This article was first published on generation1.ca
Engaging with non-profits can be a highly satisfying endeavour that binds society to its finest glue. However, organized volunteerism, can simulate the stuffiness of organized religion, in environments where co-participants, leaders and members refuse to understand, acknowledge or appreciate differences in the population, turning what might be a great mission into a highly toxic experience. Trust in institutions today is on the decline in media, business, government and NGOs; and is most polarized between the informed public and the masses in about a decade, with distrust in NGOs concentrated in six markets (UK, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Japan and Russia). Trust in NGOs has improved in 21 of 26 markets, with the US and Canada displaying neutral levels of trust/mistrust. Interestingly, according to the same study, societal impact is the leading driver of trust in employers today, so we are probably in the golden age of CSR, even if our trust in charities is not matching pace (Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2019).
Canada is home to around 86,000 registered charities, that bring in a total of over $250 billion in revenues annually, constituting about 8% of the country’s GDP, with religious organizations drawing the most donations in North America (Statistics Canada). However, involvement in youth unions, professional associations or political organizations increases contact with members of other visibly different ethnic groups participants may not otherwise engage with, creating a new kind of value proposition for civic involvement in industry-led, social or charitable initiatives.
At the Insights Association’s NEXT 2019 Conference, I was thus very excited to attend the Insights for Non-Profits: Unique Challenges, Novel Solutions panel featuring Lisa Herceg (National Association of Realtors), Tim Hoskins (Quester), John LaPrise (Radiological Society of North America) and Randa Mahmud-Ulankiewicz (Society of Actuaries). They shed light on the state of non-profits, unique KPIs and growth metrics, research ecosystem, competitive intelligence techniques as they varied from corporates. I wanted to understand more perspectives and apply some learnings to Generation1.ca.
Inside a Non-Profit: The Society of Actuaries
When I caught up with Randa Mahmud-Ulankiewicz, Market Research Analyst at the Society of Actuaries (SOA), she shared insight into her experience with non-profits in her daytime job at the SOA but also as President of the Insights Association’s Great Lakes Chapter and work with other charities and initiatives. She emphasized the importance of ongoing research and lots of A/B testing. Message-testing is key when testing consumer perceptions, she said, whether for a CPG brand or a non-profit. (CPG brands, interestingly have enjoyed a five-year trust-high with consumers globally, according to the Edelman’s Trust Barometer). When I launched my first GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Generation1.ca, a niche publication supported today by industry colleagues and peers, I ran iterations across my network to gauge a sense of receptivity or commitment to the cause.
Was the display picture representative enough? Was it clear and compelling? (And nowadays, minimalist?) Was it reaching the people who would be most impacted by our work? Did it have a singular call to action?
Mahmud-Ulankiewicz advises that message testing is best achieved through qualitative focus groups or in-depth web interviews or in person. An audience’s (in)ability to discern sales pitches from moral urgencies is a branding struggle you will constantly seem to run up against when stacked against the “competition”. Focus groups or web interviews and IDIs, she says can cover the range of reactions to an ad. “I can’t send a survey on Friday and expect a response on Monday.” Moreover, she says, “While consumer based companies like Pepsi have specific and repetitive targets, with member-based associations it is harder to define targets.” Her own association requires all practitioners (actuaries) to be paying members of the SOA, so growing members is not really a goal so much as selling the profession to people looking to decide on a career path. “I will always have members [unlike associations that do not require membership to practice in their respected profession],” she says: “Other types of associations may find it harder to retain members. Their budgets may not be so big and they have to leverage professional development and conferences to sustain.”
The Society of Actuaries (SOA) hosts a young MR department. All their institutional research is proprietary. “It’s our marketing strategy to people looking to decide on a career path or make a career change that sells the profession. All research done is thus for purely internal purposes,” says Mahmud-Ulankiewicz.
The role of AI in non-profits like the SOA is nascent-to-minimal as the costs can be prohibitive for the level of sophistication desired. She adds, “AI doesn’t work yet, because there’s not enough information out there for us to predict. We use a certain language that machines don’t pick up yet.” Not many suppliers use AI as an industry norm it is understood.
How then does her firm keep up with industry norms? The SOA is GDPR compliant and follows the Insights Association Code of Standards and Ethics. “When there are changes in the MR landscape – we look for partners that are ethical. We don’t keep calling those who opt-out of communications and we go through processes before we launch a survey,” she explains. “We stand by the ethics of MR and we respect local and federal laws around privacy and regulation.”
She analogizes association membership benefits to those a citizen enjoys over a non-citizen. This brings us to governance. In Mahmud-Ulankiewicz’s experience, some boards are operational, and others are strategic. She says, “The executive must decide, how do you want your board to be involved? Do you want them to do all the work or make all the decisions?” There are numerous models out there and diverse board rules and partnership agreements exist.
I ask Mahmud-Ulankiewicz, as a non-profit, how does one engage with competition? When it comes to certain regulatory practices, she says, “Sometimes we work together. It depends on the mission and vision of the non-profit. But partnerships can be a good thing,” she concludes. I was glad to come by more perspective around branding, research, business models and community engagement from leaders like Mahmud-Ulankiewicz and her co-panelists, that I know I will be drawing from extensively.
Creating Change Since 1985
My own volunteering spans back to when I first built a school for six to ten students out of cane-chairs and sheets (calling it “Monica Public School” – anglicized names suggesting a standard of language back then, drawn from adults’ TV viewing habits and divisive history textbooks) to teach what I learned in school to children who did not go to school, in the afternoons in a small satellite town in the rural-industrial belt between the Indian states of Delhi and UP. In the US, close to 70% of adults volunteer without pay, according to a latest Hotspex-AARP study, while in Canada this figure is closer to 44% of Canadians above the age of 15 years (Statistics Canada). In February 2007, before graduating from a midwestern college in a small town in Ohio, my work with women inmates of the Clark Country Jail hit the front page of the Springfield News-Sun daily for leading with three other accomplished women friends a literary recital curated over two years’ worth of our writing workshops with the inmates.
On returning to Delhi for a few years after college, I worked with a well-known NGO to this time script and organize a morality-themed kabaddi (think rugby + wrestling) match for 400 male juvenile prisoners in Asia’s largest prison Tihar, while also working with incarcerated mothers and their toddlers and middle-school children to curate their insights and stories. In every pro-bono initiative, I have always used my love of words, ideas and action to engage with and spark change. “Giving” has many hues of course and is often most coloured by your own constraints and capabilities. How it is conducted varies by geography, I have been able to learn over time.
Today, at Generation1.ca, an award-winning and ongoing project, with the support of associations, clients, readers, research companies and media partners, I channel storytelling and collaborate with bloggers to knead trends and world-views, scoping business, social and civic problems. We showcase the rich diversity of data, thought-leadership, tech and aspirational thinking of our contributors, many of whom are local or global professionals of every stripe, often visible minority newcomer women and Canada’s newest residents, a fast-growing but less integrated demographic.
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