The American Idol Of Philanthropy?

08/11/2010 12:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm singing my heart out.

A while back I was driving through Hollywood late at night and I saw a billboard advertising the Pepsi Refresh program. Pepsi, it said, was giving away money to fund ideas that could make the world a better place.

I said to myself, "Self, make a mental note to check out that website." Because I have an idea. I started a small, grassroots nonprofit called the Saralee and Carol Foundation, to help women with cancer get treatment that is denied or delayed by their health insurance companies. If this Refresh program is for real, it could help us get off the ground and make a real difference.

Well, it turns out, it is for real. Pepsi has committed to giving $1.3 million away this year, to help philanthropic ideas succeed. They are not the first large corporation to try this -- Chase Community Giving donated millions to small nonprofits, and the American Express Members Project is awarding select charities $200,000 each. Each program has different requirements, but all have one thing in common: public voting determines the winners, and to the winners go the spoils.

It's an interesting approach to corporate responsibility, and to giving in general. Cause-related marketing has been around for ages, whether in the form of a donation box at the local supermarket, or part of the price of a yogurt carton going to cancer research. But this time, the public at large has a much greater role to play: it will decide which projects are most deserving to receive the support.

This is a very exciting concept for a new nonprofit like mine, one which doesn't yet have the kind of track record required to apply for many foundation grants. It takes the case directly to the people who would benefit from our efforts.

Some would ask if this is really a measure of which project is most deserving, or merely a measure of who has the most connections? I would say that it's a bit of both. It takes a great deal of effort to get a project into the running at all, and a glance through the current list will tell you that most of them deserve to be there.

Ultimately, though, it's about the votes. Like the contestants on American Idol, each of us is singing our hearts out, hoping that our voices will be heard and our song will hit number one. We hope that our melody is the one that will stick in your head, the one that you will sing to your friends, families and co-workers tomorrow. We are reaching for the stars.

I hope you'll take a look at the many ideas featured on the Pepsi Refresh website -- and, of course, I hope you'll take a look at mine. The Saralee and Carol Foundation is named for my mother and my best friend's mother, both of whom died of cancer. They had to fight their health insurance companies every step of the way to get the treatment they needed. In my mother's case, a delay in care caused by her health insurance company caused the complication that took her life. With your vote, we can help other families avoid the pain of losing a loved one and knowing it could have been prevented.

Please visit our voting page at Or text 101549 to Pepsi (73774). You can vote once every day. While you're there, browse the other ideas, or come up with one of your own. We can all make the world a better place.