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PhiLAnthropist Interviews the Ultimate 'Do-Gooder': Ben Goldhirsh, Founder of GOOD Magazine

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'GOOD' is an understatement. Photo by Emily Lerman/LAist

On the South side of Melrose, right after La Brea, a small office building displays the word GOOD in big block letters through the large windows. Fittingly, it is the home of GOOD, the magazine 'for people who give a damn'. Founded in 2006 by the then 26-year-old Ben Goldhirsh, GOOD seeks to 'inform' and 'inspire', covering issues from Van Jones and green-collar jobs to street food to providing laptops to children in developing countries to economist Jeffrey Sachs' take on the state of the planet. It's a tough time for journalism, with the recent end of the Rocky Mountain News, Plenty and the elephantjournal, but Goldhirsh is figuring out how to use the tools of today, the energy of today and the climate of today to actively engage people and drive change. The magazine also donates their subscription revenue to one of twelve not-for-profits each year and, according to the most recent issue, has contributed over $1 million to 21 different not-for-profits to date.

The insightful and laid-back Goldhirsh, who calls LA "the sweetest city around", was kind enough to sit down with LAist and discuss his goals for GOOD in the context of where we're headed, getting involved in the community, the oceans, and a recent speech he heard about extraterrestrial life.

How did you end up here, with GOOD, and as a native of Massachusetts, why did you choose LA?

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I originally came to LA to go to film producing school at USC. I dropped out to a film making company called start Reason Pictures. They made a bunch of films but it digested quickly how long it takes to get an idea all the way to the audience and we felt that we wanted to have a more consistent relationship with the audience. Whereas each film is its own business, with the magazine, it’s a consistent platform that we have every month and the website is a consistent platform that we have everyday. I called up a couple of buddies of mine from home and said come out here and start this with me.

What was your original goal or vision for GOOD?

To see the sensibility of creative engagement and move from a peripheral place to more of a center place in society;

I think that has happened with Obama being in office, it’s a clear representation of where things are now, which is awesome, because it is not where things were when we started. When we started, a “do-gooder” was a pejorative, and we felt that this idea of living a relevant life was something everyone was thinking about, but it wasn’t necessarily a given that that was how people wanted to spend their time.

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But I think things have changed; things have become so shitty that everyone dug in and said ‘Fuck it I’m gonna figure out how to be part of the solution,’ and I think that’s what led to Obama getting into office. And I don’t think GOOD has anything to do with that, I think we were just one little drop in a giant wave that was coming to shore, and we were all just a part of it because we were of that age.

And I think what it means for our business is that if our initial goals were to kind of inform and inspire around this topic, now that everyone is informed and is inspired it needs to be moved to a kind of enabling and activating. So it is not just how do we inform and inspire, but rather how do we give people the tools to kind of live it and do it themselves, so that’s our focus.

What is your advice for people who want to give back in their communities?

It’s such a tricky time right now. The way I phrase it is that the wind has never been stronger for the people that want to give in but the ocean has never been rougher in terms of being able to go out there and make it happen. So how do you kind of find the right path within this?

The cool is thing I feel like there is kind of a flight to values now, because all the material stuff is screwed. I hope and expect that we will see an increase in volunteer hours, even though we will see a decrease in donations. I think the more people are aware of problems, the more suffering you see, the more empathy that exists.

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The immediate thing to ask is ‘What can you do right in your neighborhood?’ What are the very tangible things you can effect like ‘I’m gonna volunteer for 826 and I’m gonna help tutor kids’. Or ‘I’m gonna sign up for a year of City Year. And it is nice, because you can actually get a job like that and get paid, or you can kind of just find a way to spend your time that doesn’t cost you any money, but you can still add a lot of value.

Exactly. In a testament to GOOD and the Skid Row video series, I now volunteer with School on Wheels and tutor a 5-year old kid every week. My involvement with School on Wheels and my interest in downtown is directly a result of that series.

That’s really fantastic; see, what I would like to see now, with GOOD, is that a video like that runs, and as opposed to going out and finding an opportunity on your own, we want to be able to say “here’s some suggestions of things you can do right now”...if you look at that 'inform, inspire, enable and activate', you kind of want it to be a cycle, where you can share your pictures and experiences on Skid Row to inform and inspire other people, and more people can connect with you about that on the GOOD site. The goal is to make the site more of an ecosystem.

What is one issue going on that people need to know more about?

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… all the matters revolving around the oceans [there is a mass of plastic the size of Texas floating around]. I think in the same way global warming wasn’t the biggest issue and then became the biggest issue I think the ocean is going to become something where were all like “holy fuck, we dropped the ball on that one!” Not to say there aren’t a lot of people working hard, but I feel like that is an issue that isn’t really in the public consciousness yet. I feel like water is finally in the public consciousness, I think people are thinking about that, and in LA especially because we are so vulnerable from a water perspective...so what is LA going to do? Where are we going to get our water in 20 years?...Some of these big questions are really terrifying because I don’t really think anyone has the answers, and the trajectories of the problem is often steeper than the trajectory of the responses, so, yeah, I’d say the ocean is a big one that is coming, and specific to LA: water.

What characteristics are essential in creating a strong organization?

The best organizations are ones that are able to create a brand that means something, that people can recognize and get behind, like City Year, Teach for America, or 826.

I think the not-for-profits that take advantage of people’s own abilities are ones that are really successful since they allow you to give more than just a check, so I think 826 by saying ‘we need you to help tutor kids’, helps them take advantage of a lot of people. I think ones that really tap into creativity and both the human capital and the financial capital are the ones that are succeeding right now.

I am also really impressed with what Kiva achieved (profiled in GOOD's first issue); it is such a revolutionary concept.

On LA's community of not-for-profits...

In LA, I think City Year is really kicking ass and doing wonderful stuff, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship is doing wonderful stuff. [The same goes for] Heal the Bay and the NRDC.

What’s cool is that there are a lot of different people working different areas. [But] I think there needs to be more of a community of not-for-profits in LA where we can all share resources with each other. As opposed to not-for-profits who are working with the education system, all trying to navigate that system, there needs to be more coordination of resources and networks, so that there isn’t waste, because we need to do more with less now. Hopefully that happens.

I think LA is a really cool place right now for not-for-profits because there are so many problems and there is so much money. And there are so many cool people that want to help that it’s a vibrant and lively scene.

On GOOD's 'pay-what-you-want' subscription model...

Well we switched to pay whatever you want and partnered up with Global Giving. Let’s say you pay $10….$20 of value gets actually gets created; $10 goes to charity that you choose on Global Giving and $10 to GOOD. Pay what you want has been so successful; we stole the idea from Radiohead, people pay Radiohead more than the minimum, and people were paying for GOOD at more than the minimum, there is kind of a communal feel, when everything goes to hell, where people support the thing that they like; so everyone [should] support KCRW for instance; lets support the organizations that add value to our lives, and lets make sure they are here to add value.

On not blowing it...

I heard a really sweet speech the other day by the woman [Ted-prize winner Jill Tarter] who runs the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). [It was] and a good perspective to wrap my head around [and reminder] that we’re so fucking lucky to end up here....I actually say we are on a trajectory to blowing it. I think that’s the scientific reality that if we continue on this trajectory we’re not going to live here. It’s a daunting thought, but on the flip side, look at all the cool stuff that is happening, look at all the cool people out there doing sweet things. And that’s what allows us all to get after it.

Right, you can’t just sit back.

No, that would not be fun at all. And I don’t think were in a position right now where we should be doing that. I don’t think anyone is giving up. There is so much progress that has been made from a micro and macro perspective and there is so much good that has been happening that should give people optimism. I think right now we're focused on the economic reality because that is the most painful, but as we get through that hopefully the decisions we make will help put us on the right track in other ways.

I hope so too. Thanks so much for talking to LAist!

Visit GOOD.is to subscribe and find out about events at the GOOD space on Melrose.