With so much marketing going online in the aftermath of the pandemic, your nonprofit story needs to be even more potent than ever.
We invited Jerri Rosen, founder and CEO of Working Wardrobes, and Katie Wagner, President and CEO of KWSM, a digital marketing agency, to talk about the key elements of an effective story to energize your donors and many other supporters needed to run a successful nonprofit.
Jerri, can you tell us what inspired you to found Working Wardrobes?
Jerri Rosen, CEO of Working Wardrobes: When I started Working Wardrobes 30 years ago, I call it a very happy accident. I had no intentions of running a nonprofit. My background is marketing and advertising, but I really was moved by the plight of women who are survivors of domestic violence. I read that there are more animal shelters than there are shelters for women survivors of domestic violence. Certainly, women who are going through domestic violence need the help. They need a safe place to heal and to grow. So we wanted to be able to provide these women with a boost to their self-esteem. We knew that if we could help them feel better about themselves, we really wanted to give them the tools to be able to go back into the workforce, to stand on their own feet and hopefully not go back to their abusive situation. We started with a one-day event originally called A Day of Self-Esteem. We served 67 women from six safe shelters in Orange County, California. We did a skills assessment because I always thought it was just as important to figure out who’s on the inside and what this person needed on the inside, as it was to give them the outside services. We did personal grooming, we did their hair styling, we did makeup, and each of the women had a personal shopper to help them select a new working wardrobe. We were all volunteers and were beyond blissfully exhausted and happy at the end of the event knowing that we had truly changed and impacted the lives of the women who came to be with us. After we had celebrated, someone said, “Jerri, let’s do that again.” And here I am 31 years later doing it again for many, many people now. We now also serve men, women, young adults and veterans.
Jerri, bring us back to February 2020. What happened?
Jerri Rosen: Last year was the 30th year for Working Wardrobes and I actually intended to celebrate every day for the entire year. On the morning of February 2, everything that we built over 30 years has just gone up in in flames. We didn’t lose any person, but we lost everything in the 26,000 square-foot building. Every computer, every file, every piece of clothing, every shoe—everything went up in flames. And I will tell everyone who’s running a nonprofit organization, check your insurance policies today. You never ever want to be caught in a situation like this. When it hit the news on Sunday, I received a call from Katie, who said, “I have an entire team who love you and are here to help you.”
Katie, if you could just tell us what you did after you made that call to Jerri.
Katie Wagner, President and CEO of KWSM, a digital marketing agency: Jerri and I have known each other for many years. I started as a donor and a volunteer at Working Wardrobes. When one of my employees told me about the fire, my heart sank. I knew how much work and passion, blood, sweat and tears had gone into building the organization for 30 years. And in a moment, all of that was taken away. I wanted to do something and I didn’t know what that was. But I have a staff of about 35 people and I thought we can go help clean up. We can hold drives for more clothes, if we need to. We can be a shoulder to cry on, whatever it takes. That started some conversations about how we could help Jerri tell the Working Wardrobe story. We would get that story out to the people that needed to know, most immediately the press and, through them, the community and the donors, volunteers and all the supporters she’s amassed in Orange County over the past three decades.
How do you take that story of the fire and turn it into fundraising and an outpouring of support that you’d not seen before?
Jerri Rosen: This news really hit all the channels early on Sunday. By 10 o’clock that morning, I received a call from the CEO of our local Goodwill chapter who said she thought she had temporary space for us from where we could operate. By noon that same day we had visited the space and we knew this was perfect. Monday morning, less than 24 hours later with Katie’s help, we had an incredible press conference right in front of the building we were going to move into. So the fire happened Sunday morning, Monday morning we had the press conference and my team went back to work Monday morning. It’s a remarkable situation when nonprofit leaders support each other to that extent. The most important thing we do as leaders is to build relationships and to nurture those relationships. No one wants to ever be in this kind of situation. But to have a phone call the very day of a fire with an offer of temporary space for a couple of months is just extraordinary. This particular space offered us an opportunity to open up a donation center so we could get clothing and office space for the for the staff.
Katie’s team put together for us a press conference with all of the major stations. Katie, if you can talk just about how you put together a press conference in less than 24 hours. This is yet another miracle that Katie’s team has done for us.
Katie Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. Our theme today is about resilience and I think that really was the story that we had to tell. It wasn’t really about the fire at this point. The fire happened, yes, but it was really about Working Wardrobes and their team saying, we need to start rebuilding. And Jerri was saying that within hours of the fire happening. It’s our 30th year, we thought we were celebrating and now we’re going to be the phoenix that rises from the ashes of this fire and really rebuild for the next 30 years. Once we realized that failure was not an option in Jerri’s mind and heart and she was going to rebuild, we were going to start immediately. We knew that was the story we wanted to tell the press and have them help us tell to the public. We went to work putting together a list of all the media. Working Wardrobes is located in Orange County, but we contacted the LA stations and even some San Diego stations as well. When you think about a nonprofit that’s been around for three decades and is as large as Working Wardrobes, there were thousands of people that had volunteered and donated over those years. And there were going to be thousands of people affected by the fact that the building had been destroyed. It was time to start over.
We had individual conversations with all of these journalists and media representatives and invited them to join us at 10:00 am, the Monday after the fire. 10:00 am is a strategic time to have a press conference, because the morning shows start at about 5:00 am and go to just before 10:00. Then the news shows start and then lock things in around 11:00/11:30 for the noon shows. We wanted to be strategically placed so that we could get some live shots on the news shows or the noon shows with the journalists broadcasting live from our press conference. Those that didn’t have live capabilities would have time to collect interviews with important people and get them back to the station in time to air on the news. You can’t do it too early in the morning, because then all the key staff is tied up producing the morning show, and they won’t be able to leave to come down to Orange County to cover our story.
We provided a list of all the key people that were going to be at the press conference. We had the fire chief and, of course, Jerri and the board chair and Nicole from Goodwill who was giving us the space. We made a press list of all the important people and their roles that we handed out at the press conference as journalists arrived and asked who they wanted to talk to. We lined up interviews for them while they were there. One of the keys to getting successful press coverage is making it as easy for the journalists to get what they need and as efficient as you can. My staff ran around and facilitated those interviews so that everybody got what they needed and get back for the noon shows.
Katie, you’re a former anchor and investigative journalist. Can you talk about what makes an effective story?
Katie Wagner: It turns out that there are some very common themes that make effective stories. One is that good stories always contain people. Sometimes your nonprofit gets wrapped up in the mission, whether it’s the environment or animals, and really the best stories are about humans. They’re not about things or stats or science or results. You have to show us the people who are affected and the people who are players in your stories. That’s not just the people that experience the end result of your mission. It’s the volunteers that help you pull it off. It’s the staff that worked long hours within your organization. It’s the board that supports you and your mission. Those human stories are really key.
The second common element are stories that go behind the scenes. Humans like insider information. So if you can show me what’s happening in the inner workings of your organization or take me behind the scenes at an event or even in the course of doing your daily work, people feel really connected to that emotionally. They like to be insiders. They like to get that view that not everybody gets. That can build a lot of support and a lot of connections.
And then good stories educate. They don’t sell. I think so often nonprofits we know have to get donations and have to make relationships with donors and get them to support us. And it turns into pushing for that and not often educating about what does the work make possible in our community. What does the mission do. What kind of impact are you really having when you donate to this organization. That’s key.
And then the last one I’ll mention is that good stories tie into things that are happening in the community. To use Working Wardrobes as an example, during the pandemic, we saw lots of people out of jobs. Lots of people got laid off. Lots of people couldn’t find work. Those are the people that Working Wardrobes supports anyway, but their work has never been more important than it is now in the pandemic. And these days after we’ve recovered from the fire, we’re focused on telling stories about how the work we’ve done for 30 years now becomes even more relevant in a time when so many people who have never been out of a job before are struggling and need this help in a way that they haven’t in the past. So it’s looking at the things going on in our world and figuring out how can you tie your mission or your purpose to those things and make it really relevant for people in a timely manner. That’s how you get good press coverage because journalists are always looking for the news peg. They’re always looking for a new angle about a story I have to talk about in the news every day anyway. And if your organization can give them a fresh angle or a new way of looking at things, that’s guaranteed coverage for you and your group.
Jerri Rosen: As Katie mentioned, we really put the face on the people and the companies who are helping us the morning after the fire. We hadn’t even thought about putting a fundraising campaign together. And frankly, we never did. The money just started to come in. This is the power of social media. It’s also the story of serving a community for three decades and it’s time for us to really help you rebuild, because we know you’re going to come back bigger and stronger than ever. This fund started to attract donors from all over Orange County, Southern California, and even across the country. We had donors that we had never met before. And again, I’m not at all espousing this as a fundraising idea. You do not want to do this in your organization. When you do good work, people want to acknowledge the work that you’re doing, and the Rebuild Fund and our Rebuilding Heroes brought in over a million dollars in about a month. Most importantly, 652 of those donors were brand new to the organization. That’s a development dream come true.
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