THE BLOG

Million Dollar Challenge Transforms Businesses Through Service

01/31/2014 08:20 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

If you and your colleagues are feeling motivated to do more to produce positive change in the world or help those in need but don't know where to go, what to do, or how to start, participating in the Super Service Challenge may be your answer. The Super Service Challenge is a nation-wide initiative that aims to make it simple and easy for employees at companies of all kinds to come together and help their communities in a meaningful way. Now in its third year, the initiative encourages and rewards volunteer teams who choose a local charity, serve that charity and then submit a two-minute video or photo presentation of their service on the Super Service Challenge website. Winning teams receive a share of more than $1 million for their charities. This year, more than 2,200 teams in 42 states participated, serving more than 700 charities across the United States. Winning teams received a range of grants, and 29 major prizes of $10,000 or more were awarded to charities throughout the nation. The top four teams nationwide each received $25,000 for their partner charities along with four grand prize trips to the Super Bowl.

The challenge started locally in 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana by Defender Direct CEO Dave Lindsey. Lindsey's mission was to revolutionize the workplace by turning a giving company into a "company of givers". His goal was to help companies bolster their communities all while raising their own morale and results - simply by creating "a culture of service. " New Orleans Saints' Quarterback Drew Brees got involved with the Challenge in 2012, after seeing the impact it had in his own community. The Super Service Challenge brought a total of $1,000,000 to New Orleans - which helped build homes, create soup kitchens, and change the lives of New Orleans' neediest. Brees was so inspired that he reached out to his friends and encouraged them to reach out to their friends too, sparking a chain reaction of positive change. After being held locally its first year, the challenge was regional its second year, national in 2013, and will be going international this year. Brees will officially announce and acknowledge this year's four winners today.

And as part of this year's challenge, they also released 50,000 Acts of Service - which include many easy and fun ideas that we can all implement in our daily lives. Here are just a few examples: give a homeless person your extra change, buy a coffee for the person behind you in line, give a generous tip, thank a police officer, offer your seat to someone on the subway or stop in at a nursing home facility and visit the elderly. Even the smallest act of service makes a difference- and the goal is to have people do 50,000 Acts of Service around the country.

In the following interview, Lindsey offers more motivation and inspiration on the rewards of giving and advice on how to get started. If you'd like to join the movement and take part in the Super Service Challenge, all you need to do is plan a service project for your favorite non-profit charity and in the process you'll compete to win money for that organization. To find out about how you can join the challenge, visit superservicechallenge.com.

Marianne Schnall: I just wanted to first thank you for the work that you do. Obviously it's a beautiful mission that you have and I'm happy to help promote it.

David Lindsey: Thank you for the opportunity to let us share our story - I'm in awe of what's happening, as much as anybody.

MS: Speaking of a story, one of the things I was interested in is your own path. What led you to devote yourself to a life of service? Can you talk a little bit about your own background and your own journey to a life of giving?

DL: It's been one little step at a time. Probably one of the first proactive forms of service I did was just joining the Big Brothers, Big Sisters Program in my 20's. I started serving just by mentoring my little Brother, who I still have a relationship with today, twenty-something years later. From there as our business began, we started being blessed with our business growing and began giving back financially. A really big moment along the way was going down to Mexico to build a home for the poor with a group called Homes of Hope. It all began with just my family going down for a three day mission build in Mexico, to build a home for the poor and it just really turned something on inside of us to do it together- there was a great spirit of teamwork. We came back from that and said, man this is something we want to do with our management team, so we came back about six months later with our management teams and their families and built another home down in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico. From that, we decided, this is something that we want everybody in Defender [Defender Direct, the company he founded] to have a taste of, so we set off a journey the last five years and have built over 200 homes down there and now have sent over 5,000 people down to build.

That was, obviously, a big commitment by our company and something that has blessed our company immensely; that kicked off 'giving on steroids' within our company.

MS: How exactly was the Super Service Challenge born?

DL: We've always given our employees days off during the year to serve. "Giving Days" we call them. But up until about three years ago, we were not overly impressed with the Giving Days participation. Some people used them, some people didn't. The ah-ha moment in our company was when our company finally let the employees take the lead: Our company said, 'you guys go wherever you want to go. As long as it's a 501(c)(3), take your Giving Day and you go serve where your heart is.' And I have to say in that moment, what I saw happen at our company was we went from being a giving company to a company of givers. And it's just a lot more fun to work with a company full of givers. It just came alive, and it was really empowering the individual employee to follow their heart - we are a company now of all these hearts and all these stories, instead of the company trying to create the story.

Then we threw a little excitement in and said as long as everybody's going out and serving, we'll put some prize money up and take a little video, answer these questions and come back and share it with us.

And when we sorted through those videos and hearing the teams come back, I was just blown away at the stories, that we were working together every day in a community with these people, spent all this time at work and we never realized all the stories. For example, one of our employees had been homeless six months before he worked at our company. We never knew this. He had been working at our company for a number of years, but he took some of our employees back to the shelter that had helped him get on his feet and served there. And to hear him tell that story, just brought tears to my eyes. Without the Challenge, our employees may have never shared those stories, or never known that depth and now they're sharing in that deep relationship, understanding each other's stories, really.

During that time our productivity went way up, we had some of our highest sales and fulfillment rates-- and what I say happened during those 90 days, is we changed the water cooler conversation at the company. Every morning, people were coming up and standing around, getting their cup of coffee in the morning and saying, 'Hey did you see that video that Rich posted yesterday? I didn't know Rich had been homeless' or 'did you hear about our team who served at the children's hospital?' And the camaraderie and the motivation and loyalty, just in the company - it was the kind of things we always hope for on our teams, that we just saw these spark plugs going off. That was the genesis of it. The first service challenge was inside Defender Direct and it just grew from there.

MS: That's so great. I know it keeps growing and over 2,200 teams participated just this year. What impresses you most about the four finalists?

DL: What impresses me the most is when you look at, first of all, just them as a group and the variety. We have Eli Lilly, an amazing company, so well known for giving back to the community and then we have Walt Danley Realty, a small company in Arizona, and if you see the videos there's such variety and it shows how unique we all are, as individuals. We've got Wells Fargo and the Astoria Group in New York packing backpacks for elementary school children and feeding the hungry. What impressed me was just the diversity - young people, old people, people from all corners of the country and all walks of life - and they're doing what matters to them. It's inspiring to see that palette of giving. There are so many ways to do this.

MS: Of course they all are different projects, but do you see any commonalities among them? How do all the teams that participated this year embody the spirit of service?

DL: They're doing something totally different than their work, but having such great teamwork and spirit and camaraderie. That's something, as employers, we're always wanting - and it's because they've taken something out of themselves and given it away and now they have this shared experience. We spend all kinds of money, all the time, trying to motivate people and we hear Gallup talking about employee engagement and how important it is, and it really is. But there's no better way to get there than to have people to go out and serve together.

MS: It's interesting because I interview a lot of well known celebrities who do a lot of charitable work, and I always think it's ironic that our society is so structured about trying to get famous, and about the accumulation of wealth and material possessions, but I always find the people who get there, they find the most satisfaction and fulfillment in their lives, is through giving. This is sometimes perceived as something you do for somebody else, but what do you see as the rewards of giving, to the people who participate in these teams and otherwise?

DL: I think that we are made to serve. We all have this thing that we want to be happy, but happiness is really a result of something, and I think it's when we give of ourselves that we really are happy. Work can become very me-centric - about my paycheck, about us making money, and when we get a chance to really give like this it creates so much positivity. What we're really after in the Super Service Challenge is, is to inspire a greater purpose in our work, than profit. There is a higher purpose to us being together, and when we're able to serve, it just creates an energy and a happiness that I think we're just hard-wired for.

MS: I definitely agree with you. I know that these days people feel very overwhelmed by their own lives and sometimes don't know where to start. How does the Super Service Challenge help empower people to serve? In what ways does this make it easy for everyone to join the movement, and how can people get involved?

DL: That is really the essence of the challenge: We want to make it easy - easy on a lot of levels. There's a lot of people sitting at their desks saying 'I wish my company would do a program, or do a program I cared about.' So we wanted to make it easy for them. And it doesn't matter whether you're a big company or a small business. The number one thing that makes this easy is the employee chooses where they serve. When you empower a team of 5, 10, 50 people to go serve, guess what? They do all the paperwork themselves. They send each other emails and texts and directions on where to be and when to show up, so there's not as much infrastructure needed. I mean, we had 50,000 hours of service done and really nobody managed all those hours - all the teams were self-led.

And here you get to have fun, answer three questions in a video. Then you just upload it to a site and you're in this contest. And the fact that there's this prize money involved, gives everybody extra energy and motivation to actually talk to the director of the charity, to capture the story. It doesn't even have to be that the whole company endorses it. When employees do it, they don't have to get a bunch of permissions and forms filled out - they just go and do it. So it makes it easy for a person to invite someone and kind of a little bit of structure to participate in something bigger than themselves.

MS: I know that it continues to grow in its scale and its impact. How has the Super Service Challenge evolved and what sort of real positive changes have you seen over the last three years, as a result of the challenge?

DL: Well, I mentioned it started in Defender and it spread out to Indianapolis and then we had this opportunity with the Super Bowl last year, to go to New Orleans, and I was just in awe of watching it grow in New Orleans, to 250 teams, but then this year it grew to 2,200 teams and that just blew me away. The truth is, this is a movement. The Super Service Challenge isn't an organization. It is a group of companies where Defender led the way, but a number of companies and givers have put money into a pool. It goes into an account that Brees Dream has partnered with us, and all the money contributed goes to prize money. There's just this movement happening organically. And we had so many people from all parts of the country wanting to get involved. So this year we said, well, what the heck - let's just do it nationwide, and we had teams all over the place. So next year we'll keep growing with that energy and momentum, and now folks in different countries are saying, 'well, we want to do it next year too!' It kind of has a life of its own. So it's on track to go worldwide.

MS: That's really exciting and I do think that there's a wave and people are realizing that there are so many benefits, even for businesses, as you said, realizing that this has benefits to them in terms of productivity. Do you see that working with people in the corporate world and these business leaders that you work with - how do they respond, do they understand that this is something that serves their company and also the bottom line, as well as helping the world?

DL: Yes. There's a great book recently written by Patrick Lencioni called The Advantage and in the first few pages of the book, he talks about the difference between a smart company and a healthy company, and that we have to be both smart and healthy to win. But, we tend to spend, as business leaders, 98 or 99% of our time trying to be smart - smarter than our competitors, we're going to know marketing and sales and all the science of business, we get into that and spend so much energy on that, and we don't spend enough time on the healthy side of our business, which is this engagement and this motivation on a real level with our employees. So what we're seeing is that this is the way to increase the health of our teams and of our workplace. I can try to get one of our sales departments to work better all day long, but if they go out on this Super Service Challenge and together they decide where they want to serve and they come back with smiles on all their faces, and start telling me about what they did together, and how they changed lives, that is when I see a turned on team. That's a team that will kick the butt of our competitors.

MS: I've heard you say that your mission is to create companies and communities of givers. How do you take a "giving community" and turn it into a "company of givers"?

DL: I think you do it by giving the employee empowerment, with choice. That was the lightning in the bottle, because I don't think any of this works if the person who is standing there hadn't chosen to be there, it wouldn't work. If their boss had chosen it, and said 'you must come,' they would have just been packing a box or planting a tree. We always say, 'don't just volunteer, serve.' And it's a difference. When we volunteer, often it's about ourselves-- it's, ok, I'm giving up my time and then we just show up and we wait to be told what to do.

When we serve, we turn our focus from ourselves to the people we're serving, and we go, what do they need? How can I help? And we do that in an individual level. And that's why we call this the Service Challenge. Because those people chose to be there that morning and they're looking around, what can I do? How can I help? How can I film a video to know these people better, to win money for them? And they're out working on their behalf, and that's what gets us excited - volunteering to me, doesn't get me excited. Serving has a personal touch and a personal motivation, and it's just a whole different kind of energy.

MS: I know we were talking earlier about how busy everybody is and overwhelmed, often, with our own challenges. What general advice do you have for people who want to start contributing to positive change in their own communities, but don't know where to start?

DL: One thing on getting started, I would recommend-- just do it. People look at our company and we do a lot of different giving and they think that we had some big master plan. It hasn't been that, at all. It's been just jumping in and trying different things and seeing what works. The process has been one little step at a time. Another thing that is so important is empowering people - we keep going back to that - but figuring out what individuals want to do and where their heart is, where their lives had led them, instead of trying to figure it out at a big company level.

MS: I saw this great list - can you talk a little bit about the suggested Acts of Service, because some of those are just really simple things people can do in their lives?

DL: Sure. Are you familiar with the 50,000 Acts of Service we're going to do for the Super Bowl?

MS: No, I don't think so.

DL: We had 50,000 hours served during the Super Service Challenge, To highlight that 50,000 number, for this year's Super Bowl, we are going to pass out 50,000 blue cards all over Manhattan as part of a one week challenge during the Super Bowl. Doing an act of service might take you just 30 seconds - hold the door opened for someone, buy someone a cup of coffee - whatever will be printed on the card. You just take a photo of yourself during that Act of Service and you post it on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and tag us - and when you do that you'll have a chance to win one of two pairs of Super Bowl tickets. We want to highlight how easy to just do a simple act of service. Just with our press conference and with this happening during the Super Bowl, we felt this would be a way to highlight it.

MS: I think that's so great. I know the media often focuses on all the problems in the world, but I know from running a non-profit and the work I do myself, there are so many hopeful, wonderful acts that are going on every day. Do you feel optimistic that is where humanity is heading, to a new paradigm, where there is less greed and more giving and seeing ourselves more interconnected as one human family, to support and help each other?

DL: I absolutely do. When I get a chance to travel around the world and I really see it happening. America has been such a light in this. We know how great on a percentage basis, that individual Americans are at giving - but what I'm noticing around the world is a rising middle class pretty much all over - and these folks are wanting to give back, because it's the way our hearts are wired. What I notice right away, is as people are able to get to some basic level to provide for themselves and their family, that they right away want to do this for others. I'm very optimistic when I look around the world and see this.

MS: I am as well. Is there one last message you would most want to get out there and instill in people, one message you would most want to be delivered about the challenge, or just generally for people to come away with?

DL: My message would be that there is a greater purpose to our work, than simply profit. We spend all these hours together in the workplace, and when coworkers spend this kind of time together serving, there's a higher purpose than simply making our paychecks. The Super Service Challenge is the first step for employees and coworkers out there to start to understand this. The one thing I would love people to do is to go to SuperServiceChallenge.com and to learn about it and learn about these 50,000 Acts of Service, because we have a chance to really hit something here with the Super Bowl.

MS: As I said, it's very inspiring and I thank you for taking the time to do this interview and for all the work that you do. I'm happy to help promote it and send you best wishes with everything.

DL: Thank you. This is a movement. Please join us - let's keep growing this together.

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's website and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Marianne's new book is What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.