Mentoring Program Turns Cameras on Its Young Clients
By JANE L. LEVERE
Published: January 12, 2011
FOR the first time in its more than 100-year history, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is actively seeking donations, through a nationwide campaign, to underwrite its work with children at risk.
John Paul Adan, left, and Edgar from Big Brothers Big Sisters.
The outreach is part of a new public service advertising initiative that was created with the help of the Advertising Council and is being announced Thursday, as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of National Mentoring Month.
Called “Start Something,” the campaign uses traditional as well as social media to illustrate the positive impact the adult volunteers of Big Brothers Big Sisters have on children’s lives, and to solicit both volunteers and financial support. The organization’s previous national public service advertising, which began in 2002, was also created with the Ad Council and sought only volunteers.
Established in 1904, Big Brothers Big Sisters matches adult volunteers with children from poor or single-parent families, or who have an incarcerated parent, all considered at risk; the organization estimates there are 10 million to 15 million such children in the United States. Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteers are expected to make a minimum one-year commitment to serve as a mentor to these children.
According to Mack Koonce, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters, although the need for volunteer services has risen continuously as the economy has weakened, the organization’s funding has dropped, which means it must reduce the number of volunteers it can support. It costs about $1,000 a year for an adult volunteer to mentor a child, with most money going to administrative expenses.
Mr. Koonce said last year Big Brothers Big Sisters’ 380 local affiliates helped 227,000 pairs of adult mentors and children, when the group had revenue of $278 million; in 2008, it assisted 255,000 youngsters, when revenue was $290 million.
A strategic review begun in 2007 concluded that Big Brothers Big Sisters needed to make “two fundamental shifts,” Mr. Koonce said. “People know us for our mentoring, but not what we achieve, our outcomes. And we’re known as a place to volunteer more than a place to donate.”
According to a 1995 study by Public/Private Ventures, a nonprofit research and program development group, after 18 months of spending time with adult mentors, children in Big Brothers Big Sisters are 46 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin using alcohol and 52 percent less likely to skip school than at-risk children not in the program.
To reposition Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Ad Council brought in the New York office of Naked Communications — a branding and communications strategy consulting company — to develop an initial strategy, and the New York office of Publicis Modem USA, the digital agency of the Publicis Worldwide unit of the Publicis Groupe, which further developed and executed the strategy.
Publicis Modem’s new ads — directed mostly at people who support groups that aid children — delivers the campaign’s various messages while soliciting donations in a low-key way.
For example, a new TV spot asks, “What if every child was sent on the right path? What if every child stayed in school? Graduated college? Got a job? Gave back to the community? What if every child’s potential was fulfilled? What could that start? It could be the start of something big. Every time you donate money or time to Big Brothers Big Sisters it makes a big impact on a Little. Start something at BigBrothersBigSisters.org.”
Web banners will begin running this month, with TV and radio advertising in late January or early February, while print and outdoor media will start in the third quarter of this year.
In addition, adult volunteers and the children they mentor will use video cameras to document their experiences together; their chronicles will be posted on Facebook, Twitter,YouTube and Flickr later in this quarter.
“We were looking for a way to create a personal connection and engagement with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and we felt the best way to do this was to show the impact these relationships have,” said Dani Nadel, president of Publicis Modem USA. “Social media is a great way to create a first-hand experience of the true benefits of the program.”
The campaign is getting a significant boost from many Big Brothers Big Sisters corporate partners, including Arby’s, which donated $675,000 for research and marketing; Comcast, which is giving more than $3 million in air time and online media this year; Nivea, which is raising money through an iTunes promotion this month; and AOL, Facebook and MSN Advertising, all of which have made firm commitments to run the new online ads.
Marketing and philanthropic experts generally praised the campaign’s strategy.
Stephen A. Greyser, professor emeritus of marketing at the Harvard Business School, said “the most effective thing” Big Brothers Big Sisters has done “is the way it harnessed the energy” of its corporate partners.
Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, said the most innovative aspect of the campaign “is the fact that the ‘Bigs’ and the ‘Littles’ will be contributing content. It’s a creative move to empower laypeople, volunteers and kids to produce advertising media for a large organization.”
However, Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, warned that the campaign’s reliance on social media “may not produce the huge amounts of money they want to get. There’s a strong correlation between giving and age; those who are older and have some means give more than the young.”
Not surprisingly, Peggy Conlon, chief executive of the Ad Council, is bullish. “One thing that’s known about philanthropy is that the biggest reason people do not give is because they haven’t been asked,” she said. The initiative has all the right ingredients. “It will have a very powerful, dramatic draw.”