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  “We believe that advertising doesn't work anymore and that building campaigns off of key messages is outdated…(Rather,) we believe that marketing is about sharing stories and creating relationships.”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!