Hairy Situation

11.22.12

Behind the Movember Movement’s Fight to Keep Charity Tied to Mustache

As the mustachioed fun of No Shave November sweeps the country, its roots as a charitable effort may be getting lost. Kevin Fallon reports on the struggle to keep the philanthropy a part of the party.

Some are rocking impressive handlebars. Others are more into the style of the Selleck. Toothbrushes, chevrons, pencils, goatees, and more—all around the country—around the globe, really—the ’stache is coming out.

Now some may be thinking, “I mustache ask you a question: why, oh why, are so many boring men sporting these wonderful, horrifying, unruly, and, sometimes even, impressive facial hairstyles?” The answer: No Shave November.

No Shave November is a tradition that’s grown wildly over the past few years. At offices, frat houses, and all around the country, men pledged to shave their face smooth as a baby’s bottom and not let Bic touch their upper lip for the entirety of November. (Whether this rule applies to the whole face or just the mustache region is a matter of dispute.) It’s a male-bonding ritual that’s become increasingly popular with guys in their mid-20—particularly the population occasionally labeled “bro”—as a simultaneously macho and defiant expression of the ability to grow facial hair, a grooming habit (or lack thereof) that is so often ruled “unprofessional” or “unkempt” by societal norms. It’s also a celebration of how awful most of us look while embracing our inner grizzly.

But what many people don’t realize is that the practice has its roots in charity, and the founding purpose of the movement was to raise awareness for men’s health issues like testicular and prostate cancer. Movember, a charity whose names has been co-opted into the “No Shave November” movement, launched very humbly in Australia in 2003. Since then, it’s raised nearly $300 million worldwide, and nearly 2 million people have participated.

Popularity in the U.S. has nearly doubled year-on-year, Movember COO Jason Hincks tells The Daily Beast. Globally, he says he expects more than a million people to register on the Movember.com website, which gives participants access to a fundraising page—think your local Relay for Life. The donations benefit organizations dealing with men’s health issues, with help from partnerships with the Livestrong Foundation and the Prostate Cancer Research Fund. At the end of the month, participants, called Mo Bros and their supporters, Mo Sistas, shave their scruff and have a party.

“People see men walking around with these weird and wonderful mustaches and ask what it’s all about,” Hincks says. “It is literally a growth-based campaign.”

But even with the charity experiencing so much growth, the No Shave November movement is becoming ubiquitous—and is being spun off from the Movember organization. The charity and awareness element, often, is lost.

“It’s for charity?” asks Kevin Esmeral, a No Shave participant from Queens, N.Y. “I had no idea! I was just doing it because my friend dared me to. We were going to see who lasted longest.” Esmeral caved halfway through the month after relentless teasing from his friends.

“My cousins and all my friends are doing it, but we all thought it was just a funny joke,” says Elena Scotti, a self-described “beard enthusiast” from Brooklyn.

All across the country, bars are hosting No Shave November nights and mustache contests, taking advantage of the month and its popularity, but with no mention of charity. Like Esmeral and Scotti and their friends, thousands of people around the country are touting their No Shave November participation on Facebook or Twitter, but are doing so oblivious of its ties to men’s health issues. In some cases, people are refraining from shaving to benefit a charity—but not the ones tied to Movember.

As its popularity increases, eventually people will “begin to understand that there is a bigger cause and bigger issue that sits behind the mustache.”

It’s something Hincks and the Movember organization is well aware of.

“There are certainly various levels of engagement,” Hincks says. “It’s not a great stretch for guys in college to not be shaving in November.” The challenge, then, is taking their existing involvement in the movement and deepening their engagement so that they do raise funds. That Movember is so appealing to young men is ideal, too. As they, one hopes, begin to align themselves with the health aspect of it, they may start taking things like prostate exams at a young age more seriously—which is part of the organization’s goal.

The group’s strategy in attracting supporters is well-worn.

“Like many good jokes, Movember began with two guys walking into a bar,” Hincks says. In 2003, two men waxing poetic over some pints about the lost art of the Reynoldsian ’70s-era mustache decided they were going to bring the style back. Thirty of their friends held a contest to see who could grow the best mustache in a month. They found that as the month wore on, more and more people stopped this posse of 30 mustachioed men walking the streets of Melbourne to ask them what on earth they were doing. It was then they realized that they could use this whole idea—growing a crazy mustache—for good.

The tools for extending the charity’s reach are already in place. People participate because it’s fun and funny, Hincks says: “Grow a mustache, poke some fun at your friends, and have a party.” As its popularity increases, even if that popularity is not tied directly to the Movember organization and its fundraising efforts, eventually people will “begin to understand that there is a bigger cause and bigger issue that sits behind the mustache.”

One major hurdle has already been crossed: the stigma of facial hair in the workplace. Hincks recalls the challenge it was to get conservative office environments in Australia to embrace the idea of their employees greeting prospective clients with facial hair in various stages of unbecoming, scraggly growth. But as the mission behind the unsightly ’stache gained notoriety, its acceptability Down Under has definitely shifted. Plenty of offices now see it as an opportunity not just to be philanthropic, but to “have fun and an irreverent time in the workplace.”

The same shift is happening stateside, too. Rashied Moradia, of Baltimore, Md., has been participating in Movember for years in honor of his best friend’s father, who passed away from stomach cancer. For the first time this year, his office, home builder NV Homes, is participating, too, with men of all ages rocking mustaches for the cause.

Moradia also has noticed that, as often as people come up to him flummoxed about why he’s sporting uncharacteristic facial hair, people approach him already knowing the reason. “As often as it’s, ‘What’s on your lip?’” he says, “it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re doing No Shave November.’”

That reaction is precisely what Movember is hoping for, and why the organization isn’t so bothered by the mustachioed this month who are just doing it for the fun of it. This year, Hincks says, the organization is set to eclipse last year’s $126 million haul.

With a mustache, it seems, comes great power.