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​'50 stories' campaign spotlights milestone anniversary


A wicker basket with a note taped to the handle that says "Put your story here!"Every nonprofit tries to dream up creative ways to commemorate milestone anniversaries in meaningful ways. And St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore, Maryland, came up with a campaign that others may want to emulate. It's called "50 Stories in 50 Weeks." (Yep, you guessed it: It was for the NeighborWorks network member's 50th anniversary in 2018.) 

Karen Griffin, director of resource development for St. Ambrose, says the nonprofit had several major goals for the project: 
  • Expand St. Ambrose' outreach in the Baltimore area.
  • Celebrate the impact of the organization by "respecting the past, embracing the present and envisioning the future."
  • Touch the hearts of potential donors and funders with stories of meaning.
  • Inspire participation by sponsors and clients in the nonprofit's 50th Anniversary Gala. 
The website created for the campaign now is populated with 50 compelling stories about the nonprofit's history and work, ranging from homeownership counseling, to legal advocacy, to rental placements. And it allowed St. Ambrose to talk about its anniversary for weeks leading up to its gala. 

Here's how the project was conceived and implemented:

According to Griffin, the original idea for "50 Stories" grew out of a meeting of communications and marketing professionals from the network, organized by the Public Relations Division of NeighborWorks America. Fellow network member RUPCO from Kingston, New York, shared how it released a story a week for one of its anniversaries, and Griffin said she immediately thought, "I am so stealing that idea for our 50th!" And, in fact, that is just the type of peer exchange and learning NeighborWorks America works to encourage through many of its activities.

That was in 2016. The gala was planned for April 2018, so Griffin figured St. Ambrose should start sharing its stories in June the previous year. "Our gala was planned for April of 2018, which meant, we had 50 weeks, so we would kick the campaign off in June of 2017." Her team identified the types of stories it wanted to collect to reflect different aspects of St. Ambrose's work. But because she had only two staff people—a common problem at local nonprofits—Griffin knew help was needed. The stories the organization already collected were stored in a "labyrinth" of places, and in addition, "we didn't want them all to be in our voice. We wanted to inspire participation from other storytellers." 

The first step involved an intern from the nearby Goucher College, who came on board for eight weeks. But that was far from enough. Fortunately, Griffin was able to tap into the pro bono services of the Hatcher Group, a local consultancy, to help with some of the necessary research, including key words to include in the stories to ensure a strong social media presence. Additional assistance came from Business Volunteers Maryland, whose mission is to "inspire volunteerism and connect motivated people and businesses to nonprofit organizations leading to stronger communities."

Six individuals stand in front of a wall covered in license plates and the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center banner

"We were invited to present in front of about 150 young professionals in Baltimore and they chose us as one of the nonprofits to help," explains Griffin. "The group of volunteers assigned to us for nine months was made up of five young people, including a marketer from Black & Decker, for example, and someone from the Urban Land Institute." 

It was from that group that the idea for a dedicated website came. The group also designed and built it. 

"It's the receptacle for all 50 stories, with some in audio, some in video, some in writing," explains Griffin. "And we launched it in June 2017 with a sort of open-mic event, sort of like a comedy show, which we called ‘Stoop Storytelling.' It was so much fun. It was my favorite part of what I now call my ‘monster project.'" Griffin explains that stoop storytelling is a Baltimore tradition. Baltimore has a lot of row houses with marble steps at the entrance and in the summer, everybody sits on their ‘stoops' and talks to their neighbors.

The stories were shared via the organization's newsletter, Facebook page, website, special events, etc. St. Ambrose tapped into the NeighborWorks America Public Relations Division's annual editorial calendar to help it tie into national and trending events and issues.

"We had hoped to have more of a presence in the local and maybe even national media," notes Griffin. "That didn't happen but there were so many other positives. For example, we created volunteer opportunities for other groups and individuals to be part of us. We expanded to a younger demographic by using Instagram and video. We created a whole library of stories for use in other venues." 

There were a couple of lesson learned:
  • Story collection. "Most people are not impromptu storytellers. So you have to be a sleuth and coax them out."
  • Media coverage. "Not everyone is as inspired by the things that inspire us. We couldn't really get local media to run with idea, unless we paid for advertising and we didn't create a budget for that."
  • Competition. 2018 was the 50th anniversary of a lot of organizations as well as of the Fair Housing Act. Check that out and plan how to stand out. 
  • Results. "We weren't really able to determine whether this campaign actually raised money for us, so I'd like to try to build that kind of measurement in."

"Would we do it again? Absolutely." 

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