From Activist to Entrepreneur: Peace One Day and the Changing Persona of the Social Campaigner




persona, celebrity, social entrepreneur, non-profit organisations

How to Cite

Farrell, N. (2014). From Activist to Entrepreneur: Peace One Day and the Changing Persona of the Social Campaigner. M/C Journal, 17(3).
Vol. 17 No. 3 (2014): persona
Published 2014-06-10

This article analyses the public persona of Jeremy Gilley, a documentary filmmaker, peace campaigner, and the founder of the organisation Peace One Day (POD). It begins by outlining how Gilley’s persona is presented in a manner which resonates with established archetypes of social campaigners, and how this creates POD’s legitimacy among grassroots organisations. I then describe a distinct, but not inconsistent, facet of Gilley’s persona which speaks specifically to entrepreneurs. The article outlines how Gilley’s individuality works to simultaneously address these overlapping audiences and argues that his persona can be read as an articulation of social entrepreneurship. Gilley represents an example of a public personality working to “crystallise issues and to normativise debates” (Marshall “Personifying” 370) concerning corporate involvement with non-profit organisations and the marketisation of the non-profit sector. 

Peace One Day (POD) is a UK-based non-profit organisation established in 1999 by actor-turned-documentary-filmmaker Jeremy Gilley. In the 1990s, while filming a documentary about global conflict, Gilley realised there was no internationally recognised day of ceasefire and non-violence. He created POD to found such a day and began lobbying the United Nations. In 2001, the 111th plenary meeting of the General Assembly passed a resolution which marked 21 September as the annual International Day of Peace (United Nations). Since 2001, POD has worked to create global awareness of Peace Day. By 2006, other NGOs began using the day to negotiate 24-hour ceasefires in various conflict zones, allowing them to carry out work in areas normally too dangerous to enter. For example, in 2007, the inoculation of 1.3 million Afghan children against polio was possible due to an agreement from the Taliban to allow safe passage to agencies working in the country during the day. This was repeated in subsequent years and, by 2009, 4.5 million children had been immunised (POD Part Three). While neither POD nor Gilley played a direct part in the polio vaccination programmes or specific ceasefires, his organisation acted as a catalyst for such endeavours and these initiatives would not have occurred without POD’s efforts.

Gilley is not only the founder of POD, he is also the majority shareholder, key decision-maker, and predominant public spokesperson in this private, non-charitable, non-profit organisation (Frances 73). While POD’s celebrity supporters participate in press conferences, it is Gilley who does most to raise awareness. His public persona is inextricably linked with POD and is created through a range of presentational media with which he is engaged. These include social media content, regular blogposts on POD’s website, as well as appearances at a series of speaking events. Most significantly, Gilley establishes his public persona through a number of documentary films (Peace One Day; Day After; POD Part Three), which are shot largely from his perspective and narrated by his voiceover, and which depict POD’s key struggles and successes.

The Peace Campaigner as an Activist and Entrepreneur 

In common with other non-profit organisations, POD relies on celebrities from the entertainment industries. It works with them in two key ways: raising the public profile of the organisation, and shaping the public persona of its founder by inviting comparisons of their perceived exceptionalness with his ostensible ordinariness. For example, Gilley’s documentaries depict various press conferences held by POD over a number of years. Those organised prior to POD recruiting celebrity spokespeople were “completely ignored by the media” whereas those held after celebrity backing from Jude Law and Angelina Jolie had been secured attracted considerable interest (Day After). Gilley explains his early difficulties in publicising his message by suggesting that he “was a nobody” (POD Part Three). This representation as a “nobody” or, more diplomatically, as “ordinary,” is a central component of Gilley’s persona. “Ordinariness” here means situating Gilley outside the political and entertainment elites and aligning him with more everyday suburban settings. This is done through a combination of the aesthetic qualities of his public presentation and his publically narrated back-story.

Aesthetically speaking, Gilley presents his ordinariness through his casual attire and long hair. His appearance is similar to the campaigners, youth groups and school children he addresses, suggesting he is a representative of that demographic but also distancing him from political elites. The diplomats Gilley meets, such as those at the UN, wear the appropriate attire for their elite political setting: suits. In one key scene in the documentary Peace One Day, Gilley makes his first trip to the UN to meet Kofi Annan, UN General Secretary at the time, and appears at their doors clean cut and suitably dressed. He declares that his new appearance was designed to aid his credibility with the UN. Yet, at the same time, he makes explicit that he borrowed the suit from a friend and the tie from his grandfather and, prior to the meeting, it was decided, “the pony tail had to go.” Thus Gilley seeks the approval of both political elites and the ordinary public, and constructs a persona that speaks to both, though he aligns himself with the latter.

Gilley’s back-story permeates his films and works to present his ordinariness. For example, POD has humble beginnings as an almost grassroots, family-run organisation, and Gilley depicts a campaign run on a shoestring from his mother’s spare bedroom in an ordinary suburban home. Although British Airways provided free flights from the organisation’s outset, Gilley shows his friends volunteering their time by organising fundraising events. POD’s modest beginnings are reflected in its founder, who confides about both his lack of formal education and lack of success as an actor (Day After). This “ordinariness” is constructed in opposition to the exceptional qualities of POD’s A-list celebrity backers—such as Angelina Jolie, who does enjoy success as an actor. This contrast is emphasised by inviting Jolie into Gilley’s everyday domestic setting and highlighting the icons of success she brings with her. For example, at his first meeting with Jolie, Gilley waits patiently for her and remarks about the expensive car which eventually arrives outside his house, denoting Jolie’s arrival. He notes in the voiceover to his The Day after Peace documentary, “this was unbelievable, Angelina Jolie sat on my sofa asking me what she could do, I couldn’t stop talking. I was so nervous.”

Gilley promotes his ordinariness by using aesthetics and personal narrative. Evidence of how he struggled to realise his goals and the financial burdens he carried (Peace One Day) suggest that there is something authentic about Gilley’s vision for Peace Day. This also helps Gilley to align his public persona with common understandings of the political activist as a prophetic social visionary. POD is able to tap into the idea of the power of the individual as a force for change with references to Martin Luther King and Gandhi. Although Gilley makes no direct comparison between himself and these figures, blog entries such as “ten years ago, I had an idea; I dared to dream that I could galvanise the countries of the world to recognise an official day of ceasefire and nonviolence. Mad? Ambitious? Idealistic? All of the above” (Gilley “Dream”), invite comparisons with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This is further augmented by references to Gilley as an outsider to political establishments, such as the UN, which he is sure have “become cynical about the opportunity” they have to unite the world (BBC Interview).

Interestingly, Gilley’s presentation as a pragmatic “change-maker” whose “passion is contagious” (Ahmad Fawzi, in POD Concert) also aligns him with a second figure: the entrepreneur. Where Gilley’s performances at school and community groups present his persona as an activist, his entrepreneur persona is presented through his performances at a series of business seminars. These seminars, entitled “Unleash Your Power of Influence,” are targeted towards young entrepreneurs and business-people very much consistent with the “creative class” demographic (Florida). The speakers, including Gilley, have all been successful in business (POD is a private company) and they offer to their audiences motivational presentations, and business advice. Although a semi-regular occurrence, it is the first two events held in July 2010 (Unleash 1) and November 2010 (Unleash 2) that are discussed here. Held in a luxury five-star London hotel, the events demonstrate a starkly different aspect of POD than that presented to community groups and schools, and the amateur grassroots ethic presented in Gilley’s documentary films—for example, tickets for Unleash 2 started at £69 and offered ‘goody bags’ for £95 (author’s observation of the event)—yet consistencies remain.

Aesthetically speaking, Gilley’s appearance signifies a connection with these innovative, stereotypically young, founders of start-up companies and where Gilley is an outsider to political organisations; they are outsiders to business establishments. Further, many of these companies typically started, like POD, in a spare bedroom. The speakers at the Unleash events provide insights into their background which frequently demonstrate a rise from humble beginnings to business success, in the face of adversity, and as a result of innovation and perseverance. Gilley is not out of place in this environment and the modest beginnings of POD are relayed to his audience in a manner which bears a striking similarity to his for-profit counterparts.

An analysis of Gilley’s presentations at these events demonstrates clear links between the dual aspects of Gilley’s public persona, the political economy of POD, and the underlying philosophy of the organisation—social entrepreneurship. The next section sets out some of the principals of social entrepreneurship and how the aspects of Gilley’s persona, outlined above, reinforce these.

Personifying Social Enterprise

Generally speaking, the business literature greatly emphasises entrepreneurs as “resourceful, value-creating change agents” who are “never satisfied with the status quo [... and are] a forceful engine of growth in our economy” (Dees and Economy 3-4). More recently, the focus of discussion has included social entrepreneurs. These individuals work within “an organisation that attacks [social and environmental] problems through a business format, even if it is not legally structured as a profit-seeking entity” (Bornstein and Davis xv) and advocate commercially oriented non-profit organisations that establish “win-win” relationships between non-profits and business.

This coming together of the for- and non-profit sectors has range of precedents, most notably in “philanthrocapitalism” (Bishop and Green) and the types of partnerships established between corporations and environmentalists, such as Greenpeace Australia (Beder). However, philanthrocapitalism often encompasses the application of business methods to social problems by those who have amassed fortunes in purely commercial ventures (such as Bill Gates), and Beder’s work describes established for- and non-profit institutions working together. While social entrepreneurship overlaps with these, social entrepreneurs seek to do well by doing good by making a profit while simultaneously realising social goals (Bornstein and Davis 25).

Read as an articulation of the coming together of the activist and the entrepreneur, Gilley’s individuality encapsulates the social enterprise movement. His persona draws from the commonalities between the archetypes of the traditional grassroots activist and start-up entrepreneur, as pioneering visionary and outsider to the establishment. While his films establish his authenticity among politically attuned members of the public, his appearances at the Unleash events work to signify the legitimacy of his organisation to those who identify with social entrepreneurialism and take the position that business should play a positive role in social causes. As an activist, Gilley’s creates his persona through his aesthetic qualities and a performance that draws on historical precedents of social prophets. As an entrepreneur, Gilley draws on the same aesthetic qualities and, through his performance, mitigates the types of disjuncture evident in the 1980s between environmental activists, politicians and business leaders, when environmentalist’s narratives “were perceived as flaky and failed to transform” (Robèrt 7). To do this, Gilley reconstitutes social and environmental problems (such as conflict) within a market metric, and presents the market as a viable and efficient solution. Consequently, Gilley asserts that “we live in a culture of war because war makes money, we need to live in a culture of peace,” and this depends on “if we can make it economical, if we can make the numbers add up” (Unleash).

Social enterprises often eschew formal charity and Gilley is consistent with this when he states that “for me, I think it has to be about business. [...] I think if it’s about charity it’s not going to work for me.” Gilley asserts that partnerships with corporations are essential as “our world is going to change, when the corporate sector becomes engaged.” He, therefore, “want[s] to work with large corporations” in order to “empower individuals to be involved in the process of [creating] a more peaceful and sustainable world” (Unleash). One example of POD’s success in this regard is a co-venture with Coca-Cola.

To coincide with Peace Day in 2007, POD and Coca-Cola entered into a co-branding exercise which culminated in a sponsorship deal with the POD logo printed on Coca-Cola packaging. Prior to this, Gilley faced a desperate financial situation and conceded that the only alternative to a co-venture with Coca-Cola was shutting down POD (Day After). While Coca-Cola offered financial support and the potential to spread Gilley’s message through the medium of the Coke can, POD presumably offered good publicity to a corporation persistently the target of allegations of unethical practice (for example, Levenson-Estrada; Gill; Thomas). Gilley was aware of the potential image problems caused by a venture with Coke but accepted the partnership on pragmatic grounds, and with the proviso that Coke’s sponsorship not accompany any attempt to influence POD. Gilley, in effect, was using Coca-Cola, displaying the political independence of the social visionary and the pragmatism of the entrepreneur. By the same token, Coca-Cola was using POD to garner positive publicity, demonstrating the nature of this “win-win” relationship.

In his film, Gilley consults Ray C. Anderson, social enterprise proponent, about his ethical concerns. Anderson explains the merits of working with Coke. In his Unleash addresses, such ethical considerations do not feature. Instead, it is relayed that Coca-Cola executives were looking to become involved with a social campaign, consistent with the famous 1970s hilltop advertisement of “teaching the world to sing in harmony.” From a meeting at Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta, Gilley reveals, a correlation emerged between Gilley’s emphasis on Peace Day as a moment of global unity—encapsulated by his belief that “the thing about corporations [...] the wonderful thing about everybody […] is that everybody’s just like us” (Unleash)—and the image of worldwide harmony that Coca-Cola wanted to portray. It is my contention that Gilley’s public persona underpinned the manner in which this co-branding campaign emerged. This is because his persona neatly tied the profit motive of the corporation to the socially spirited nature of the campaign, and spoke to Coca-Cola in a manner relatable to the market. At the same time, it promoted a social campaign premised on an inclusiveness that recast the corporation as a concerned global citizen, and the social campaigner as a free-market agent.

Persona in the Competitive Non-Profit Sector

Through a series of works P. David Marshall charts the increasing centrality of individuality as “one of the ideological mainstays of consumer capitalism [...and] equally one of the ideological mainstays of how democracy is conceived” (Marshall “New Media-New Self” 635). Celebrity, accordingly, can be thought of as a powerful discourse that works “to make the cultural centrality of individuality concretely real” (Marshall “New Media-New Self” 635). Beyond celebrity, Marshall offers a wider framework that maps how “personalisation, individuality, and the move from the private to the public are now part of the wider populace rather than just at play in the representational field of celebrity” (Marshall, “Persona” 158). This framework includes fundamental changes to the global, specifically Western, labour market that, while not a fait accompli, point to a more competitive environment in which “greater portions of the culture are engaged in regular—probably frequent—selling of themselves” and where self-promotion becomes a key tool (Marshall, “Persona” 158). Therefore, while consumerism comprises a backdrop to the proliferation of celebrity culture, competition within market capitalism contributes to the wider expansion of personalisation and individualism.

The non-profit sector is also a competitive environment. UK studies have found an increase in the number of International NGOs of 46.6% from 1995/6-2005/6 (Anheier, Kaldor, and Glasius. 310). At the same time, the number of large charities (with an income greater than £10 million) rose, between 1999-2013, from 307 to 1,005 and their annual income rose from approximately £10bn to £36bn (Charity Commission). These quantitative changes in the sector have occurred alongside qualitative changes in terms of the orientation of individual organisations. For example, Epstein and Gang describe a non-profit sector in which NGOs compete against each other for funds from aid donors (state and private). It is unclear whether “aid will be allocated properly, say to the poorest or to maximize the social welfare” or to the “efficient aid-seekers” (294)—that is, NGOs with the greatest competitive capabilities. A market for public awareness has also emerged and, in an increasingly crowded non-profit sector, it is clearly important for organisations to establish a public profile that can gain attention.

It is in this competitive environment that the public personae of activists become assets for NGOs, and Gilley constitutes a successful example of this. His persona demonstrates an organisation’s response to the competitive nature of the non-profit sector, by appealing to both traditional activist circles and the business sector, and articulating the social enterprise movement. Gilley effectively embodies social entrepreneurship—in his appearance, his performance and his back-story—bridging a gap between the for- and non-profit sectors. His persona helps legitimate efforts to recast the activist as an entrepreneur (and conversely, entrepreneurs as activists) by incorporating activist ideals (in this instance, peace) within a market framework. This, to return to Marshall’s argument, crystallises the issue of peace within market metrics such and normativises debates about the role of corporate actors as global citizens, presenting it as pragmatism and therefore “common sense.” This is not to undermine Gilley’s achievements but, instead, to point out how reading his public persona enables an understanding of efforts to marketise the non-profit sector and align peace activism with corporate power.


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Author Biography

Nathan Farrell, Bournemouth University

Lecturer in Communication and Media

The Media School