AIGA Chicago Design For Good Spotlight Interview: Kelly O’Brien

AIGA Chicago Design For Good
Spotlight Interview: Kelly O’Brien

Written by: Debbie Labedz

Professional Bio:
Kelly O’Brien is the President and Founder of Ideaction Corps, a full service social change agency. Ideaction Corps works exclusively with clients who seek to make a social impact. From large-scale, high-level campaigns to the brass tacks strategy and tools needed to get there, Ideaction mobilizes the collective teams of talent needed to make a difference. Ideaction Corps is a certified B Corp and a legal Benefit Corporation entity in the State of Illinois.

Can you summarize some of your experience before starting Ideaction Corps?
I spent 16 years in Washington, D.C. My background is in politics and policy, specifically healthcare. I worked on Capitol Hill for a few Members of Congress, including Rep. Jerry Sikorski, Rep. Kleczka and Sen. Durbin. I also spent some time in the federal government, with the Center for Disease Control, as congressional liaison. Then I came back to Chicago and worked for Wilhelm & Conlon a public strategy firm, served as Executive Director for Girls on the Run Chicago, and was VP of Corporate Partnerships & Marketing for the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.

How did you start Ideaction Corps?
It was a total accident, actually. I didn’t have a job at the time and I was hired on for a project with First Five Years Fund through a colleague. While I was doing that work, other projects were starting to come my way, and I did not have the bandwidth to take them all on. So I started to look for partners I trusted, whom I know did great work. That was fall 2011.

I thought to myself, “I could do it this way.” I didn’t want to start an agency, and I didn’t want an office. I like my freedom and I got hooked on that flexibility. That’s where the idea for a collaborative model came from. It just started to grow from there.

What made you decide to become a B Corp?
When I decided to incorporate, my first thought was to become a B Corp. You can’t become a Certified B Corp until you’ve been in business for at least six months, so I used the certification process as a model for starting my business. I worked my way through the B Corp Impact Assessment and built my business to incorporate the core components.

What has been the impact of your B Corp certification?
There’s a growing community of B Corps both in Illinois and at the national level, and there’s a lot of camaraderie and support amongst those organizations. From a marketing perspective, being a Certified B Corp definitely helps us because it instantly communicates our values. We work with both nonprofits and for-profits. The B Corp movement has really opened up public discourse about the relationship between doing good and being profitable.

How do you match corps members with client organizations?
Right now a lot of the business comes directly to me, and I try and capture as much logistical information about the project as I can: budget, organizational goals, audience, etc. I try and gather as many constraints up front as I can: does the site have to be WordPress or can it be another CMS?

Then I try and gather info about the cause. Do they advocate animal rights  or do they offer a sustainability-based product? We have a listserv that I’ll send out projects to. I try to think carefully about the issues corps members care about and align our talent with their passions.

It doesn’t always happen perfectly, I’ll be honest. The curation aspect of it is one of the hardest parts of the Ideaction Corps model. It’s not without a lot of effort. In fact, it’s a job within itself, but the result is great work

What’s next for Ideaction Corps?
Our biggest goal is to become national. I’d eventually like to bring in corps members from around the county and not just locally.

What advice do you have for young designers who are looking to infuse more purpose into their work?
Finding purpose is more about looking for what’s inside of you already, rather than what’s external. Ask yourself, “What do I care about?” For some people it’s skiing, for others it’s kids or it’s their dog. Figure out what you care about and think about how you can express that on a larger scale. When things don’t align with your values, you’re probably not in the right place. It doesn’t have to be quite so hard. If you feel like you’re treading water, it’s probably not the right fit. The goal is to feel like you’re swimming.

For more information about AIGA Chicago’s Design For Good Initiative visit:

By AIGA Chicago
Published May 5, 2015
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