Living With Intent and Being Brave

30th April by Jo Hastie

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Against all the huge negative impacts of the pandemic, for some of us it has also provided an opportunity to take time out from our usual lives and think about whether our work is really what we want to do, and whether we want to strike out on a different path. A. J. Leon, a legend in the world of digital storytelling and creative innovation is already living that change. For several years he had a very successful career in the financial sector, but in 2007 realised he wanted more in life and made the leap to establish Misfit, a social enterprise of creative companies bringing together experienced developers, marketers and digital innovators.   

An old and very dear friend of the AAW Group’s Tobin Aldrich and Imogen Ward, we were delighted to grab some time in his busy schedule to chat about Mistfit’s work, taking risks and how A.J.’s philosophy of living meaningfully imbues his commercial activity with a strong set of values. We asked A.J. to reflect on his own journey and tell us a little about how he and his team have helped many not for profits take the leap into transformational fundraising. 

AJ Leon image

Can you tell us about the way you live your life now and your philosophy of living with intent? 

I left Wall Street with nothing. In that lifestyle you spend more than you earn, living off your bonuses as you know they will increase exponentially every year. At one point I was homeless, living in a car with my wife Melissa.

But it was a grand adventure and it gave me time to think. I spent time writing around the ideas I believe should govern every decision I make. Over the years we’ve been asked to take on clients such as cigarette or fashion companies – I don’t want to wake up to be that guy that works with those companies. It’s all about living your life with purpose and intent. Having intent with every decision is at the core of all that I do.

How has that philosophy driven the Misfit Foundation and the work it does in the Third Sector space? 

The Misfit Foundation is Misfit’s philanthropic arm. From the start of my journey from my former life, I wanted to build a successful creative commercial business but also redistribute profits to social causes around the world. 

Our creative agency, Studio Misfit has now grown to 55 employees and clients on every continent – the more successful we are commercially, the more we can invest in people and organisations either directly or through our creative services. So for example, through the Foundation, we directly fund Jhai Coffee House in Laos. We also gave an additional $50,000 to the community to build a school for some of the farmers’ children, rather than having their lessons under a tree.

As well as redistributing profits directly, we also offer discounted creative and technical services to INGOs, charities and social enterprises. All of Misfit’s free services have the same standards as their commercial work. We don’t tell our employees whether a job is pro-bono or a paying client, so they receive the same attention to details, time and staff resources. 

Organisations we’ve worked with include Media Legal Defence Initiative which defends the rights of journalists worldwide, particularly in countries where they face persecution and even jail. 

We also invested 11,500 hours of our time for a project with the Chicago-based Paint My Mind which aims to transform people and spaces through the power of art. It cost them a third of the normal commercial cost. 

How do organisations come to know about you to ask for help?

We’ve been doing this since 2008 so people know about us, we don’t have to seek out projects anymore. Sometimes requests for help fit with our work, sometimes we just go back with advice and guidance.

Whilst we don’t have that many resources for handing out funds directly, offering our services can catalyst an organisation’s ability to gain the attention of stakeholders who do have more funds. With an effective brand, organisation can apply for grants, carry out effective retail fundraising etc.

Thanks to an introduction from our friend and AAW partner Tobin Aldrich, we worked with the Sankara Eye Foundation in India, a charity that aims to provide affordable eye care and to eliminate curable eye blindness throughout India, on their brand including site visits and a big rebrand video at no cost to them. The rebranding has totally transformed the way people view the organisation and that’s helping them go out and get more grant funding.

We’ve also worked with UK charities, including WaterAid - ‘The Big Dig’ campaign we worked on with them helped raise more than £2 million. 

An effective brand identify can totally remake an organisation. We can now invest tens of thousands of dollars in staff time doing one big project every quarter. 

How do you decide if something is a good fit for Misfit?

I have a good team around me to help make decisions. Our philanthropy has always been through the choices of one of our three directors to be personally involved - it’s essential we keep decisions close to the top as each project is a labour of love.

Misfit specialises in story-telling, can you tell us about your use of digital tools to transform the connection between donors and the people they support?

WaterAid pioneered the idea of village journalism – bringing a campaign to an individual person and place, sharing real stories from the ground.  Storytelling is about connecting beneficiaries and story-tellers in as direct a way as possible.

For our project to raise funds to build a windmill in Kenya to transform the lives of struggling farmers, we created a village blog – villagers with mobile phones were able to explain their problems directly. My thesis at the time was that as a potential donor if I can get behind the veneer, gloss and glitz of a campaign to see the actual person impacted, I will feel more compelled to help.

We’ve also created a mobile app called Snap Story to be used in the field to measure, evaluate and provide real-time analysis and case studies demonstrating impact. Monitoring and evaluation can be a huge problem even for small charities and projects. 

The charity Lessons for Life Foundation (now part of Street Child) was the first organisation to do a full-scale deployment of the app. Their original monitoring of their work in Uganda involved a paper form for each child they support taking seven minutes to fill in – if you have thousands of children that can be a huge task. Snap Story reduces that time to two minutes, leaving people to do the jobs they are meant to be doing and creating a digital database of children with search tools and photos. Thanks to Snap Story, the teams in the field can easily send updates to donors to see the evolution of the project first-hand. 

The app has now also been rolled out in India, South Africa and Nepal. We’re still working on it to turn this into an open-source software for a wider audience to use. It’s still early days of this self-funded software, but it is already generating great, authentic stories.

You talk regularly about the important of taking risks and facing failure. Can you tell us more.

Some people in the third sector are so risk averse, they will never try out new things. If your aim is to maintain the status quo and remain invisible, everyone will ignore you. That’s fine if you never want to put your neck out.

But most people aspire to be different, distinct, unique – they want to know that the world would be different if they were not there. 

However, our aspirations as organisations (which in fact are made up of collections of people) often don’t align with courage. It takes courage to be different in life, in business and in the third sector. I spend half of my public-speaking life trying to find new ways of saying this. I tell people this is your life, you only live it once, which is actually a terrifying fact. Some day you may regret the decisions you have made, but it’s a well-documented fact that most people will regret the things they didn’t do. My ideology of life is baked into my business life and at the root of my work philosophy. Life is not a Hallmark Card.

I started this crazy-ass journey over 10 years ago. I never thought I would be where I am now. I have the freedom to help and say yes to whatever I want. I don’t have investment partners. It’s rare to have such freedom, independence and resources to support projects that can help change the world.