Big Brothers Big Sisters—Taking it to the Virtual Streets

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) is one of those fortunate non-profit brands whose allure matches that of Nike—in that pretty much everyone wants to be seen running with a pair.

For much of its 100 years of service, BBBS has been blessed with an army of volunteers that supply it with the manpower to fuel its programs and enough corporate sponsors to keep its operations flush with cash. However, few sponsoring organizations have been able to escape the ripple effect of the nation’s crippling and crumbling economic disposition over the past few years, and have had to adjust budgets accordingly—with cause marketing efforts being scrutinized, and hit, the hardest. As a result, BBBS, like many charities, has seen a continuing decline in its annual corporate donations. Brand Channel reports, “In 2009, [BBBS] revenue was $278 million, vs. $290 million in 2008. It costs about $1,000 per year to help each child. In 2009 the organization helped 227,000 children, down from 255,000 children the year before.” Consequently, in an attempt to garner more exposure for its need for volunteers and private donations—from the likes of you and me—BBBS has taken its tin cups to the virtual streets via social media platforms with its new “Start Something” advertising concept. The campaign features a subtle plea for donations and volunteers, and loudly encourages existing mentees and mentors to “turn the camera” on themselves to tell their stories (i.e., “starting something big”). “The campaign’s edge,” according to Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, “is the fact the the ‘Bigs’ and the ‘Littles’ will contributing content. It’s a creative move to empower laypeople, volunteers and kids, to produce advertising media for a large organization.”

Free, positive, viral, word-of-mouth is always appreciated, and it doesn’t take much to get today’s generation to tweet and post. BBBS, like any organization doing business today, is smart to adapt new media into its communications strategy to attract new eyeballs. What remains to be seen, however, is if the new eyeballs they find are attached to the right wallets. Will the costs of these new channels produce the extra cash they need? This unanswered question continues to plague both the profit and non-profit sectors. In the end, participation—a true physical engagement answering the call to action—is what’s needed for success. A Facebook “Like” isn’t something we can count on or cash in on. (Not yet anyway.)

Author Malcolm Gladwell’s October 2010 piece in The New Yorker, “Small Change,” addresses this very issue around social media and expectations for social activism. In a nutshell, he refers to social media connections as “weak ties.” He says, that “…It’s [Social media] terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Needless to say, his essay raised great debate.

So what, if anything, can we take away from this, aside from “a) slow and steady wins the race,” and “b) a drop in the bucket is better than none.” How about this:

c) Social media may be really nothing more than having a “real-time” direct mail piece targeted to an audience. Instead of affixing a wacky golden yellow sticker to a reply postcard to declare interest, your audience is encouraged to visit a link, post a “Like”, and tweet the conversation with others. Finding interested parties is easier, faster, and cheaper. But the hard task remains: Getting them to pull the $$$ trigger for you—ka-ching!—over all the other worthy causes out there. Or as Nike would say, to get them to: “Just do it.”

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