The Rabbit Hole and Community Engagement

Beth Ann Spiegel

In this guest post, Beth Ann Spiegel shares a great example of what can happen when you really listen to your supporters and get to know your target audiences better.   ~Kivi

Guest Post by Beth Ann Spiegel, Fund Development and Communications Associate of The Arc of Atlantic County

As nonprofit marketers, we can all probably relate to the situation Alice finds herself in during the first two chapters of Alice in Wonderland. While in hot pursuit of the white rabbit (our organizational goal), we come across a room filled with doors of various sizes (our marketing goals).  If we had the right key, the right height, the right sized lock (the right strategies and tactics for reaching our goal) we could get through.

We try and try, but every combination we come up with leads us to a dead end (not getting the results we were hoping for). Finally, we think we’ve found the magic formula for getting through the door and on our merry way, but we’re swept away in a saltwater sea.  We come across a mouse (our target audience) that clearly knows how to get to dry land, but in our desperate attempt to make a connection with the mouse so he can help us get to shore, we forget who we’re talking to and tell him a story about our cat!

No mouse wants to hear about his mortal enemy, so he swims away.  When we finally realize who we’re talking to and vow not to speak of cats again, he feels comfortable enough to engage with us and safely leads us to shore and on track toward reaching our goal.

Since I began working as the communications associate for The Arc six years ago, my Alice in Wonderland dilemma has been our annual Step Up for The Arc Walk.  This is the typical peer-to-peer fundraising event designed to unite passionate supporters and constituents of your organization in a way that builds awareness and raises funds to support programs.

But every year, I feel like I took too much of the ‘Drink Me’ potion or not enough of the ‘Eat Me’ cake and fall short of hitting our goal of increasing participation and revenue from the event.  No matter what, we can’t break past that 200 participant/$20,000 mark in any significant way.  We’ve introduced new incentives, contests, attractions and pretty brochures to encourage participation, but none of these tactics seemed to work.

Despite serving more than 700 people and impacting even thousands more family members of those individuals across our county, we couldn’t seem to reach the people we needed most.  The walk-a-thon was missing the kind of momentum we see other ‘a-thons’ generate, but we just couldn’t figure out why.

It finally dawned on me this year, thanks to the active engagement of two families in particular, that one big reason we fail to attract families of people we support is that we haven’t built the type of relationships that would inspire them to get involved.

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about The Arc and what we did for them and their loved one. It all boiled down to our lack of attention to getting to know the families we were trying to attract, what their perception of The Arc is, and what really motivates them to participate.

Family #1: One of our most beloved and engaged service recipients who helped out at the walk every year passed away this past January. Dina’s mom Mary Ann had a strong desire to give back to The Arc, so she called me to do some brainstorming. After we tossed around a few ideas, she agreed that forming a walk-a-thon team in memory of Dina would be the best way to remember her and make a difference.

It was astounding to see the kind of dedication and interest that her mom had now that Dina was gone.  Through the loss of her daughter, she had a greater sense of urgency to make a difference in the agency that helped her child have such an awesome life.  I remained in contact with Mary Ann regularly in the months leading up to the event, making sure I was there for her for all of her questions.

By the day of the walk, their team grew to nearly 60 people – all wearing handmade shirts with a photo of themselves with Dina on the front – and raised nearly $6,000!  This was by far the biggest team we’ve ever had and the most touching example of support for someone we served. They’re already getting amped up for next year’s walk and are plotting their strategy for raising a lot more money.

But this wouldn’t have happened without two key ingredients: 1) A strong emotional connection the family had to The Arc and how our services helped their loved one, and 2) A strong relationship between the mother and key members of The Arc staff.

Family #2: About four years ago, our CEO approached Lisa, the mother of a teen age girl who had been receiving a few hours of help from The Arc each month in the form of in-home respite care since she was a little girl.  She also happens to be a server at the local deli where our CEO eats lunch regularly, so they’ve had a chance to get to know one another.

She asked Lisa why she didn’t enroll her daughter in more of our programs, especially our five-hour Saturday Program designed to give parents a break and kids a fun, nurturing environment to socialize and learn.  Lisa didn’t think her daughter’s behavior would make her a good fit for that program, which our CEO wanted to hear nothing of – “at least give it a shot”, she said. So she did, and as our CEO suspected, it was the perfect match! Lisa’s daughter now not only attends the weekly kids program, she also attends a bi-weekly program for teens and has had made so many friends.  This has helped her daughter and her family tremendously, and the mom is not shy about expressing it.

When it came time to develop a new agency video, we asked Lisa if she’d give a testimonial in the video. She agreed, and spoke very sincerely about how she wishes more families could benefit from our services.  Our relationship with Lisa evolved even further when it came time for her daughter to attend Step Up for The Arc last year, as the Saturday program children and their staff always do.  While most of the parents who send their children to the walk make a modest contribution, Lisa didn’t hesitate to set up an online fundraising page and set her goals high.

She and her daughter beat that goal, and came into this year’s event even more energized. She offered to provide her signature on our cover letter that accompanied our event mailer inviting people to participate.  She also set her goal even higher, and beat that too! Lisa became our top individual fundraiser, bringing in more than $2,500 from more than 60 people.

Again, just like with Dina’s mom, we were able to successfully engage Lisa in the event because of her strong emotional connection to The Arc and its programs, coupled with the development of a natural relationship between our key staff and Lisa over the years.

What about the results of this October’s walk-a-thon? Well, we’re still hovering around the 200/$20,000 numbers (which we were actually thrilled about because our walk happened the day of a Nor’easter!) but we gained a huge amount of insight into what families we support truly respond to thanks to our experiences with Lisa and Mary Ann.  The relationships we built with both of them made it a win-win situation for them and for us.  They had a desire help us reach our goal and help other families have the services and supports they appreciate, and we provided them with the support they needed to make it easy to ‘step up for The Arc’.

And what about Alice and the White Rabbit? Well, I know this Alice feels a lot better about her ability to find the right keys to opening the doors of engagement that will lead us closer to that white rabbit – the ability to serve more people with developmental disabilities and their families. Our goal for next year’s event is to increase family participation by 20%, but it’s also to stop ‘talking to mice about cats’ and really get to know the families we support and give them the tools they need to make the difference we know so many of them want to make.

Beth Ann Spiegel is the Fund Development & Communications Associate for The Arc of Atlantic County, based just 10 minutes away from Atlantic City, NJ. The Arc of Atlantic County is one of more than 700 state and local chapters of The Arc across the country that work on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities over the course of their lifetimes through advocacy, education and direct supports.

In March, Beth Ann and her Arc colleagues across the country helped launch a new brand identity for The Arc, uniting chapters under one clear, dynamic logo with a tagline that invites people with developmental disabilities, donors, volunteers, families and more to ‘Achieve with us’.  She hopes you’ll follow the great achievements of The Arc and the people they support by ‘Liking’ them on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ArcAtlantic) and subscribing to their blog (http://arcatlantic.wordpress.com/).