A campaign to distribute clothes for homeless and runaway children turned into a lesson in the virtues of private discussions among nonprofit executives and advisers.
Cell phone company Virgin Mobile developed the idea of a "Strip2Clothe" campaign with American Eagle Outfitters. For every video posted of a person removing one article of clothing, Virgin would donate a piece of clothing to an agency serving homeless youth. For every five views of that video online, the company would donate another garment.
It approached the National Network for Youth (NN4Y), which represents about 400 agencies serving homeless youth, about being an official partner in the campaign. The two entities had worked on a similar "Text2Clothe" campaign last spring, which elicited a somewhat paltry response. Virgin staff told Vicky Wagner, NN4Y's CEO, that the Strip2Clothe concept would be "targeted towards the MTV generation."
"I honestly thought, ‘You can't possibly be serious,' " Wagner says. There is an obvious disdain for the skin professions, such as stripping, among those who work with runaways and homeless youth, who are often recruited into work like prostitution.
Wagner felt better when Virgin showed her some sample videos, which included people revealing a shoe or a top shirt. Still, she says, "I was nervous about it."
NN4Y decided to test the idea internally among member agencies. Middle-aged staffers, typically, were turned off, she says, while young people at shelters generally liked it. NN4Y's board gave Wagner "a green light," says board member Mark Rieder, CEO of Haven House Services in Raleigh, N.C.
"We were going to partner with these people," Rieder says. "Obviously, the thing was not finished in design."
Wagner assembled the network's policy council, which advises her but does not have official say on network business, to show it the videos and begin discussing the idea of partnering with Virgin Mobile. The council walked away with mixed emotions about the campaign, Wagner says.
"There was a lively discussion about the pros and cons," recalls council member Pat Holterman-Hommes, vice president of St. Charles, Mo.-based Youth in Need. Holterman-Hommes says she felt the campaign was inappropriate, but also says she knew that "Vicki was going to negotiate" with Virgin Mobile about the substance of the campaign.
The Strip2clothe campaign had been tested for reaction on Craigslist in one part of the country, Wagner says. The online page was technically viewable by the public, but was not yet marketed or identified anywhere on Virgin's website.
But policy council members were given instructions on how to find it. And because of some staff changes at Virgin, someone prematurely posted the names of all the NN4Y member organizations on that page.
Then things got a little ugly.
Jim Bolas, director for education at New York's Empire State Coalition, sits on the NN4Y policy council. Wagner says Bolas "never voiced concern" about the project at the meeting on June 22.
Margo Hirsch, executive director of Empire State Coalition, e-mailed Wagner on July 1, saying she was "distressed at the message the Virgin Mobile campaign is sending" and that the coalition would be circulating a petition against it.
Wagner responded that afternoon: "We are working with Virgin to try to convince them to change this campaign ... . We also are concerned with the messaging. I will let you know the results."
The coalition sent out its petition anyway, which says, "We are disappointed in The National Network for Youth's support in ‘Strip2clothe' and are unified in our resistance to Virgin Mobile USA and American Eagle clothiers' exploitative project." The petition received 359 signatures online, the vast majority from people or organizations who are not members of NN4Y, and quickly prompted Virgin to dismantle the project.
The petition also generated news stories with such headlines as, "Virgin Berated for Naked Publicity Campaign" and "Virgin Mobile Axes Stripping Campaign." Most stories mentioned NN4Y as a partner.
Virgin has since developed Blank2clothe.com, a campaign that invites people to post videos of themselves performing any particular talent they have.
That switch could have been made without the negative public attention, Wagner says. "It's important to know when you're having conversations that are privileged, [and] those that are public."
She said the agenda for NN4Y's next board meeting will include securing confidentiality agreements for all board and council members about discussions of agency business.
Contact: NN4Y (202) 783-7949, www.nn4youth.org.