New Marketing Approaches for Youth-Serving Programs

Young people working on social media.

Your work is important. You know your agency helps people. You’ve seen young people and families improve their lives because of the kindness and expertise of your staff. You may even have data to prove the difference you make.

But something’s missing. Maybe you need to find donors to support a new program. Or you want to spread the word about a major issue your work addresses. Or you just need your community to take notice. This feature is about making those things happen. You’ll hear about putting on a full-scale rebranding effort, partnering with filmmakers, and mounting a marketing campaign. These are ideas for youth and family workers who want to take a basic marketing plan to the next level or address a specific problem or need head-on. 

For more on communications and marketing, be sure to read our previous feature on the subject, and take a look at our new course, “Promote Your Youth Program,” for more advice on setting up an effective communications plan. 

Public Face: How and Why to Rebrand

When Annette Duranso became CEO of Valley Youth House in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she was the program’s first new director in 38 years. Valley Youth House had greatly expanded over that time, growing from a modest emergency shelter to a multifaceted social service organization spread over 12 counties and offering a variety of residential, preventive and mental health services.

All that change had brought the organization’s services to thousands of families and youth, but its identity had become diffused, Duranso says. Her arrival in late 2013, she decided, was a good time to take stock and put the agency’s growth in perspective.

“We’re a very big organization that didn’t have a lot of consistency around our messaging,” she explains. “We kept growing without looking back to make sure all the parts were going in the same direction. We wanted to rein it all in.”

So Duranso set out to give Valley Youth House a new, improved and unified public face, or brand--a visual and written representation of the breadth of the organization’s work. The rebranding effort, begun in 2014 and expected to last another year or so, has required significant time from Duranso, her board and other staff, as well as a financial investment up front.

But Duranso, like leaders of many other social service organizations that have undergone similar processes, believes the time, money and efforts are worth it in the long run.

“By having stronger marketing and a strong brand, you’re able to provide more services and more effective services,” says Duranso. “Marketing has to get done, and if staff can spend less time creating fliers themselves, they can spend more time with youth and families.”

Work With Pros, and Engage Everyone

Nonprofit leaders who’ve embarked on rebranding campaigns say creating a new brand is impossible without a professional and sympathetic marketing team.

”We considered proposals from more than 20 companies,” says Duranso, “and chose the one that we felt heard us and believed in our mission. They took the time to listen.”

Great Circle, a youth- and family-serving agency in the St. Louis area, hired such a team six years ago when its founding organizations, Boys and Girls Town of Missouri and St. Louis’s Edgewood Children’s Center, merged. The scope of the new agency was big enough to require an all-new identity, right down to the name, says Director of Communications Marie McGeehan.

“We needed a name that reflected this new agency whose goal was to last another hundred years, meeting the future needs of families and children,” says McGeehan.

Over the course of a year, the marketing team interviewed staff members of both organizations about their work and developed new organizational language and branding materials, including letterhead and business cards featuring a new logo that encompassed the merged agency’s chief goal of “joining with members of the community to help those most vulnerable,” according to McGeehan.

Valley Youth House’s marketing team also surveyed staff – around 400 people – and other stakeholders like donors and the board to ensure that the new brand reflects the whole of the agency’s place in people’s lives.

No Sudden Changes

People can have strong feelings about the identity of their agency, and that means rebranding can be a delicate business. Even after McGeehan’s organization changed its name in early 2014, Great Circle’s leaders felt it best to preserve the “legacy names” of the original centers, in deference to the loyalties of donors and supporters. For the first three years of the merger, official mailings would come from “Edgewood Children’s Center – A Great Circle Agency,” for example. The centers continued to have separate websites.

By early 2014, Great Circle decided that enough time had passed for folks to be used to the new identity and name. McGeehan and her colleagues merged the two websites and started to call everything Great Circle, full stop. They announced the final change with a newsletter to stakeholders and an advertising campaign around the St. Louis area. They also had internal launch meetings with staff in each program location, and gave everyone t-shirts with the new logo. McGeehan says that the effort has been a success, creating a new and recognizable identity for an organization that now serves over 20,000 people a year. Even through the name change, they have sustained their donor and volunteer base while establishing “Great Circle” as a known entity in the St. Louis area.

“Our rebranding coincided with the development of a new strategic plan for Great Circle that is pointing the agency in a new direction,” says McGeehan. “The timing couldn't have been better.”

At the relative outset of her own rebranding, Annette Duranso is working to make the process—and its final outcome—just as inclusive and transformative for Valley Youth House.

“I hope it builds a foundation, that we all speak from one voice,” she says. “Whether you’re a prevention worker talking to 5th graders or you’re in an independent living program, you’ll know the whole spectrum of what we do.”

A Different Angle: Partnering With Filmmakers to Tell Untold Stories

Deanna’s bruises cover her face like a weather pattern, rendering her features nearly unrecognizable. And while the sight of her injuries is a powerful reminder of the physical toll of domestic violence, a more benign detail in this scene is almost as telling—the frustration on her legal advocate’s face as a county judge explains that, despite the evidence on Deanna’s body, her abuser may never see a jail cell.

Deanna’s story is at the center of the film “Private Violence,” a collaboration between anti-domestic violence advocate Kit Gruelle and documentarian Cynthia Hill. When the two women met through a mutual friend, Gruelle was looking to make a short fundraising video to showcase the work of her peers advocating against domestic violence. But the footage and the story were so immediate and affecting, Gruelle and Hill ended up with a feature-length documentary that played at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and ran on HBO earlier this year.

Gruelle says the film has changed people’s perceptions of her life’s work.

“So many people just don’t understand how badly a woman can be beaten, and the criminal justice system treats it like a misdemeanor assault,” she says. “[A film about] Deanna’s case allows people to step into her world and see it’s never just about the abuser—it’s about the systems that are just as marginalizing, oppressive and dangerous as the abuser himself.”

This is what film can do for a social issue. It can make the problem specific, personal, and immediate. And it can convey the heroism and difficulty of social services work in a way that mere words or even photographs can’t match, making it an unparalleled fundraising or awareness-raising tool. And because of video’s immediacy, it’s adaptable to many different settings, from targeted trainings to wide broadcast.

 Finding the Right Filmmaker

An estimated 100,000 children are trafficked in the United States each year, says Cathy O’Keeffe, executive director of Braking Traffik, a nonprofit working to end sex trafficking in Iowa and Illinois. But despite the issue’s urgency, O’Keeffe says, until recently her agency struggled to raise awareness in the communities in which it works.

Looking to make a promotional video about her organization and its work, O’Keeffe chose Fourth Wall Films, a local production company that had made films about historically neglected groups, including Native Americans and military veterans.

“We felt comfortable that they know how to handle complex issues respectfully and professionally,” says O’Keeffe, whose collaboration with Fourth Wall resulted in the documentary “Any Kid, Anywhere: Sex Trafficking Survivor Stories.”

Gruelle felt equally comfortable with Hill, a fellow southerner with experience shooting films about social justice. Just as important for a filmmaking partnership, the two women bonded not just over a passion for the subject but also over a shared sense of storytelling.

“I knew that this issue … had to be presented in a way that the audience had never seen before,” says Hill. Including Gruelle’s perspective in the film, in addition to main subject Deanna Walters, she says, “made it possible to tell an intimate story but also broaden it through Kit and her work.”

While professional filmmaking can be expensive, you may be able to find local production crews or students who will work pro bono for nonprofits, or like Gruelle and Hill, find foundations and social-justice filmmaking groups who can help bring outside funding to the project.

Clients as Subjects

Survivors’ stories can be important prevention and awareness-raising tools for people working in fields like domestic violence and trafficking. But it’s a lot to ask those survivors to share their experiences over and over again. A benefit of film is that they can share once, and then the stories become portable.

“It is very difficult [for them] to travel from school to school to school and share to new audiences,” O’Keeffe says of the subjects of “Any Kid, Anywhere.” “They have careers and families now. Having this on a DVD allows us to bring those survivors into schools without them physically being there.”

To avoid making one person the “poster child” for trafficking, O’Keeffe and her collaborators chose a trio of women in their twenties and thirties with varied backgrounds to show that there’s no “typical” trafficking experience.

People who watch the film can see through the three stories “yes, it does happen,” O’Keeffe says. “And these are the ways how.”

Getting it Seen

O’Keeffe has shown “Any Kid, Anywhere” to private and community audiences, including at police trainings and school workshops. Initially, these events were set up by O’Keeffe and her staff. Once word spread about the video’s effectiveness as an educational tool, Braking Traffik started receiving requests for screenings. One came from the regional FBI office in Iowa, which asked to use the film as a training resource.

And while “Private Violence” found its way to HBO thanks to production support from national foundations, Hill and Gruelle say in-person screening have been the most effective at spreading their anti-domestic violence message. The women were recently hosted by the University of Cincinnati’s law school, which sponsored multiple showings and invited community members.

Victims, advocates, judges, law enforcement officials and the public viewed the documentary together, Hill says. Then, in a day-long workshop, they isolated the issues facing their community.

“That’s really where this problem is going to be solved,” she says, “when it’s not just an advocate’s issue or a cop’s issue.”

SIDEBAR: How a FYSB Grantee Ended Up on PBS - The story of The Homestretch

"The Homestretch," the newest documentary from Kartemquin Films ("Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters"), tells the stories of three homeless young people in Chicago. And all three rely on help and support from a network of caretakers including FYSB grantee The Night Ministry, whose program is a featured location in the film.

As "The Homestretch" makes its debut on the PBS series "Independent Lens," the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth spoke with staff members from The Night Ministry about why they got involved in the first place, and how to protect staff and clients’ best interests with cameras rolling.

NCFY: How did this journey begin for The Night Ministry? Were you looking for ways to make a movie of your work?

Paul W. Hamann (President & CEO): The film was not our idea. The filmmakers [Anne De Mare and Kirsten Kelly] came to us with the initial idea, the subject matter, the concept, and had done a lot of research around the concerns of homeless youth before they approached us.

We first met them when [overnight shelter] The Crib first opened, in 2011. They’d heard about the program from other providers. Everyone told them, “You have to go check out this new program.”

Tedd Peso (Government Relations Manager): Filming began in the winter of 2012, at end of The Crib’s first pilot program. They also filmed our youth outreach team, and really became a part of the work we were doing. As Chicago was reformatting its homeless plan, they were in our meetings and filmed us working on that. They followed young people on advocacy trips to Springfield. Everyone [on staff] became pretty familiar with what they were doing. They became part of the fabric of the program.

NCFY: How can you build that kind of trust with an outside filmmaker?

Peso: We researched them. We knew Kristen had experience working with young people through the [Chicago Public Schools] Shakespeare program [that produces Shakespeare plays with public high school students]. A lot of it was the aura they gave off. And because it was a long-term project, it was different than a journalist going in and looking for a sound bite. This was something they really researched and prepared for.

Hamann: It was really a relationship. We knew we were dealing with professionals, and they were most respectful of the clients, staff and their stories. And if the staff had ever said so, we would have stopped filming immediately.

NCFY: How did you protect your staff and youth from feeling scrutinized or uncomfortable while the cameras were rolling?

Stacy Massey (Media Relations and Communications Coordinator): We put up a lot of boundaries up front, for journalists and filmmakers. We make it clear that, if at any point in the process we have to stop or anyone revokes their consent, filming has to stop. As long as you set up those ground rules at the outset, people are quite respectful.

You only choose subjects who are over 18, and they have to give their consent. We have processes on our end, like signed releases, and telling kids [during group scenes], “If you’re comfortable being on camera, be on this side of the room.” And we empower them to stand up for themselves if they’re not okay with anything. They don’t always realize they have that option to say, “Please stop filming me.”

We’re really frank with filmmakers. We explain that we work with a vulnerable position and we don’t want to put them in an even more vulnerable position. This is a safe space for people without a lot of safe spaces. And [De Mare and Kelly] understood that, as much as their craft is documentary realism, it’s also about building relationships.

Hamann: We were always asking, what is the purpose of this? Is the purpose in line with our mission? Are they going to respect confidentiality, and do so in a way that won’t interfere with service delivery?

We get a lot of calls from university students and most of them we have to say no to. The ultimate goal isn’t about the clients, it’s about their project.

NCFY: How do you expect that this film will affect your program or the field at large?

Hamann: We know it’s going to be significant but we don’t know how yet. The timing of it couldn’t be better, as the needs of homeless youth become a bigger and bigger issue. [We need] to get across the point that homeless youth take on a variety of forms. There are a lot of reasons they become homeless. And this movie really conveys that.

Peso: In Illinois we have a new budget that’s been proposed that would cut homeless funding by 55 percent. At a state level, ["The Homestretch"] comes at a perfect time for people to understand the impact this cut would have on the young people who are living these issues.

And of course, [the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness] wants to end youth homelessness by 2020, and this film says a lot about the need for funding front-line youth workers in achieving that goal.

The Big Broadcast: Putting on a Marketing Campaign

Omaha, Nebraska, has the highest chlamydia rate of any city in the United States, and the second-highest gonorrhea rate—and youth aged 15 to 24 make up approximately 50 percent of the cases. That’s why the Adolescent Health Project, a subsidiary of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, recently launched Get Checked Omaha, a new campaign aimed at preventing sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, among teens.

The primary goal of the campaign is to get teens’ attention, and to that end the project has sponsored TV public service announcements, billboards and bus shelter ads featuring photos of successful teen characters who live with an infection. “I’m the leading actor in the school play. I’m in the National Honor Society. And I have an STD [sexually transmitted disease],” reads one, along with the tagline “Anyone Can Get One.” They direct teens to the campaign website where they can look at a specialized map to find a testing center nearby.

Targeted marketing campaigns can raise the visibility of an agency or issue—whether teen pregnancy, youth homelessness, dating violence, or other problems that impact teens—among potential clients, donors, volunteers, and the greater community. But they work best when you put in the time to plan the campaign to a T, and figure out how to best reach your target audience.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Having never mounted a marketing campaign before, the Adolescent Health Project went looking for those who had. Brenda Council, adolescent health coordinator for the Women’s Fund, says that she and her colleagues found a campaign in Milwaukee that seemed to have helped reduce the city’s teen birth rate by 50 percent over seven years. Inspired by that campaign’s ability to reach a young audience, Council set up a meeting with Serve Marketing, the nonprofit advertising agency that led it.

“Don’t try to recreate the wheel,” says Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of Girls Incorporated of Omaha, one of the sponsors of the Get Checked campaign. “Use what you know has worked in the past, and adapt that to your needs.”

Using a marketing company or ad agency can cost you. (In the case of the Get Checked campaign, Serve Marketing donated their time for planning, and the Adolescent Health Project used funds from Women’s Fund to pay for other expenses, including advertising costs.) But whether you call in outside professionals or not, the principle remains: model your campaign after others who have successfully done what you want to do.

Involve Young people

The Adolescent Health Project wanted their campaign to be informed by the youth it was aimed at,  so Serve Marketing decided on the campaign’s eventual shape by interviewing young people. In a series of focus groups, they asked young people about their opinions on the issue of STIs, as well as their communication habits.

Youth responses led the advertising agency to design the campaign around the notion that anyone can get STIs in hopes of sparking conversations about the hard-to-discuss issue. They also chose to place the ads in schools, on billboards and bus shelters, and in online videos—places they knew youth would see.

Even on a smaller scale, youth engagement is an important part of any campaign aimed at youth. At Minnesota’s Blaine High School, the student-led We Won’t Rest initiative raised money to combat homelessness with activities based on the TV show “Survivor.” In the end, the students spent about $25 and raised more than $2,000 for their cause.

Julie Phillips, youth service coordinator at the school, says the students marketed their campaign each day throughout the school over a video newscast.

Kick It Off

One place where the Blaine youth excelled was their campaign’s kick-off event, which attracted more than 100 students and featured an address by a formerly homeless youth.

The Adolescent Health Project made their own local splash with a press event for 100 local stakeholders and media representatives.

“It was important for us to approach the issue as a holistic thing in the community,” Roberta Wilhelm says. The event showed that “it’s not just one person or one group that will be affected” by a reduction in STIs.

But she adds that “generating conversation is just the first step. You can’t just have a big campaign and then not have the capacity to do the testing.” To that end, the project has met with local health care organizations to make sure they are increasing services to meet what will hopefully be a growing demand for STI testing.

“Getting the word out is the biggest piece,” says Phillips. “Make sure it’s something that is fun and gets everyone excited. If you can find the right event for your audience it’ll make it easier for everyone to have buy-in.”