Mixing Trouble, Fun, and Altruism to Drive Positive Change Danny Rosin - Co-Owner and Co-President of Brand Fuel & Co-Founder of Band Together

Danny Rosin is the co-Owner and co-President of Brand Fuel, a free-spirited promotional products agency that helps its clients elevate their brands. He is also the active co-founder of Band Together, a volunteer-driven organization that has donated $7.5 million to 16 nonprofits through the southeast’s largest charitable concert event and an innovative concept called “partnership philanthropy.”

With his business partner and long-time friend, Robert Fiveash, he is also deeply invested in growing Reciprocity Road, a $200,000,000 distributor-supplier partnership, with a percentage of sales supporting communities that they call “BrandGood.” Danny is also championing PromoCares, a new organization focused on helping the promotional products industry create corporate social responsibility programs to use as a sales differentiator – and ultimately, improve the world. Danny is also an Executive Board Member of the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Triangle American Marketing Association.

What initially inspired you to make a difference? 

I’m not sure if it was inspiration or desperation, but it definitely started during my middle school trouble-making years. At one point I was told that I had more demerits than anyone in my school, Norfolk Academy. At the time, I was proud of that. I thought it was cool to get in trouble.

I recall one defining moment when my best friend, Charlie Kollmansperger, and I developed a diabolical plan to skip class and sneak in as a participant in our high school’s homecoming parade. To be in the parade, you had to be leading a school club, which we were not. Our school’s administration gave student club leaders classes off to work on their homecoming floats.

So, Charlie and I created a fictitious club, as a joke, that we dubbed “The Happy Club” to get us out of class. We told everyone this new club was founded to make people happy.

We realized that we had a problem when teachers asked about the club’s actual charter. Rather than get into more trouble, we decided to create a formal club with a real charter, mission statement and a plan. Our mission was to make unhappy kids in unfortunate circumstances happy. And so, we launched the first fundraiser as The Happy Club. We organized friends and raised money for children of The Joy Fund. This Virginia nonprofit was, at the time, providing the names, ages, and addresses of local kids in need.

“Back then we did a lot of ‘ringing and running,’ so we created a collaborative concept merging the ring and run prank with doing something good. We would wrap Christmas packages for kids, and on Christmas Eve go put them on the doorstep of a home where kids were not going to experience much of a Christmas. We would ring the doorbell, and run away. Hiding behind nearby bushes or cars, we would watch the smiles on these kids’ faces light up. Nothing felt as gratifying.”

Putting the ‘Fun’ in Fundraising

It was the fun, cool and unique manner in which we were raising funds that opened my eyes into moving beyond traditional fundraising paths. I went to a high school where boys had to wear ties every day. I understood the respect and honor aspects of being dressed up but realized there was an opportunity to up-end this 250-year-old tradition a bit. So, The Happy Club convinced the administration to let everyone dress in mismatched clothes for one day. We called it “The Mismatch Contest.” If students bypassed traditional formal attire that day, they were asked to donate $1 to The Joy Fund to help us fundraise to buy more presents for needy kids in our area.

The day before the contest, as a reminder, we wrote “MM” on students’ hands as they got on their buses. We were amazed to see that approximately 90% of the students came to school the next day dressed up in the most extravagant and wonderful mismatched clothes. We enlisted teachers as celebrity judges that helped unify teachers and students for The Joy Fund/Happy Club cause. I had bragged to everyone how we had awesome prizes for those who won the contest, but I never mentioned what these prizes were. At lunch, we delivered the prizes to the winners of the contest. The prizes came from my attic and were things like a single ice skate, a used Barry Manilow album collection from my sister and an old license plate. Everyone thought the prizes were hilarious. The school participating in an outrageous fundraiser was what mattered most.

So that’s how the whole “from troublemaker to do-gooder” started. While we raised only a few hundred bucks, it was memorable, fun and created some buzz that attracted new club members and some school press.

Eventually, we aligned with a real, grown-up nonprofit, Operation Smile that provided free surgeries on children with cleft lips and palates. They asked us to raise money for them in “kids helping kids” internationally fashion. This international connection was eye-opening for me. After some Happy Club fundraising success with Operation Smile, I was invited to travel to both the Philippines and Africa and volunteer as a scrub nurse in the operating room – to be a small part of changing the lives of children who were born with these unfortunate facial deformities.

When I was 16 years old, in The Philippines with Operation Smile, it was the first time I really realized how much I had been given in this life. I saw the abject poverty and how much these families had done to get their child to the hospital to receive what truly was a life-changing miracle. Post-surgery, these children would be able to speak, eat, kiss, go to school without being ridiculed, etc. The appreciation these families had for the work we were doing filled my soul.

I came to understand how much a sophomore in high school could do to improve the condition of people much less fortunate than I was, on continents far, far away.

Today, there are approximately 600 of these Happy Club style student organizations all over the world working with Operation Smile. I get the privilege of speaking to student leaders to tell them my story as a founder to hopefully inspire them. I tell them that they can, and will, make a difference.

Today, when I consult (at no charge) with nonprofits, I advise them to put the ‘fun’ in fundraising. Fun is contagious. Getting donors to your event is a challenge. So, I advise them that they should create unique experiences that will create awareness around their brand – beyond the old school walk-a-thon or golf tournament. Unique efforts will help people gravitate and convene for their cause. No doubt, my Brand Fuel marketing background helps in that regard.

What are different ways that you’ve used your talent to change the world?

If someone asked me what my talent is, I might look down at my feet unsure of how to answer. I think I’m marginally ok at a lot of stuff, but I’m not really sure what my #1 true talent is. Maybe it is building community and connection? It might be rooted in finding the fun in almost everything? Or helping others find positivity in most things. I’ve been called a “pathological optimist.”

Band Together is a prime example of this.  Arguably, 9/11 was the worst day in the history of the United States – when the Twin Towers came down and over 3,000 innocent people died. Band Together was born during a horrific time by responding with the production of a sensitive yet fun live concert community experience. We rallied during a dark and scary time and brought community together.

In our little imaginative, optimistic way, we helped turn a corner. We realized that in tragedy, good things can happen.

I guess if the answer to your question is that my talent is being a community builder and injecting a bit of fun in everything, then the success of Band Together and Brand Fuel has a lot to do with bringing the right people together who inspire good work, while having fun along the way.

Small Gifts Delivering Big Impact

I think some people think the promotional products industry is full of trinkets and trash. Actually, there are a lot of amazing things you can do with branded gear such as attract, recognize and retain employees and customers in your business. In the nonprofit world, branded products can help fundraise and build awareness. It’s the only advertising media that people actually like to receive. I’m biased, but I’d rather receive a branded gift more than a radio, tv, or digital ad any day.

Through my experience at Brand Fuel and in the promotional products industry, I helped start a non-profit called PromoKitchen where I’m a “Founding Chef.” We focus on mentorship programs as well as education.

I also helped build Reciprocity Road, which is an organization made up of eight competing companies, that come together to give a percentage of income back to their communities and staff through a national rebate-buying program.

Now I’m involved in leading a new charge that’s starting to gain momentum in our industry. The charge is to initiate programming around giving back to communities through the purchase of branded products by way of a new organization called PromoCares. This initiative will be associated with our client’s cause-marketing campaigns, helping move excess inventory from manufacturers, and providing a point of differentiation for Brand Fuel and others as we enter the marketplace.

All of this to say that I have a song on repeat, which is the vision of bringing marketing, fun, and altruism together. I guess, maybe my ability to do coalesce all of that is the talent that is improving the world.

How do you make sure promotional products are not trinkets and trash to ensure they are truly gifts that are meaningful?

The driving idea with PromoCares is that there are companies like Brand Fuel doing head-turning things in our industry related to giving back. But what are those in our industry doing to ensure a clean supply chain? Continuing product safety awareness/education? What are we doing in terms of employee engagement? What is the corporate social responsibility plan? There aren’t many B Corps in our industry. There are only a few recognized B Corporations in our space using business to help solve social issues. Those companies are leaders, showing us that we can and should can do more.

The PromoCares’ idea is to aggregate all the stories and case studies in a place where people could be inspired to do more. The manufacturers and decorators of products could engage the sales channel with creative cause marketing campaigns such as “buy 1, give 1s” and other initiatives.

The major product search engines in our industry are creating a social good attribute so salespeople can access products connected to giving back to community.

For example, a salesperson could present to an agribusiness client that their purchase water bottles would be connected to providing clean water to children. That water bottle would be a part of a social innovation collection. Two of the three search engines are onboard so far! Another example of this – a salesperson could approach a client in the edutech sector and sell them pens with their logo that positively affect the community with a pen donated to a school in their zip code, for example. What a wonderful story with meaning behind the sales that will be! This purchase would be important for their brand, connection to their staff and above all, help the community. I’m hoping that when we have this conversation a year from now we’ll have made a lot more progress.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

I am probably my biggest obstacle.

The thing that has brought me the most success in my life is the same thing that has gotten in my way. I think it’s connected to ego, to some extent. I’m not a tall human, so I probably have some deep-rooted Napoleon complex. Perhaps being small makes me work a little bit harder and push and push and push. I have been told that I am a ready, fire, aim kind of person vs ready, aim, fire. For the most part, I think that attribute can be a good thing. It has allowed me to accomplish a lot of things in life, but it also has brought on many issues like impatience and insensitivity.

When I can visualize how something will work and come to life, there is no stopping me. No stopping me means I have not always been the best business partner or husband. I am so lucky to have two people, my wife, Niccole, and business partner, Robert Fiveash, in my life. They both know I have a good heart, yet they are willing to tell me how to be an even better person, leader, manager, father, friend.

I think those obstacles and internal struggles have both helped and hurt me. Now that I’ve hit 50, I have better perspective around being more self-aware, which I think will be a good thing for whatever is next.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world?

You have to want to do whatever you set out to do for the right reasons. Look in the mirror and you’ll know. To do what you will do for reasons bigger than yourself. You have to have a special mix of optimism, rebelliousness, and empathy to be able to fight the good battle and make your dreams come true.

Also, some people espouse that thinking small does not help. I disagree. I think small acts of kindness can really matter. The Kindness Container cash blowing machine for good that we built at Brand Fuel for the High-Five conference is a good example. Someone might have gotten $6 out of it to use towards sprinkling kindness in the world. A simple act of generosity can make a difference in others’ lives. The stories I’ve heard from The Kindness Container are so rewarding. A friend told me about being in line at Chick-Fil-A and a woman turned around and looked at him and the other two people behind him and said “Hey guys! It’s your lucky day. I was at this conference and this company, Brand Fuel, had this thing called a kindness container and I grabbed $18 to give away. So, for everyone in line, lunch is on me! I’m sprinkling kindness on you, so remember to pay it forward.” Everyone cheered.

I think about how that’s such a small thing, but it made so many people’s day. You never know what people are going through and how it’s going to affect them. I believe small acts of kindness matter and that they add up.

Adam W. Grant calls these small acts of kindness “micro-loans.”

Last tip – find your people – those who believe in your dream and in you. Once you find your people and begin to work, play and give back with them, you will quickly come to terms with the truth in that old African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Band Together is having their Main event concert on Saturday, June 23 featuring WALK THE MOON with special guest American Aquarium to benefit Triangle Family Services at Red Hat Amphitheater! Proceeds will help raise $1 Million to provide access to mental health services for up to 600 families in The Triange community.

If you’re interested in learning more about how promotional products can help ‘fuel’ your brand, definitely check out Brand Fuel’s website. Danny and his team do an amazing job helping connect companies to promotional products and experiences their clients will love.