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How AMD mobilizes a green army

Something remarkable happens when you put corporations and nonprofits, executives and activists, and artists and scientists together to brainstorm. Such paradoxes were the magic ingredient in the conversations at the second annual South by Southwest ECO, held in Austin, Tex., earlier this month. The participants demonstrated why multi-sector, interdisciplinary teams are greater than the sum of their parts.

On Day One, I participated in a roundtable discussion with one of these teams to learn how their strategy for results-driven civic sustainability engagement could be applied to other cities.

“We had been comparing notes with Dell, Whole Foods and other local businesses on our sustainability and employee volunteerism efforts when the idea hit us,” said Tim Mohin, Director, Corporate Responsibility at Advanced Micro Devices, better known as AMD. “It was one of those forehead-slapping moments. If we combine our efforts, we could field a veritable army of volunteers that could accomplish amazing things for the local community.”

The idea took root when AMD stepped up to sponsor the first such combined volunteer effort at South by Southwest ECO. “Since it is our backyard, we thought it was a great opportunity to try out our green-army concept,” said Justin Murrill, AMD’s sustainability manager.

To field an army of green-minded employees, AMD started by working with other local businesses like Dell and Whole Foods. Then, it teamed up with the City of Austin, Austin Community College, and the University of Texas at Austin.

“We quickly realized that partnering with nonprofits such as Keep Austin Beautiful, the Waller Creek Conservancy, American YouthWorks and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center was essential to the success of this concept,” said Murrill.

“By tying this idea into the SXSW ECO conference, we not only maximized exposure and involvement, but we have created model for other events to follow,” said Mohin. “Imagine the good we could achieve if corporations could choose to sponsor a volunteer event rather than a coffee break at conferences around the world.”

In conjunction with the conference, AMD sponsored the cleanup of Waller Creek, inviting hundreds of volunteers to help clean up trash along the urban waterway. Starting on University of Texas's campus, volunteers worked their way to down to Lady Bird Lake, picking up litter by foot and by kayak. The daylong project covered 25 blocks of creek through central Austin and included tree planning on the UT campus. A volunteer reception followed the event.

“The idea was to bring networking into this,” said Mohin. “As a member of the tree planting crew, I can tell you that we all bonded in planting a really nice Oak tree on the UT campus. We even named our tree ‘Murphy.’ It was a much richer experience than the typical wine-and-cheese reception,” said Mohin.

From the nonprofit perspective, this event not only offered a free workforce to accomplish the cleanup, but exposure to local companies and the out-of-town participants in the conference represented an opportunity to tell their story.

“Groups such as ours make fantastic partners for community-focused volunteer efforts,” said Rodney Ahart, executive director of Keep Austin Beautiful. “I would encourage any company to reach out to its local Keep America Beautiful affiliate for help with a cleanup or other environmental initiative.”

It’s About Leadership, Not Litter

Jim Walker of the University of Texas sees it as more than cleanup. “This is about experiential learning. People want to know that their volunteer work is part of something bigger. One-offs won’t get us where we need to go fast enough.”

The ripple effect extends to social benefits as well. “American Youth Works engages youth in green jobs training,” said Parc Smith of American Youth Works, part of the coalition. “We are offering this project as a leadership experience for young people.”

“I have not seen this sort of crowd sourcing done for the environment in other places,” said Mohin. “AMD recognized this as a transformative opportunity to translate green intentions into community action.” One of the outcomes of this will be an ‘event-in-a-box’ template for other cities and event planners to replicate, available from AMD later this year.

“I’m pleased to see our conference used as a platform to mobilize solutions,” said Scott Wilcox, director of technology for South by Southwest. “When you get the buzz going, it’s great, but then you get home on Monday morning and it fizzles. I’m interested in seeing relationships being sustained long enough to turn into solutions. Talking is great, but doing is better.”

For my part, I’m looking forward to introducing AMD’s model to groups in Dallas, where I'm based. Like cities across America, we have vital commercial and nonprofit sectors, as well as a number of Fortune 500 corporations, that could collaborate to tackle an environmental problem in our city. Time and resource constraints often present barriers to designing such campaigns. AMD’s "event-in-a-box" could shorten the planning timeline, offer a workable template for enrolling citizens, and show corporate sponsors how to make the most of their investment. It’s proof that high-impact social innovation can be as simple as putting a puzzle together.


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