Jewish Journal

Magazine makes GOOD on charity lifestyle

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Nov. 15, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Ben Goldhirsh, the company's 27-year-old founder and CEO. Photo courtesy GOOD Magazine

Ben Goldhirsh, the company's 27-year-old founder and CEO. Photo courtesy GOOD Magazine

It was an unusual business model for any magazine, let alone one trying to get off the ground: Recruit subscribers not through direct mail or paid advertising, but by allowing them to earmark their $20 subscription to one of 12 charities.

But to Ben Goldhirsh, the brains and bread behind GOOD magazine, the plan was perfect. He and his friends had never responded to direct mailers, which typically cost about $30 per new subscriber. The "choose GOOD" campaign would save money, benefit a handful of charities and, most importantly, make subscribers feel like they're doing something, well, good.

"This creates brand allegiance, and that is what we want," said Goldhirsh, the company's 27-year-old founder and CEO. "We want people to say, 'GOOD is ours.'"

After a year, 30,000 people have done so, sending $600,000 to charities that include Malaria No More, Natural Resources Defense Council and Teach for America. GOOD, for its part, has achieved a lot of buzz as a hip magazine with a youthful perspective and a global mission.

Goldhirsh sees the GOOD brand, which also includes Reason Pictures, a film company he started in 2004, as much more than a media organization. It's "a meta-company," he said, "a lifestyle brand" that appeals to the "reason-based sensibilities" of people like him. People who know privilege and yet want to change the world in a big way.

"It is a revolution of self-interest," said publisher Max Schorr, a prep school friend of Goldhirsh's who skipped law school to help start the magazine. "In the past, if you pursued your self-interest, it was considered selfish. For us, the process of pursuing our self-interest leads to more than ourselves. If we just pursued ourselves all the time, it would lead to a lousy life."

The timing for GOOD was not a month too soon. Not long before the first issue was published in September 2006, Al Gore (whose son, Albert Gore III, happens to be associate publisher) and "An Inconvenient Truth" made combating climate change fashionable; going green and being eco-friendly got downright trendy. Suddenly, it was cool to care not just about the environment but societal issues and the whole world around you.

"If doing good used to be a pejorative and kind of lame, or somehow was characterized that way by culture, which I don't know how the hell that happened, then certainly being ignorant and living an irrelevant life is now that way," Goldhirsh said. "An engaged life is where it is at, which is thrilling to me."

Personally, Goldhirsh is "cause agnostic," so he didn't want to encourage some passions and stifle others; he simply wanted to celebrate a social awareness, which is why the magazine's debut cover featured in white block lettering "_____ LIKE YOU GIVE A DAMN."

"If this doesn't become the dominant sensibility," Goldhirsh said, "we are f---ed."

Goldhirsh's not-so-corner office occupies a central room on the second floor of a two-story house just off the Sunset Strip, that long ago was converted to offices. Not the kind of work space many millionaires pine for. The couches, to start, are stained and resemble the kind that college students rescue from trash day; the floor is covered with a rumpled crimson-and-blue rug; the legs of the desk are worn from dog teeth and the top is covered with loose papers. There are dog toys and a big bag of chow on the floor, a paintball gun in the corner and a musket on the couch. Employees constantly stream in and out, whether the boss is in a meeting, at his computer or napping on the couch with his dog, Daryl.

But Goldhirsh -- for this interview sporting a brown long-sleeved T-shirt with the left cuff rolled above the elbow, pale grey corduroys, white Wilson sneakers, a few-days stubble and bedhead -- is not your typical millionaire.

His wealth was bequeathed to him and his sister when their father died in 2003. Bernie Goldhirsh had been a hard-working kid from Brooklyn who, after college, started a little boating magazine that became Sail and sold for about $10 million in 1980. Then he created Inc. magazine, which he sold years later for $200 million.

Extravagance was not the standard of living for the Goldhirshes, though they did live on Massachusetts' north shore and Ben attended prep school at Phillips Andover Academy. So when Ben was finishing school at Brown University and his father succumbed to brain cancer, his bank account changed overnight but his perspective on life did not. Only he now had the funds to continue his father's entrepreneurial spirit.

"Because my father was so successful, I think [Ben] feels like he needs to prove himself, to not just be the head of something but to really earn it," Ben's sister, Elizabeth Goldhirsh-Yellin, said. "He really wants to make the world a better place, and he has a finger on the pulse of doing good while also doing well."

Goldhirsh-Yellin -- who along with her brother and a close friend of their father's, directs the Goldhirsh Foundation, which largely funds cancer research, Israel-related causes and entrepreneurship -- has chosen a different path, becoming to a degree, a professional philanthropist.

Heavily involved in Israeli archeology, a passion she acquired while attending Harvard Divinity School, she has financed projects that include the Hezekiah Tunnel Inscription Project in Ir David (Ancient Jerusalem). She also regularly funds Israeli cancer researchers, provides emergency aid, such as summer camp for children affected by the war with Hezbollah, and supports pro-Israel organizations like Christians United for Israel and CAMERA, a media watchdog that looks for anti-Israel bias and inaccuracies.

"I feel strongly that being Jewish is a great privilege, and I feel every day very lucky that I was born Jewish, and I feel an obligation to help continue the Jewish people and help continue Jewish culture and help support Israel," said Goldhirsh-Yellin, a 29-year-old New Yorker who took 200 Americans to Israel for her wedding in August. "It is the least I can do for everything Judaism and Jewish history and all the learning have given to me."

Ben Goldhirsh's interests are less specific to the Jewish community, which he does not express a strong attachment to, mirroring a trend among younger Jews who increasingly are interested in causes and charities that don't have the words "Israel" or "Jewish" in their names."I'm still trying to figure out how I identify myself," said Goldhirsh, who said he's rarely been to temple since his bar mitzvah. "A Bostonian? A businessman in the mediaspace? An American? A Jew? A Human?"

"I'm starting with the broadest one -- I'm human. That is the common theme that exists within all the decisions I make. If I am cause agnostic, that is my passion: the potential of our species."

Human potential is the real capital that GOOD is trying to generate. But magazine publishing is littered with the carcasses of ostensibly relevant publications that suffered some fatal flaw -- think George or Teen People.

"I've seen great ideas go down in flames because the timing was off," said Lou Ann Sabatier, principal of Sabatier Consulting Group outside Washington, D.C. "Here, the time was dead on."

Things have gone well for GOOD thus far. The seminal issue, featuring an essay by economist Jeffrey Sachs calling for an end to poverty and another piece about the United States' place in the world by New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki, was received well in the magazine world.

"I was really surprised at how much I wanted to read it, and how good it looked on a first glance of a first issue," Kurt Anderson, a former editor and founder of magazines such as Spy and Inside.Com, told the New York Times. "First issues aren't necessarily great, but I was impressed by how it looked, the writers they got to write. It's an interesting idea. Lord knows if they can make a go of it commercially."

Goldhirsh, who put $2.5 million of his own money into starting the magazine, said the publication is still running in the red, but that it is ahead of schedule to get in the black, something Sabatier said about 25 percent of the magazines published never do. But Goldhirsh doesn't want to be subsidizing GOOD for the next 50 years. It's either going to survive on it's own, he said, or die trying.

"We are on the precipice of becoming a great business or becoming a great case study on blown potential," Goldhirsh said. "I'm serious, and I'm losing sleep over it."

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