Monday, May 26, 2014

Singing your story: Try this to connect with your audience

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

It’s every nonprofit’s Holy Grail: to communicate the “essence” of what makes your organization stand out in a way that will get your audience to stop what they are doing and pay attention. In other words, it’s a pretty tall order.

But Urban Edge, a community development corporation serving the struggling Jamaica Plain and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston, MA, found a way to do just that for its 40th anniversary: a music video.
“We produce something special every five years for our landmark anniversaries,” explains Chrystal Kornegay, president and CEO, adding that it is tough to stand out when three of the five local community development financial institutions are NeighborWorks members. “For our 35th anniversary, we created a video, and we knew we wanted a new one. We are launching a major capital campaign, including an outreach targeting individual donors. We typically try to pack in every important piece of information and rely on a lot of talking heads, but this time we wanted something that would inspire.”

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Kornegay also wanted a vehicle that would appeal to a younger audience as well as the organization’s traditional base.

Knowing she wanted something different, but not what, Kornegay turned to Small Army, a boutique advertising agency that had done good work for another area nonprofit. On its website, the team states upfront that it shares Kornegay’s fatigue with scripts laden with facts.  “We believe that advertising doesn't work anymore and that building campaigns off of key messages is outdated…(Rather,) we believe that marketing is about sharing stories and creating relationships.”

The Small Army team spent 20 to 30 hours getting to know Urban Edge – not by reading its website and annual reports, but by listening: to staff, board members, community residents and funders.

The first challenge: defining the core value to convey

“What struck me the most is that everybody is so respectful of each other,” recalls Steve Kolander, Small Army’s president. “And respect is clearly important in the communities Urban Edge serves. Residents don’t get it from so many others, but they find it at Urban Edge. When you walk in, there’s always someone offering to roll up their sleeves and help. That’s the culture.”

But how do you convey that without sounding preachy or phony?

“I was flying home from a business trip to Los Angeles, and I had some ‘captive’ time. That’s when it came to me. One of the best ways to connect emotionally with people is through music,” says Steve, a one-time singer-songwriter. “I started with the lyrics, and the melody came later – but I was searching for sort of a gospel feel, without being overtly religious. Gospel is all about overcoming challenges and standing up for yourself and others. That’s the spirit I wanted to invoke.”

Kolander wasn’t sure, however, how Kornegay would react. And neither was she when he returned and told her his idea.

“I was a little hesitant,” admitted Kornegay. “But I trusted his instincts.”

Tapping into local talent

Urban Edge put out a “casting call,” and two men from the community responded – including Curtis Henderson, executive director of Boston Neighborhood Networks (BNN). Urban Edge partnered with BNN to develop its headquarters building. The others were found by Small Army from surrounding neighborhoods. There was no audition; “there was no time for that,” laughs Kolander. Urban Edge wanted to debut the video at its rapidly approaching annual meeting.

One of the most surprising “finds,” Kornegay and Kolander agree, was 14-year-old Rebecca Zama, who was strong enough to serve as the lead vocalist. Her mother, Nunotte, had intended to merely drop her daughter off. And when Kolander asked playfully if she sang too, she initially responded, “Oh, no, honey! I’m just the driver!” But when Rebecca insisted that her mother also sang, “Mama Zama” quickly took off her jacket and joined them. (A nice coincidence: Nunotte Zama is a graduate of the Urban Edge foreclosure counseling program.)

Three locations and a day later, the soundtrack was captured. It took another five or so days to edit. And then it was time to unveil.

“When I saw the result, I cried,” says Kornegay. “And ever since we first showed it at the annual meeting, people have been asking for it. It’s gone viral in our community.”

Would a song or a music video be a good way of telling your own organization’s story? It was not an inexpensive project for Urban Edge. Kornegay estimates the total cost to her organization at $40,000. But it’s an expense she will only repeat once every five years. If that is too steep a cost, a funder could perhaps be found to underwrite it, or volunteer talent could be tapped. The key is to experiment with how you tell your story, and to be willing to go a little out of the box!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Eddie’s story: Foreclosure ends one chapter, starts another

By Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks America blogger

Below is the final story in our four-part series on “life after foreclosure.” Read the previous posts beginning here.

One of the lessons Eddie Hines has learned from his ordeal of the past four years is to seek professional help early.

Hines and his wife bought a house in Pittsburgh in 2000. It was their first, and he admits now that they did it “blindly” – without the expert counseling provided by organizations like NeighborWorks of Western Pennsylvania, which stepped in later to help, in much less happy circumstances.

Hines was in good company, unfortunately. A survey commissioned by NeighborWorks America last fall found that when asked where they would go first for advice before buying a house, more than a third of American adults (39 percent) cited family and friends who had already purchased a home. Distant runners-up were the Internet (17 percent) and real estate agents (16 percent). Far behind were housing counselors and (more specifically) non-profit homeownership advisers (3 and 5 percent, respectively).

“We bought directly from the owner, and he took advantage of our obliviousness,” recalls Hines. “We basically paid too much.”

Still, they lived in their home comfortably until Hines, a school counselor, lost his second job with the local newspaper when his shift was cut. The income on which the family of four had relied dropped significantly, and they didn’t make the necessary budget changes. “We had gotten attached to a certain lifestyle,” he admits now. “We didn’t face up to reality.”

A NeighborWorks America
survey found a widespread
lack of emergency savings.
Once again, Hines was part of a national “epidemic.” A 2014 survey commissioned by NeighborWorks America found that almost a third of adults have no emergency savings, and another 21 percent have only enough to tide them over for a month. A related poll conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling documented that just two in five U.S. adults (39%) – a proportion that has held roughly steady since 2007 – say they have a budget and keep close track of their spending.

The resulting stress proved too much for Hines’ marriage, and his wife moved out, leaving him solely responsible for the house. When he became ill, forcing him to take extended sick leave from his job at the school, it was the proverbial last straw. Hines tried to apply for a loan modification while he was still paying, but was denied because he was current – a common Catch 22. When Hines eventually fell behind on his mortgage payments, he was denied once again due to his wife’s refusal to co-sign.

Eddie Hines and Devon March
Finally, he turned to Devon March, a counselor at NeighborWorks of Western Pennsylvania.

“I was extremely stressed at that point,” he recalls. “I had lost my family, and living alone. Devon assessed the situation and asked me a simple, direct question, ‘Is this house worth the cost to you to keep it?’ And I realized the answer was no.”

Since then, Hines and March have become more than just client and counselor, frequently emailing each other to keep in touch. Today, Hines is renting an apartment and is back at work. He is still meeting with March, this time to build a budget and action plan so that he can someday become a homeowner again. With her help, he is on track to achieve that – just not right now.

“Eddie has a very positive attitude,” March says. “It’s like he has begun a second life. Now that he has a plan, he can sleep at night.”

Hines agrees: “Overall, I can say now that the ordeal has had some positive effects. If you take this kind of thing too much to heart, it will destroy you. But I’ve discovered my own resilience, and learned not to take everything so personally. I can’t control the actions of everyone else, so I am focusing on me.”

Although he is happy in his apartment for now, Hines still values homeownership because “it teaches my children, for whom I want to be a role model, to strive for your goals. They look to see how you handle adversity, and I want to show them that you can bounce back.”