Advice to a Student Leader, Scaling Grassroots Efforts for Charity

I sat down with a friend this past week. He’s leading the Canadian Chapter of Autism Speaks and was looking to get some advice on a couple projects and initiatives he had in mind for his organization. We tackled a few scenarios and brainstormed a couple more. Overall, the conversation was great and insightful.

Below are the takeaways from our conversation. The advice applies to any student looking to run national initiatives with industry partners. Some of them concern building partnerships, and some of them strategic planning.

Building Partnerships

Leverage Your Best Connections

My friend has been reaching out to multiple partners with no luck. Most were unresponsive, and some leads that did respond just seemed to die out after a couple interactions.

When reaching out to industry partners, it’s important to leverage your best connections. For example, the student’s organization has a formal Board of Directors, comprised of members of Academia and Industry Professionals. As a student, leveraging professional connections is an effective tactic to avoid cold calls and cold emails fall on deaf ears.

Seek Out the Right Partners

Another challenge my buddy was facing was identifying the right partners to bring on board. For example, he was looking to reach out for sponsorship and support from a multinational company. It turns out that the MNC has very particular ways of supporting charities and limits their efforts to a pre-defined set of organizations. Essentially, it would have been an uphill battle with low chance of success.

On the flip side, the better strategy is to identify the Champions in the space, those companies and organizations that have a culture of dedicated efforts, and structures that support new initiatives. In the case of Autism, some could include the Center for Social Innovation, Autism Research Centres, and some companies such Walmart, who have established programs for these kinds of efforts. The main idea is to seek out partners who will not only contribute to the cause, but will also be multipliers of the efforts and champions in driving meaningful impact.

Strategic Planning: Campaigns, Efforts and Initiatives

Build a Platform for Partner Participation

We chatted a bit about potential events his group could organize, with the goals of raising awareness and research funds. Some ideas were too ambitious and simply outside of the capacity of my friend’s student group. But we came up with an innovative alternative.

Rather than trying to organize and coordinate a huge event. His group should build a platform where partner organizations could participate and contribute to the cause. For example, F!rosh Weeks run yearly fundraising events for charity. Scotiabank hosts the “Run for a Cure” with the Canadian Cancer Society. Essentially, there are tons of organizations out there with the capacity to run and execute large scale events. All they need is a platform or charity to contribute their efforts toward. In my friend’s case, this was a much more feasible alternative, that could easily allow them to bring on partners and collaborate on joint projects.

Micro is better than Macro

Another conclusion was that he should focus on running many micro-events rather focusing on planning  one larger event. Given their team “campus structure”, this strategy would allow each campus to try something different and plan a series of mini-initiatives. Some would be great and some might not be as successful. But most importantly, this would allow his group to foster a culture of experimentation where the team is constantly innovating, trying new things out, and learning about what works and doesn’t work. These experiences would provide valuable lessons on which to build a strong platform for future years.

Emulate Best Practices

Also, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and come up with a laundry list of events they could possibly run, we concluded there was a key opportunity to emulate the best practices of similar players in the space. For example, it could be helpful to see how Movember runs their organization and coordinates huge efforts for testicular cancer research. Another partner worth researching was the U.S. Student Chapter for Autism Speaks. He could even reach out to the Chapter Leaders in the U.S. to learn more about the type of initiatives they organize and potential lessons and suggestions on new ones. The main point is, when launching grassroots efforts, it’s helpful to learn from the examples of successful organizations with similar goals and initiatives.

Building Foundations

Basic Infrastructure

We identified a few essentials that he and his organization were currently lacking. For example, they did not possess a personal website to showcase the efforts from the Canadian chapter. He lacked essential pitch material and collateral for when reaching out to new partners. Most importantly, they did not have a donation and tax portal, through which donations could be received. All of these are essential infrastructure that need to be in place in order to build an autonomous and well-run organization.

Takeaway of the Day

Understand your Key Audience

Of everything we covered, the most important takeaway was how important it is to understand your key audience. This is more than simply the people who attend your events. This includes potential partners, advocates, organizations; everyone and anyone who has the potential to be a part of your initiative.

In my friend’s case, this meant reaching out to industry partners and sponsors who were a “better fit” with the type of events and support they were looking for. When it came to building awareness on-campus, this meant reaching out to undergrad and graduate students in autism and research programs, rather than trying to target the entire campus.

Understanding your key audience provides the clarity required to direct your efforts and steer your vision in the right direction. For example, a potential event we came up with was organizing a “volunteer day” where college and university students studying autism could go to an Autism Research center, observe and potentially help out for a day. This could be beneficial to students, providing them a hands-on learning experience, and Research Centres, who may be looking to connect with future therapists and researchers.

Overall, know your target audience very well and build a platform for partners and audience members to participate. Start small and leverage momentum to launch grassroots efforts for your initiative or organization.

Thanks again for reading. Feel free to share any thoughts or additional advice. Cheers!


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