Jonah Sachs, and his long-time friend Louis Fox, started Free Range Studios 10 years ago as a creative agency with a conscience. Sachs, named one of the “The Thirty People Cleaning up the Earth” by Shift magazine in 2001, first realized the tranformative power of media as the editor of his college newspaper. He recalled, in a recent interview, releasing issues and seeing the entire student body reading the paper. He realized then that producing media at scale has the potential to amplify conversations about issues that press the world today.
Recently the agency, with offices both in Berkeley, CA and Washington, D.C., announced its Youtopia grant, a pledge of $15,000 worth of free design and strategy services to a non-profit and socially responsible business. The grant program, despite name changes, is in its 7th year of existence, and past winners include Green for All and the Global Resource Center for the Environment (GRACE), most recognizable for its viral flash video, The Meatrix (see video at Free Range’s site).
Though the ethos of Free Range has always been focused on giving a voice to non-profits, who in large part are ignored or under-resourced, the agency doesn’t always find itself doing pro bono work. That’s one of the reasons why the grant was created in the first place. The Youtopia grant, however, isn’t just about offering resources to those who lack them. “We added the grant to stay in touch with the social change movement,” said Sachs. The grant is seen as a platform, a Craigslist of sorts, a venue to create awareness of the different social actions ventures and projects out there. “Free Range wants to be a beacon, to inspire competition among other creative agencies to see the value in communicative media for social change.”
The studio typically receives 500-600 applications per year, but this year’s grant is slightly different in nature. Project proposals are voted on by the studio’s client and fan base. This year, according to Free Range, the world will decide who the Youtopia grant finalists will be. Ideas, in the eyes of Sachs, will therefore become part of a global conversation about what the world needs now.
This is also the first year Free Range is offering a grant to a socially responsible business. When asked about the shift, Sachs suggested the difference between a non-profit and a for-profit isn’t that notable. To him, if the end goal is the same, that if two organizations’ intents and purposes are aligned, an entity’s specific legal structure compared to the other’s didn’t matter that much. Opening up this year’s grant to a for-profit business, therefore, isn’t necessarily about addressing a sector that non-profits typically do not, but rather elevating and expanding the arena of exposure for social action.
Sachs is quick to clarify, though, that arena for social action has evolved. “It’s no longer about trying to get people to care,” said Sachs. “Social consciousness has pervaded into the general public consciousness.” Now the debate is much more complex and sophisticated.
Now, instead of debating the validity of global warming, the conversation is shifting to how best address it. And with no one having the golden answer, those conversations can get tricky. Even those within the same camp often find themselves fiercely divided on things like carbon trading and cap-and-trade legislation. This is where Free Range’s particular brand of storytelling comes to surface. To, as Sachs calls it, “engage in a rigorous but civil debate” about the issues that affect the world in which we live.
The challenge is how to make an issue simple and apparent enough so that even a child may understand it, but still do the complexity of the matter justice. For Sachs, striking this balance is where media becomes truly effective.
Applications for the Youtopia grant are due by October 31st. To find out more, visit Free Range Studios’ website.