How Comer Education Campus partnered with Prosper Strategies to rebrand and develop the accompanying marketing and communications plan — leading to a 13.8% increase in fundraising from the previous year.
Comer Education Campus is an education and enrichment organization focused on preparing young people for college, careers and futures as well-rounded global citizens. Located in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, the Campus is anchored by the state-of-the-art Gary Comer Youth Center, Gary Comer College Prep, and Gary Comer Middle School. The Campus also serves as home to other nonprofit organizations, such as college access and success organization UtmostU, ACCESS Community Health Network, and the South Shore Drill team.
Under the leadership of a new executive director, Comer Education Campus approached Prosper Strategies with the desire to overcome years of brand confusion challenges. While the Comer Education Campus is the “umbrella” under which the Gary Comer Youth Center and other partner organizations like the schools exist, its name was not well known and its role in the community was not well-understood. Most stakeholders were far more familiar with the Youth Center or other partner organizations in the neighborhood, but did not understand how they related to one another or to the Campus. The organization had tried to build clarity through messaging, but the complexity of its structure (where some organizations are directly “run” by the Comer Education Campus and others are simply community partners) made it tough. Inconsistent use of logos on letterhead and marketing materials only perpetuated the challenges. They needed Prosper’s help, and expressed to us that elevating the Comer Education Campus brand would be especially important in coming years, as the Campus would soon transition from being fully funded by the Comer Family Foundation to being an independently funded organization.
Our process for Comer Education Campus began with an organization, ecosystem and stakeholder assessment.
In the organization assessment, we reviewed the Comer Education Campus’ current messaging, marketing and fundraising material, as well as those of the other organizations that make up the Campus (the Gary Comer Youth Center, UtmostU, the schools etc.). We also took a deep dive into their existing brand assets and conducted internal interviews to understand what staff and board members saw as the Campus’ greatest strengths.
Next, we conducted a Stakeholder Assessment to understand how Comer Education Campus stakeholders perceived the Comer Education Campus brand and get to the root of the organization’s brand confusion challenges. We conducted a survey that touched hundreds of parents, youth, donors, funders, community members and partners. We also facilitated one-on-one interviews with stakeholders from each key group to get a better sense of how they understood the Comer Education Campus brand and impact in the community.
Lastly is the Ecosystem Assessment, we compared the strengths of the Comer Education Campus (identified by its stakeholders through the interview and survey process) with the strengths of five comparator organizations that are similar to the Campus and may compete for donations, share of voice or youth engagement.
Through this research, we identified the Comer Education Campus’ most powerful differentiator as its place-based approach. This was the one key strength we identified for Comer Education Campus that was present among no other organizations in its comparative set. We also found that the Campus’ role as a community hub, and the lifespan during which the organization works with young people (from middle school through to career and adulthood), were quite unique, with few organizations in the comparative set exhibiting that combination of strengths.
From these findings, we helped Comer Education Campus build out the Focus element of The Nonprofit Impact System™, which is the key to every strong nonprofit brand. We began by developing the following Reason for Being, which is a statement that explains the unique sort of impact only your organization can make, that no others in your comparative set can claim:
Comer Education Campus is the Chicago model for place-based youth advancement that fortifies young people and in turn, their communities.
That’s because Comer Education Campus:
- Helps young people holistically by building pathways to success through a dynamic integration of academics, youth development, and career exploration;
- Is anchored in Greater Grand Crossing, while serving as a resource for partner organizations and others seeking impact through their investment in young people;
- Fosters the development of well-rounded global citizens who reach their full potential and can in turn contribute to their communities.
Then, working with a group of almost 20 staff from across the organization, we slightly modified the organization’s existing mission and developed a new vision statement for the Campus.
We prepare young people for college, careers and futures as well-rounded, global citizens.
Our vision is a world where every young person in every community has the resources and opportunities to reach their unlimited potential.
Next, we conducted several workshops to build out a set of values for the Campus. These values were based on input from staff in a variety of different roles, from leadership, to programs, to IT.
- Youth Power – We believe in the unlimited potential of young people and choose to invest in them as the key to a brighter future for our communities and our world.
- Innovation – We move quickly and continuously to innovate our approach in response to the needs of the young people we work with and the community we are part of.
- Wellbeing – We foster safe spaces that enhance the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of young people and their families, while also making our community a safer place to live.
- Community Commitment – We are deeply connected with young people, their parents and our community. We commit to allowing their voices to guide our work, and to doing whatever it takes to help them thrive.
- Equity and Inclusion – We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to live their full potential, and that our Campus and community are stronger when they are full of opportunities for people with diverse identities, backgrounds and perspectives. We prioritize action over intention and are working every day to make our Campus more equitable and inclusive.
- Joy – We believe every young person deserves to have joy in their life. We create opportunities to be youthful and have fun every day, recognizing that joy is the key that unlocks positive youth development and brighter futures.
While the elements outlined above were important to defining the Focus of the Comer Education Campus, they alone would not solve the brand challenges that the organization had faced.
For that, we knew some significant changes would need to be made to the Comer Education Campus brand and messaging. Calling upon key findings from the research, we made the recommendation that Comer Education Campus adopt an Endorsed Brand Structure in which the Campus would serve as the “parent” brand in relation to its many affiliates and campus partners. Those other entities would then be asked to use a logo lockup in which their logo would appear above the Comer Education Campus logo, clarifying the relationship between their organization and the campus. In order to make this endorsed brand structure work, we recommended that the Campus develop a new logo/visual identity that would work better in lockup/relation to its partners.
This recommendation was adopted by the Comer Education Campus, and we then brought in brand strategists Loocie Glover and Tanicia Bethea to work through the process of developing a new visual identity for the campus, as well as brand standards that defined how the campus brand should be used in relation to its various affiliates and partners. The new logo presented a powerful visual that depicts the central role young people play in lifting up, and being lifted up by, their communities. We also concepted various taglines for the organization and arrived at “Comer Education Campus: Empowering Youth, Strengthening Community,” which brings the organization’s Reason for Being to life.
Finally, we developed a robust key messaging framework for the organization, including overarching key messages, as well as messages tailored to each of its key stakeholder groups: youth, parents, donors etc. The messaging framework relied heavily on our research, as well as third-party research from organizations like the FrameWorks Institute about how to effectively communicate about youth and community development.
With its focus elements and a new brand strategy in place, we got to work on developing a 20-month marketing and communications plan for the Comer Education Campus. The plan was structured to address several key goals:
- Roll out the new brand approach and messaging, while effectively managing the change with internal and external stakeholders.
- Generate brand awareness and affinity for the Campus. Educate stakeholders to help them better understand what the campus does and why. Over time, become known as a leader in place-based youth development.
- Reach and acquire new donors. Connect with new donor targets outside of the organization’s existing network.
- Drive fundraising revenue. Inspire existing, past and new supporters to give to the Comer Education Campus, and build a true fundraising program that generates sustainable revenue from individual, foundation and corporate donors.
To make matters even more challenging, the plan needed to ensure these goals would be driven forward with limited staff bandwidth, in the midst of a global pandemic, which caused several rounds of Campus shutdowns, a transition to virtual events, and a great deal of uncertainty for the Campus and the world.
To accomplish this, we laid out every phase and tactic in detail and mapped the entire plan to a calendar, while also leaving room for flexibility should approaches need to shift and change in response to the changing environment. We also developed three different budget scenarios (good, better, best) that would allow the Campus to execute on its marketing and communications plan at different levels depending upon its fundraising performance and ongoing budgetary adjustments.
As with all of our work, engaging the right stakeholders in the right ways for feedback and input was a priority throughout this project. Because the Campus is a youth-serving organization, it was a top priority to engage Comer Education Campus youth in this work, while also being respectful of the time we were asking them to spend when their lives are busy with school and activities. We therefore engaged youth primarily through a survey and interviews. The same is true of other external stakeholders such as family members, donors, and community members. Campus partners and other affiliated organizations were engaged more deeply through interviews and follow-up for feedback as the project progressed, which was key to ensuring their ultimate buy-in on the brand recommendation.
Ultimately, we recognized that this project also included significant challenges around change management, especially given the many organizations that operate under the Comer Education Campus umbrella and their complicated histories. We therefore developed a project taskforce of 15 staff members in various different roles and at various levels within the Campus and its affiliated organizations and engaged them in providing input and feedback throughout the course of this project through a series of work sessions. This was critical to ensuring the project outcomes both represented the interests of staff, and that there were champions for the work who could assist with helping their colleagues get on board. The Comer Education Campus board and development staff were also engaged at key points in the project for input and feedback. Because of the change management required to align staff around the new brand, our marketing and communications plan also included significant recommendations on internal communications and staff brand training. Throughout the entire project, we partnered closely with five key leaders at the organization, including their executive director.
At Prosper Strategies, our ultimate goal is to help the organizations we work with make meaningful progress toward their missions. A marketing and communications plan is meant to guide a nonprofit’s work, not sit in a drawer.
We built a key performance indicator (KPI) dashboard for Comer Education Campus to track its progress against the marketing and communications plan, and then began a year-long series of monthly meetings with the organization’s director of advancement to discuss her team’s progress, make adjustments to the plan, and work through any challenges that came up. We also hosted a variety of training sessions with staff across the organization to introduce the new brand and help them learn how to use it effectively.
Results: Comer Education Campus launched its new brand in summer of 2021 and continues to execute on its 20 month marketing and communications plan, while growing its team. In 2020, the organization raised $6.5 million, a 13.8% increase from the previous year, and continued to serve young people and the community in deeper ways. Rollout of the endorsed brand structure with campus partners and affiliates is ongoing. While there is still work to be done, significant inroads have been made to overcome confusion surrounding the Comer Education Campus brand, and as a result, the organization’s impact continues to grow.
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