Wings of Change
Easter Seals. Everybody knows what it does, right? After all, it’s been around almost 90 years, and it has an instantly recognizable brand that’s been valued at upward of $5 billion.
But rewind to 2004, when the much-loved Chicago-based organization had just wrapped up a research project it embarked on to create a public service announcement campaign.
With more than 550 affiliates around the country, Easter Seals provides lifestyle-enhancing services to children and adults with disabilities. The project’s goal was to gain a better understanding of its donors, their motivations for giving and involvement, and how they relate to the Easter Seals brand — sentiments that then were to be incorporated into the campaign’s messaging.
“Typically in the past, as probably most nonprofits do, we would sit around and decide, ‘What do we need to tell people about our organization, what do we need to tell them about our cause, what do we need to tell them about people with disabilities and the services that Easter Seals provides?’ And this time we turned the tables to say, ‘Let’s hear what they say. What are they saying about us and what are their motivations?’” says Jeanne Sowa, senior vice president of marketing and corporate relations for the organization.
“One of the first things in marketing is if you’re going to communicate with somebody, you need to hear what they have to say first, so you can communicate in ways that resonate with them,” she says.
Over 18 months, Easter Seals had worked with Chicago-based brand consultancy BrandTrust to conduct one-on-one research and Internet surveys of philanthropically minded consumers and its own donors. And the information they gathered was surprising.
The research yielded two major findings — one practical and one emotional, says Sowa, who oversees messaging and brand positioning for the organization. On the practical side, it found that while participants had a great deal of trust in the organization, they weren’t sure what it actually did.
“They would say, ‘Yes, Easter Seals is a great organization. I’ve given to them for years. They do a lot of good.’ But when probed, they couldn’t articulate very well what we did,” Sowa says.
Recognizing the need for stronger branding, Easter Seals partnered with Minneapolis-based advertising agency Campbell Mithun to overhaul its logo in a way that brought it back to its roots. Founded in 1919 by Ohio businessman Edgar Allen and originally named the National Society for Crippled Children, the organization launched in spring 1934 its first-ever fundraising campaign, which featured stamps that donors could place on envelopes and letters to show their support. The stamp campaign became an annual event; soon, thanks to the ongoing and overwhelming support it received from the public, the organization underwent a nationwide expansion.
By 1967, the seal was so well recognized that the organization formally changed its name to Easter Seals.
In an effort to get back to these roots and enhance the brand’s mission recognition, Campbell Mithun recommended changing what had been a square box with the slogan, “Easter Seals: Creating Solutions, Changing Lives,” to a box with serrated edges — to resemble the time-honored seals that continue to be used in the campaign to this day — and the slogan, “Easter Seals: Disability Services,” inside the logo.
Through the BrandTrust research, Easter Seals also found that whether people donate or volunteer, they’re motivated by how good giving makes them feel and that giving back affirms their worth as “good” people.
A new angle
In the past, Easter Seals’ direct messaging had been more institutional, i.e., focused mostly on what it does. The donor-centered research project showed the organization that the primary reasons individuals get involved with charitable organizations are more about themselves.
“I think it’s really important for us to understand that we’re helping [individuals] do the things that they essentially already want to do,” says Chris Cleghorn, executive vice president of direct and interactive marketing for Easter Seals. “In a sense, the donor is making a gift through us. The donor is giving to something that they value, and we’re sort of the vehicle through which they’re making that gift. We historically had focused too much on what we wanted the donor to think about us; now we’re trying to speak more to what the donor is interested in.”
Humbled by the research findings, Easter Seals has shifted to approach fundraising as more of a three-way partnership between the organization, the beneficiaries of its services, and the donors and partners that make those services possible. As a result, the organization has further expanded its focus on relationship-based fundraising with a strategy that begins with engaging individuals, then asking them to give, and then stewarding a relationship.
Easter Seals put this strategy into practice with its recent “Be an Angel of Change” PSA campaign, which focuses on the concept that individuals can make a difference and feel good as a result.
“We just came right out and said it, because that’s what they were telling us. Folks were saying, ‘You know, I feel real good when I’m doing this,’” Sowa says.
Copy in newspaper and magazine ads, and television and radio spots reflects the underlying emotions and motivations the research unearthed, she explains. For example, the radio spot features soothing music with a voice-over of a woman saying: “Love is the answer to all questions. Hope is the breath that keeps my spirit alive. Smiles are the world’s most plentiful resource. Easter Seals changes the lives of people living with disabilities. Be an Angel of Change. Learn how, at EasterSeals.com.”
The campaign drives individuals to the organization’s Web site to share personal stories about Angels of Change in their own lives, giving visitors the opportunity to interact with Easter Seals through a two-way conversation as well as providing a way for the organization to thank existing donors, volunteers and other Angels.
Asking individuals to write about Angels of Change in their lives is a strategy that’s brought constituents to a fuller understanding of the Easter Seals brand and mission, and their stories serve as testimonials for the organization’s effectiveness. Every story posted on the “Real-Life Angel of Change” page on the organization’s Web site articulates what Easter Seals is all about — from Kara in Bloomington, Ill., who talks about her disabled daughter Emmy and calls the therapists and staff who work with her at their local Easter Seals affiliate her Angels of Change, to Corinne from Collierville, Tenn., whose Angel is her son Ryan, born with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism and seizures, and recently diagnosed with a rare brain disease.
The Angel of Change campaign’s main goal is to engage people by speaking from their point of view and building brand awareness. But Easter Seals also hopes to net donations and public interest through the increased visibility. One version of the newspaper ad that ran in The New York Times demonstrates a subtle yet clearly financial ask mixed with the campaign’s “feel good” messaging: “You can feel good about giving to Easter Seals. See great stories at Easterseals.com.”
On the site’s Angel of Change drill-down page, visitors have the option to donate, as well as read about “Real-Life” Angels and share their own stories, watch an online movie featuring Easter Seals’ donors and volunteers, send free e-cards, and join Easter Seals’ legislative action network.
Also part of the campaign, long-time Easter Seals corporate partner Safeway, a U.S. supermarket chain, deemed April Easter Seals month and held a tear-pad promotion at check-out counters in all of its stores that utilized the campaign’s messaging and imagery. The fundraising effort pulled everyday supermarket consumers, and even staff, into Easter Seals’ mission and the powerful effects of giving.
“It is a pretty neat way of really shifting to the donor or the participant, the staff member, the volunteer, and saying, ‘Hey, you personally are really making a difference,’” Cleghorn says.
The Safeway promotion raised $2.5 million for the charity and exposed more than 1 million people to the Easter Seals message, Sowa says. Safeway also offered a $100,000 challenge grant to be split among the three Easter Seals affiliates that raised the most funds in their local communities for the campaign between December and March. Affiliates were given a set number of Angel of Change wristbands to aid in the fundraising effort.
Embracing the challenge
For the national offices of Easter Seals, the Angel of Change campaign predominantly was about building brand awareness, but the Safeway challenge opened the door for affiliates to design a fundraising campaign that fit the needs of their local communities. Pam Kirk, director of marketing and community relations for Easter Seals Southwestern Indiana, says her organization took the Safeway challenge and ran with it.
“We have a therapeutic pool that is 15 years old and was in great need of repairs, and we also had a waiting list of about a year long for speech-therapy services. The timing was perfect … so we tied both of those needs into this Angel of Change campaign challenge,” she says.
The affiliate first challenged staffers to give above and beyond their usual level of giving. Then through direct-mail appeals and the organization’s Web site, Kirk’s team told individual stories of kids and adults whose lives had been changed by therapeutic pool therapy and speech therapy, and individuals who were in need of those services but weren’t able to receive them because of a lack of funding. Easter Seals Southwestern Indiana mailed appeal letters to parents of children enrolled in the organization’s therapeutic preschool and child-development center, as well as pool clients. The organization also solicited major capital gifts from local corporations and individuals, and had board members, top management and existing members of its Presidents’ Council — annual donors of $1,000 or more — personally ask others to donate to the campaign at the Presidents’ Council level.
Donors of $100 or more received an Angel of Change wristband. The organization also was fortunate to receive media coverage on local TV stations to help it get the word out about the campaign, and it sold the wristbands at local stores.
The affiliate distributed 1,023 of the 2,500 wristbands it had received from Safeway, raising a little more than $40 per wristband distributed. It won the challenge and was rewarded with a $50,000 check, the larger portion of the grant. What’s more, the campaign’s messaging helped breathe new life into the affiliate’s fundraising efforts.
“The Angel of Change campaign really helped us to have a new message here locally. We’ve been around for 60 years, and we’re very fortunate that we have great support here. But this was a fresh message for us to get out to the community and to tie into specific local needs and, yes, to appeal directly to that donor, communicate to them how good they would feel about making a real difference for people here in their own community. That they really would be Angels of Change for specific local kids and adults whose stories we were able to tell,” Kirk says, adding that the affiliate continues to incorporate the Angel of Change imagery into its communications.
“It really does tie into their need to feel good about giving and make a difference,” she adds. “So we’re very happy with what’s come from national [Easter Seals]. I think that this is really evidence that the research was correct.”
All in all, the research findings have heightened the already growing importance within the organization of stewardship and donor relationships. Good stewardship means being accountable to donors and reporting back to them about what their dollars accomplished. Cleghorn says the organization has been committed for years to the idea of comprehensive development, where all fundraising channels — from special events and cause-related fundraising, to direct mail and the Internet — have a role within the organization. In trying to become a more donor-centric organization and improve the quality of its constituent relationships, Easter Seals recognizes the growing need for integration among these various channels, Cleghorn says.
It’s no easy feat, especially given the organization’s structure as a nationwide network of affiliates. It requires rethinking how it manages constituent data and integrating its different lists. This ties into another huge road block — the same silo mentality with which many large organizations are grappling. Various segments of the development department lay claim to “their” donors, and no one wants to share information. Cleghorn and his team are working to level those silos and create instead a pipeline via which donor information can flow through the organization.
“What we need to do is turn all those things on their sides and actually link them together and say that these are people that have a relationship with this organization, they like our mission, they want to touch the lives of people with disabilities — children or adults — or help families who are affected by disability,” Cleghorn says. “And then the pipeline lets people flow freely to the logical place of their involvement with Easter Seals.
“I think we’re just coming to see the wisdom and the beauty of sort of taking a team-like approach to how we relate to donors. Being much more unified and synchronized in how we interact with and how we communicate with donors,” he adds. “And as we relate to people and communicate with them about the interests that they have, and we connect them with our mission and steward them well, it moves people to higher levels of engagement and a higher commitment.”