revealed it to be a failure (Crossfire was canceled in what many presume was a reaction to Stewart's appearance).
Three years later, on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, General David Petraeus would face an equally bitter divided partisan rancor on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Though initially heralded as a barrage, the testimony of Gen. Petraeus marked a sea change in the national conversation about the Iraq war. He turned an abject failure into an acceptable success.
Though one alchemist turned gold into lead and the other lead into gold, both used the same methodology. Stewart and Petraeus rose above the entrenched political debate. Gen. Petraeus re-framed how America fights its wars. Instead of fire and maneuver he spoke about winning hearts and minds. Jon Stewart took the absurdity of some political discourse and exposed it with an emperor has no clothes moment on CNN.
Now both men are taking their outside the box thinking to the world of philanthropy by supporting a small organization run out of St. Louis, Missouri that is re-framing the national conversation about veterans. The organization, the Mission Continues, gives fellowships to returning veterans to engage in public service. While much of veterans' charity importantly focuses on helping returning veterans (what can your country do for you), Mission Continues fellows embody an "ask what you can do for your country" philosophy by continuing to serve their communities when they leave the military. What this accomplishes is a priceless return to a sense of purpose and gives meaning to their sacrifices and their strengths. Around the country, there are Mission Continues fellows teaching special needs children, helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and even teaching ballet in the inner city.
Stewart and Petraeus are not the only innovative public figures to pledge support for Mission Continues. Aaron Sorkin, Bob Costas, John Oliver, George Stephanopoulos, Admiral Mullen, and other creative thinkers are raising money for the veterans organization by offering everyone with an Internet connection a chance to win once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The experiences range from hanging out with Stewart backstage at the Daily Show to learning the art of strategy in a game of Battleship with Admiral Mullen.
Celebrities' leveraging their influence to support causes isn't new. But the way these guys are doing it is. Traditionally, these types of once-in-lifetime experiences are only offered to small groups of wealthy donors via an auction. But these guys and many other celebrities, athletes, and performers are partnering with a new socially focused start-up, called Omaze, that's created a platform that offers everyone a chance to participate by donating.
On the surface, Stewart and Petraeus might seem like unlikely supporters in the fight for veterans. But when you ignore the labels and focus on the ideas (as Stewart did on CNN or Petraeus on the Senate floor) something incredibly interesting is revealed. Two men, with a penchant for disruptive ideas are partnering with an innovative non-profit to run a new kind of socially innovative campaign. We are certainly not in Kansas anymore. In fact, we are way in the vanguard of social entrepreneurship, where anybody can get a chance to interact with his or her heroes and at the same time support a great cause with a powerful idea -- empower veterans and in turn, they will help improve your community.
Given the increasing need for non-profits to solve many social problems, the landscape is ripe for new models of philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. By supporting a bold idea about veteran's re-integration, and fundraising for it in a groundbreaking way, Stewart and Petraeus might just be up to their old tricks. They are re-framing the national conversation once again, changing not only the perception of veterans in the country but revolutionizing the way we think about supporting good causes. Time to lace up those running shoes.