It started with a 9-year-old’s pronouncement, “I want to help animals.” MaryMargaret O’Neill’s father, Gabe, suggested she broaden her goal. “Why stop at animals? Why not people, too, or the environment?” From that moment in 2008, father and daughter took a germ of an idea and grew it into Kids Are Heroes, a global non-profit organization that features over 200 children from all over who are making a difference. Its mission is to encourage children to tap into their passions and to showcase those who have taken the initiative to bring about change to their communities. It provides support and resources to them, as well as ideas for others who wish to get involved. Its annual “Kids Are Heroes Day”, held in the O’Neill’s hometown of Frederick, MD, features guest speakers and provides an opportunity for children to highlight their causes, putting their passions for a cause on display for everyone to see.
“We do not tell kids what to do when volunteering,” Gabe O’Neill says. “Instead, we help them find their own passion and then support them as much as we can.”
With over 38,000 followers on Twitter and 3000 likes on Facebook, Kids Are Heroes is a prime example of putting social media to use for the social good. In fact, the organization was named one of Mashable’s “Top 5 Must Follow Non-Profits Making a Difference with Social Media.” But they haven’t stopped there. On September 9, the O’Neills will join Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines and a vigorous proponent of social entrepreneurship, as guest speakers at #DSRPT11 in Richmond, Va. I spoke recently with Mr. O’Neill and asked him about the evolution and future of Kids Are Heroes:
How is KAH different now than when you first began?
I think our vision is the same, yet we do have many more people that are supporting us than we had in the beginning. Since we are still very small we are able to hold on to the basic principles of what got us started. The fun stuff is really starting to happen as we get more widely known, such as people who live in a distant country doing original artwork for us, and we are starting to be asked to speak around the country.
What projects and events is your organization currently involved in?
We are coming up on our fourth annual Kids Are Heroes Day which is scheduled for October 29th at the Francis Scott Key Mall in Frederick, Maryland. This is an event that invites children from the website to come celebrate what they do. Still being more than two months away, we already have 20 heroes scheduled to attend and they are coming from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida.
We are also faced with a wonderful speaking opportunity in early September. MaryMargaret and I have been invited to speak at the #DSRPT11 conference (the acronym refers to “Disruptive Thinking”) in Richmond. We are in the company of Richard Branson and Mark Victor Hansen who are also scheduled to speak. We are hoping this will be a springboard to more speeches around the country and beyond.
What is your “brick” campaign?
It is not easy being a tiny non-profit in this economy competing with so many other great non-profits for donor money. We felt we had to think outside the box, so we came up with a system where people could buy “bricks” on our virtual giving “walls”. In return the brick would have a picture of the donor or a business logo with a link back to a website of choice and some promotional text that pops up when a user hovers the mouse over that brick. We have found this the most successful way to get online donations and it is helping us to fund our biggest event of the year.
How can adults get involved in your organization?
We have an outreach leader program. Since we have cast a very thin net around the globe we decided the best way to get more people to find out about us is to recruit volunteers to help us spread the word within their own communities. People who are interested can find out more at www.kidsareheroes.org/outreach.
How do you “find” your heroes, or rather, how do they find you?
I find a few in our local papers but nowadays most of them are suggested to us via Twitter. Thankfully we have a very high Google ranking so many people also find out about us just through searching.
Has social media been the key to getting exposure for your non-profit? What other tools do you use?
Absolutely. Since our budget is so small we don’t send out brochures through the mail, or advertise anywhere that costs any money. I would have to say that at this point social media is THE ONLY method we have used and continue to use. We work so hard at it because it has been so effective for us. We feel we are very fortunate to live in an age where social media is so prevalent. We would not have accomplished half of what we’ve been able to without it. Through social media we also find our outreach leaders who also use similar tools to help raise awareness for us.
What is some advice you would give other non-profits regarding using social media to promote their cause?
The first thing I’d say is you have to do it. Web sites without social media support cannot benefit from the extra traffic the social media channels would generate. More importantly, without investing in social media you will be giving up all the potential connections to people who can really help your cause.
The second thing I would offer is that social media is a marathon, not a sprint. Although results may not be seen instantly, you may get a few “wins” early (like we did). For us we are really seeing the efforts pay off now on a consistent basis. But the work must be put into it from the beginning and on an ongoing basis, and the non-profit must have patience.
Who “runs” your organization? Do you have a team or is it still you and your daughter?
At this point it is just my wife Michelle, MaryMargaret and myself. The reason that we have not recruited other board members as of yet is because we had formed another local non-profit in 2006. We recruited board members right away and although the organization is still standing and doing well I didn’t like the politics that crept into the board meetings. Our vision for the organization was watered down by the others as they did not have the energy and passion we had to build it and add more programs. So this was a very valuable lesson for us. We have a distinct vision for Kids Are Heroes and it is a very lofty goal. We want to take it as far as we can ourselves before we add other board members who cannot possibly have the passion we do for the organization and what it does. This was our primary reason for recruiting outreach leaders. We can have the benefit of other people helping us and giving us ideas yet still maintain control.
What has been the biggest surprise for you in all this?
I would say that the children themselves continue to surprise us. Last year we had a summer event at a venue in Gettysburg. They promised us 500 kids in attendance, so we invited all the kids from the website to come. Well they never advertised the event and 500 became more like 50. I was so embarrassed as the parents had spent all this time, effort and money to come. I thought the kids would be sorely disappointed. They never batted an eyelash. They LOVED it. The main reason was that they got to get to know each other and actually inspired each other to continue with their causes.
Later that year we had our 3rd Annual Kids Are Heroes Day. I was shocked when I learned that Diana was traveling from Nairobi, Kenya to be here with us. Despite how much I love Frederick, it is not a cosmopolitan city that would be tops on anyone’s list to visit. But she came just to be with other kids like herself who have giving hearts. This is what taught us that it is SO important to get the kids together in a social situation after the actual events of the day. They will be leaders in 10-15 years and this gives them an opportunity to build their networks early. It also shows them that they are not “freaks” as some of them are called in school — there are other kids out there just like them.
What special challenges, if any, have you run into since starting KAH? How have you overcome them?
Well of course there’s the financial challenge that I mentioned earlier. It’s hard for people to see why we need money as we are not feeding the poor or trying to cure a disease. We honestly feel though that we will have a much greater impact as we empower kids to become compassionate leaders of the future who may well indeed feed those poor and cure the diseases. So the donor walls have helped us a bit with that. However, we will need much more than that kind of support to achieve what we have planned, and we are hoping to find a corporate sponsor or an “angel” somewhere who understands our vision and supports us.
Like in any venture, rejections are par for the course and we have had our share of them. I’ve always had the attitude that rejections are nothing more than stepping stones to success so none of these “failures” have lessened our passion for moving forward. We have seen the impact our children have had on other kids and their families so we know that we are on to something.
Are you surprised by how global you have become? What does MaryMargaret think of all this?
At first I was a bit (surprised) but that just shows the power of social media. We are now in seven countries and I have no reason to believe that we won’t expand in many others in far less time than it took to get to the seven. Plus we plan of course to expand within each country to add more heroes from each one. It just stands to reason as we have people from virtually every country following us on Twitter and also because social media makes the world so small.
MaryMargaret loves it. And it sure is broadening her horizons. When our hero Diana came from Nairobi last year for Kids Are Heroes Day she and her chaperone stayed with us for the entire week. What an experience that was as they were inseparable the whole time. She is now involved in a program offered by our heroes in Indonesia, who translate letters from Indonesian to English and back so that MaryMargaret can communicate with some kids in an orphanage there and vice versa. This is just SUCH a great experience for her.
Where do you see KAH five years down the road? What do you hope to have accomplished by then?
We would like Kids Are Heroes to be a household name, all over the world, in five to ten years. We know this works all over the globe. Kids in different countries may not speak the same language but most of them have giving hearts, and many have yet to learn how to tap into them. We hope to have the website translated in as many languages as possible, have outreach committees all over the world, and hope to be able to host events in different countries so we can bring these kids together. We plan to have mentoring systems in place and offer micro-loans to help support some of the kids’ efforts. We also hope to be able to offer scholarships to some of our heroes.
Know of a “hero”? Want to learn more about Kids Are Heroes and how to get the kids in your life involved? Check out their website, www.kidsareheroes.org, and follow them on Twitter at www.twitter.com/KidsAreHeroes.