March 09, 2015

Reaping Big Rewards by Doing the Unexpected

At Share Our Strength, it took us nearly 25 years to learn that doing what is most expected of us required doing what was least expected of us.

What has always been most expected of us is helping to feed hungry kids. That’s our highest priority. But scaling our efforts to reach as many of those hungry children as possible required doing what was least expected of us: investing funds in building the brand of our No Kid Hungry campaign — precisely the kinds of expenditures in marketing, communications, and promotion that give donors pause and may mean feeding fewer people in the short term. But what we learned is that a better-known and better-trusted brand attracts more supporters and yields record levels of funding support and thus greater impact.
    In 2008, when our strategy shifted from grant making to helping coordinate and support a campaign to end childhood hunger, we needed a more accessible way of describing our new approach. Our board of directors understood that like most enterprises, whether profit or nonprofit, brand building was not an expertise of ours. They urged us to spend money we did not have to hire a branding and communications firm. Though that seems counter to the more conservative approach one might expect from a traditional board, our board of businesspeople believed if you had a story to tell, a story that could help more children, you had an almost moral obligation to tell it.

That firm we hired, SS&K, helped us see the power in the clarity and simplicity of the words No Kid Hungry.  No Kid Hungry said what we were about and what we aspired to achieve. We put those words on everything we did, everywhere we could. We made subsequent investments internally in brand and communications expertise, including the creation of a chief communications and brand officer position. Most important, we worked to make sure all of the activities of the organization, all that we were spending money and time on, were aligned with that priority of ending childhood hunger.

As consumers began to recognize the No Kid Hungry brand, corporate partners and brands outside of our traditional culinary-industry sweet spot became interested in working with us. For example, we developed highly successful partnerships with Uber, American Girl, and Citi, to name a few. As our revenues nearly doubled from $26 million in 2008 to almost $50 million in 2014, we saw dramatic program impact. In collaboration with numerous local partners, we saw participation in school-breakfast programs reach its highest levels in history. Six of the 10 states with the greatest increases in summer meal participation were states in which we’d waged No Kid Hungry campaigns.  Governors of both parties embraced our work, including Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia.

Most successful businesses — like Apple and Walmart — would not conceive of scaling up to their potential without investing in their brand and the lift that gives to their products.  Nonprofits need to think that way as well and get past the misperceptions that investing in brand somehow takes away from their mission rather than advancing it.

A brand is a promise to one’s customers that your values are what you say they are and that they are reflected in everything you do. Instead of brand building by nonprofits being greeted with skepticism, one would think this would be even more important in a sector in which stakeholders wish for but lack standard measurements of results. Brand is not really about marketing at all. It’s about integrity, accountability, and trust. That ought to be something every stakeholder can support.

We supported the No Kid Hungry brand to the point that it almost eclipsed the parent brand of Share Our Strength. We see that as a good problem to have. Going forward we’ll navigate the challenge of maintaining No Kid Hungry as our top priority but ensuring that Share Our Strength is an enduring brand for the next hundred years. It underscores that a brand is a commitment to your stakeholders that like most commitments doesn’t come to an end but remains a work in progress in which you continually invest.

Bill Shore is the founder and chief executive of Share Our Strength.