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Finding the Right Words

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Executive Director, Deidre Martin McCormack is a passionate advocate for Summer Search’s mission, but last year she found herself frustrated by its lack of visibility.  Very few people had heard the name Summer Search, and even if they had, they didn’t really know what the organization was about.

That’s where SVP volunteer Sam Neukom came in.  “From the beginning it was clear how much experience she had,” recalls Deidre of Sam’s brand and marketing background.   “She had all these ideas.  And she was excited and engaged, because she was already a donor to Summer Search and really loved our mission.”

Working with staff, board members and students, Sam and fellow community volunteer Deb Agrin uncovered the essence of Summer Search.  They turned the focus from what the organization does to why it matters – resulting in a stickier pitch.  They created “handles” that made it easy for staff and board members to remember the messages, and used fun “speed-dating” exercises to increase their comfort and confidence with the new language.

“Before this project, I would have said something like: ‘Summer Search is a youth development program, blah, blah, blah…’ People’s eyes just glazed over,” explains Deidre.

Now?  Deidre starts with why it matters:

“There are a lot of low-income students who have potential, but they don’t have access to opportunities or resources to realize that potential.   Because of that, only 10% of low-income students graduate from college.  We think that’s abysmal.  Summer Search changes that.  Here’s how…”

This may seem like semantics, but it actually makes a huge difference.

I know why I’m here,” says Deidre, “but if I can’t accurately convey why we’re here to you, then it doesn’t matter, because I’m not going to be able to bring you in, and make this work carry on.   No money, no mission.”

This spring, Summer Search had their most successful fundraising event ever.  Their goal was $250k. They raised $330k.

“I used the messaging on the podium,” says Deidre.  “I used the messaging in the video.  And after the event, I didn’t hear one question from anyone that I followed up with about ‘what do you guys do?’

“In the past, I would sit down for coffee with people who have been coming to our events for 5 years, and they would say something vague like: ‘so…you guys do summer programs…’  I think people get it quicker, now: ‘You’re about college for low-income kids’ – because we’re starting with that … And it’s more compelling.”

The messaging work did more than support Summer Search’s fundraising efforts, however.   “For the board and staff, it helped clarify why we’re doing this work, and what we need to focus on.”

Deidre took the messaging to Summer Search’s national meeting and shared it in a marketing session with staff, board members, and donors from around the country.  They loved it.  And the end of the session Sasha Kovriga, one of Summer Search’s first participants back in 1990, walked up to her.  The son of Russian immigrants, Sasha is now a successful investment banker, board member, and Summer Search champion.

“He looked at me and said: ‘Deidre, in the 20 years that I have been involved with this program, I have not known how to talk about it.  And now, I do.’”

“I think Sam and Deb nailed it,” continues Deidre.  “They captured the essence of why we’re here and what we’re doing.”

So what comes next?  This project was actually just the first of three to help increase Summer Search’s visibility.  In the next two, Summer Search and Sam will identify likely audiences that they are not yet reaching, and develop a plan to reach those audiences in the hopes of taking their work to the next level.

Why?  Because with greater visibility and support Summer Search can help more students like Regina.

Learn More

If you’re interested, you can learn more about how to get engaged at SVP, and about our work with Summer Search and all our Investees.

 

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