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Disruptive Marketing

Nonprofits start movements by leading with the cause

To get noticed on New York’s busy streets, a sign will not do—you need a choir of elementary students and teenage dance crews. To jump out on Facebook news feeds, you need more than a picture of a homeless shelter—you need kids in crazy hats and a herd of pets.

Putting the Cause Front and Center

The Alliance for Children and Families report, Disruptive Forces: Driving a Human Services Revolution, urges nonprofits to brand causes, not organizations because, whereas organizations seem artificial and bureaucratic, people can rally around a common vision for change. Several members of the Alliance and United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA) are bringing this force to life by inciting local movements.

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed unprecedented budget cuts that would have taken 47,000 children and youth out of child care and afterschool programs, UNCA member federation United Neighborhood Houses of New York (UNH) joined local advocates for the grassroots Campaign for Children.

Alliance member Family Service Association of Bucks County, Langhorne, Pa., inspired its residents to “buck up,” so that it could make much-needed repairs to the kitchen in its emergency homeless shelter. The organization hoped to fund the repairs if one-third of the county’s 627,000 residents donated $1. The campaign was successful, and it left a permanent imprint on the community.

Gary Mueller, founder and volunteer creative director of Serve Marketing, affirms this Disruptive Force. Serve is the country’s only all-volunteer, nonprofit advertising agency. It raises the profile on social issues by donating in-kind advertising and marketing services.

“Many people don’t realize it at first, but all of our marketing campaigns focus on the cause, not the organization behind it,” says Mueller. “We do this because people’s emotions are what attract them to new ideas and trigger a change in action.”

Quest for Change Creates Movement

Since the start of the Campaign for Children, thousands of people participated in its rallies and town hall forums, and in 2012, more than 60,000 people signed petitions.

“We recently hosted two events at city hall on the day of the city council’s executive budget hearing, and even though we planned the events in a small amount of time, there was a great turnout because people are excited about the cause,” says Gregory Brender, early childhood and education policy analyst. “There’s been a big groundswell among parents and neighborhood activists.”

Because of its focus on the issues, the campaign has been effective in starting dialogues between providers, parents, youth, and elected officials. The majority of mayoral candidates participated in a recent forum organized by the campaign.

“One of the things we’re most proud of is providing a vehicle where providers and parents have a voice,” says Brender. “We host town hall meetings, not just to spread our message, but also to hear what folks in the community are saying.”

Brender says Twitter has been an effective communications channel because it allows youth to connect directly with New York’s elected officials. The campaign offers Twitter training for youth and engages followers through the @ChildrenNYC account and #campaign4children hashtag.

“It’s really exciting to see elected officials retweet kids who are in the afterschool program,” says Brender. “It’s an affirmation of their voices from the city’s government.”

For Family Service Association, Facebook was the ideal social media channel because of its emphasis on picture sharing. Residents were encouraged to post photos of themselves with their $1 donations.

The Family Service Association and Buck Up Bucks County Facebook pages boast more than 100 pictures, including ones that feature a local wrestling team, dart club, dentist office, and sixth-grade class. There are also entire photo albums of pets posing with dollars.

“We collected and shared donors’ photographs using social media—that’s where the narrative of the campaign exists,” says David Ford, director of development at Family Service Association. “That’s where it really came alive.”

Family Service Association has stopped actively soliciting donations, but that hasn’t stopped contributions from pouring in. It has far exceeded its $200,000 goal by raising $270,000. However, Ford is quick to note that the campaign’s true movement wasn’t around the kitchen; it was in generating awareness about the homeless population in Bucks County.

While the shelter has a waiting list year round, many community residents are insulated from homelessness. Bucks County has the third highest per capita and median income in Pennsylvania. In addition, the homeless are often hidden, living in the woods or cars. Ford says he heard countless comments from people who didn’t even know the county had a homeless shelter.

“This campaign was about sending a message to the homeless and marginalized people in Bucks County that their community cares about them and is willing to invest in their success—it was about people caring deeply for their neighbors and I don’t think that’s going to fade,” says Ford. “That message will last much longer than any appliance in that kitchen.”

Creating Big Impact with Simple Strategies

While launching a campaign might seem daunting, it’s important to remember that simple messaging and tactics can have big impact.

“With the $1 entry level, everyone had access to the campaign,” says Ford. “We received notes from older adults on fixed incomes, photos of kids who raised money for crazy hat day at school, and canisters that were filled by people’s change jars.”

Serve regularly draws on low-cost, high-impact tactics to draw attention.

It has propped up donated mattresses along city streets to alert parents to the dangers of co-sleeping, gave teen girls unconventional valentines with messages about the struggles of being a young single mother, and outfitted flash mobs with umbrellas and matching t-shirts to show how foster parents provide children with shelter from the storm.

“There are a lot of guerilla stunts that can be done for around or under $100,” says Mueller. “The key is to think creatively around new ways to be disruptive and create iconic visuals.”

Strength in Numbers

UNH, Family Service Association, and Serve, which has worked directly with Milwaukee-based Alliance members Pathfinders and the Coalition for Children, Youth & Families on campaigns around teen homelessness and the need for foster parents, demonstrate the value of partnerships.

Campaign for Children, which is led by a coalition of 150 organizations, draws its strength from a network of community-based nonprofits and local residents.
“There is no one organization that owns Campaign for Children; it has a name for itself, which the legislature and media recognize and return to,” says Brender. “They know which organizations are major players in the campaign, but they also see how communities are coming together.”

Buck Up Bucks County benefited from a couple of key for-profit partners.
The idea for Buck Up Bucks County emerged when Family Service Association invited Pat Walker, executive editor of the two local newspapers, to tour the shelter in preparation of the organization’s 60th anniversary.

“The newspaper was a partner in this campaign, and that happened because we pulled back the curtain, invited them to learn more, and had a mutual understanding of the issues,” says Ford.

The newspapers’ staff lent expertise in a wide range of media. They designed the campaign’s logo and canister wrap, created and maintained its Facebook page, and produced a public service announcement (PSA). In addition, a local TV station aired the PSA roughly 300 times, and a radio station invited staff to give weekly updates on air.

“If Family Service Association hadn’t been 60 years strong in this community, this campaign never would have happened,” says Ford. “If we didn’t have the reputation of being a leader in human services and meeting needs, we wouldn’t have been in a place where we could take action and lead this campaign.”

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