What would you do for a pair of trainers?
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A Thursday morning in February and the mood is romantic in the Summerill & Bishop shop in west London. The lighting is soft and the air heady with scented candles; a long table is covered in one of the brand’s signature colourful cloths. The table is laden with flowers, cake stands and biscuits sprinkled with sugar hearts.
These sweet treats have been made for the Age UK Valentine’s Day Gala, a tea party to bring together 400 Kensington & Chelsea residents who might otherwise have spent the day alone. The bakers are 30 of Summerill & Bishop’s most enthusiastic customers, each of whom have been promised a reward in exchange. Fashion buyer Rosalyn Holman swings by with three well packed containers. “I’ve made a brownie and cookie mix, Smartie-covered biscuits and heart biscuits, although unfortunately those have expanded…” she says dubiously. They look delicious. Holman adds the goodies to the growing pile, then stops by the cash desk to claim her “reward”, one of those gorgeous tablecloths, which retail for £295.
Earnt, a for-profit organisation based in London, has been hooking brands up with charities since last year, designing pop-up events that customers can both help with and benefit from. They’re incentivising goodwill, if you like, pairing consumer desire with philanthropy. When a customer signs up to do a good deed and delivers it, they get something they want in return. In this instance it’s a fancy tablecloth. Another time, it might be priority access to a hotel or restaurant. Or festival tickets. For now it’s small-scale: events have been limited to 30 to 50 volunteers, but each one has been booked out in hours.
“The brand chooses the cause, and we create the activity,” explains Lauren Scott-Harris, who co-founded Earnt with former Onefinestay COO Lavina Liyanage. With 20 years of experience building luxury brands as a PR, Scott-Harris had her lightbulb moment while watching queues for limited-edition trainers and wondered: what if you offered them the opportunity to jump the queue if they took part in a verified beach clean-up? “People are prepared to queue or hit refresh on a browser for hours,” she says. “Let’s put that energy to good use by lending it to those who need it most.”
The trial event took place in west London last year and was a fairly lo-fi affair. “We partnered with The Brown Dog pub to help rebuild Barnes Primary’s playground,” says Scott-Harris. Volunteers received a silver tankard with their initials on it to keep at the pub – and their first pint on the house. “The playground got rebuilt and everyone got to know one another too.”
Since then, Earnt has matched customers of pyjama brand Desmond & Dempsey with Age UK in Lambeth for a home-cooked meal delivered in exchange for discounted PJs, and held a community gardening event in Brighton where volunteers earned VIP access to Soho House events. Brands pay Earnt for the cause connection and event; charities provide the expertise and infrastructure needed for the activation. “They know where trees need to be planted, what trouble spots there are for litter and how to clear it effectively,” says Scott-Harris.
Eventually the goal is to go international, which Scott-Harris plans to roll out in three phases. First, they need a solid foundation of brands and causes – then they can move on to “building hubs in locations globally”. The last step is creating technology that can connect brands and volunteers automatically. “We want it to be a new model of consumption that’s as easy to use as a credit card,” explains Scott-Harris, who likens it to online payment method Klarna. “I want to be able to get off the Eurostar, look at my Earnt app and skip the line at the Louvre by doing a litter pick that afternoon.”
It’s a novel – and ambitious – proposal that taps into a renewed interest in community and volunteering. “Brands have followers rather than mere customers, so mobilising this connection is definitely a good idea,” says Margery Infield, senior consultant at charity thinktank NPC. Other recent efforts include the North Face’s “Clean-Up Hikes”, which pair volunteers with local activists in a bid to remove waste from the world’s parks and wild places.
To achieve the best results, says Infield, the nature of the volunteering needs to match the skills of the volunteers. She also warns that volunteering can often come in short bursts, “so it will be interesting to see if platforms like this can encourage more long-term engagement”.
For now, however, volunteers aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Earnt’s latest events include litter clean-ups with The River Café and Design Hotels, the latter on paddleboards and with rewards including complimentary stays in London, Edinburgh and Amsterdam. “The last litter pick-up we did was pretty disgusting,” warns Scott-Harris. Incentive enough? It depends on what you’re willing to work for.
Sign up at earnt.co.uk