Market Vs. Marketing

December 2, 2014       Richard H. Levey      

When a small nonprofit has big aspirations, its leaders must take creative steps to differentiate the group from its competition. In the case of Hunger Free Colorado, a five-year-old organization dedicated to ending hunger in Colorado, this meant investing in an extensive research program geared toward quantifying the Centennial State’s nutrition issues.

Hunger Free Colorado does not operate food pantries. The mission is to influence legislation and shape public debate. There are several hunger-focused organizations in Colorado, each of which takes a different tack to address relevant issues. There was no cohesive messaging, meaning that organizations would put out ineffective, or sometimes conflicting, messages.

In 2010, Hunger Free Colorado and Kupersmit Research conducted a 400-person telephone survey among voters to establish a baseline of how hunger was perceived by Colorado residents, and what they had done — if anything — to help alleviate the problem. The organization also sought to determine the influence hunger-related issues had on political choices, such as whether a candidate’s stance on specific issues would influence voter behavior.

The program was discussed during a session, “Know Thy Market: Harnessing Effective Data Strategies,” at the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation’s New York City conference.

The poll yielded some surprising results. Hunger, it turned out, is a bipartisan issue — somewhat more influential among Democrats, granted, (79 percent of whom indicated it was an important issue), but nonetheless considered by Independents and Republicans: In the latter two cases, 65 percent of voters felt it was important.

“The poll becomes a press release,” Benjamin Kupersmit, Kupersmit Research’s owner, told attendees at the 2014 conference. “It can become something you can walk around to candidates for office.”

Despite lower enthusiasm among Republican candidates, Kupersmit outlined how supporting anti-hunger initiatives might prove beneficial. Moderates facing challenges from hard-right candidates, for instance, could draw comfort from the poll’s finding that 56 percent of Republicans opposed cutting anti-hunger programs to balance the federal budget. And, a minority of Republicans (41 percent) flat-out opposed cutting food stamps.

From there, the poll was designed to find ways to blunt common harmful misconceptions about anti-hunger programs. Hunger Free Colorado acknowledged the attraction of “small cuts” political rhetoric, which would allow voters to think the government could make reductions to hunger programs without significant impact. These thoughts make sense, given that voters believed the average amount offered per meal by food stamps was $5.40.

The trouble is, the actual amount provided for every meal by food stamps was $1.40. As Kupersmit put it, “‘Just a little cut’ means being in the grocery store and figuring out how to feed your family on less money. This can be devastating.”

Hunger Free Colorado’s poll enabled the organization to tell moderate candidates leaning toward supporting anti-hunger initiatives that “There is a huge chunk of people in the GOP who feel the way you do,” according to Kupersmit. Demographic breakouts enabled the organization to reassure candidates that those people included high-income voters.

When Hunger Free Colorado reprised its poll in 2013, the new findings allowed it to evaluate the impact of its efforts. Awareness of hunger issues was indeed up, and there were improvements regarding voters’ comprehension of what hunger actually was. But the poll also showed that the organization needed to do more work showcasing exactly who, within the state, was affected by hunger.

The 2013 research additionally suggested language that would make the organization’s message more sympathetic. The federal government’s food-assistance program can correctly be called either SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or food stamps. The research found that “food stamps” sounded less bureaucratic, and therefore more like something worth preserving. The findings also suggested that voters had more empathy when food stamp recipients were referred to as “living on the minimum wage” as compared to “working full time.”

“Polling data gives [an organization] a sense of authority,” Hunger Free Colorado’s executive director Kathy Underhill said. “That carves out a unique space for an organization. We don’t spend a million dollars on direct mail, and we don’t have a huge database of donors. That makes corporate fundraising and cause-related marketing a challenge.”

The polling has also allowed Hunger Free Colorado to demonstrate the effectiveness of common messages to the state’s disparate food pantries. “There’s a lot of noise in the system,” she added. Through what she termed a “road show,” she has offered them the opportunity to unite under a common message – one proven effective by polling. NPT