Live From NTEN: Capitalizing on the ‘Colbert Effect’

Jennifer Breakspear, executive director at QMUNITY, wasn’t familiar with Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” when she was persuaded to let them film a segment during her charity’s first PRIDE House. The event aimed to “celebrate diversity and shine a light on homophobia” during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Breakspear was among a handful of Ignite Ideas speakers who kicked off the Nonprofit Technology Network’s (NTEN) Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), which runs through Friday at the Austin Convention Center.

The satirical program, in which Stephen Colbert portrays a conservative cable news host, came to the Vancouver charity to record a segment in which the actor expresses mock horror about QMUNITY’s posters featuring same-sex couples kissing. The segment never made it to air but Breakspear still is leveraging it five years later, even after moving on to another nonprofit.

Cell phone videos from the Colbert visit ended up online have resulted in thousands of views. “The visit still mattered. People around the world created a buzz,” said Breakspear. “We don’t always necessarily have to make the moment. We don’t always have to be crafting our message…sometimes the magic just makes itself. Others will spread your message and feed the flame. It’s up to us to recognize when that special moment occurs and capture that moment,” she said.

Now executive director of Options for Sexual Health, Canada’s largest sexual and reproductive health care provider, Breakspear continues to get occasional Google Alerts that mention the Colbert event, so it remains a presence online, and she capitalizes on that clout in her new position. In late 2013, she organized protests in front of the Russian consulate, speaking out about Russia’s anti-gay laws – passed ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi – and pressuring corporate sponsors to use their power for good. “I used that online cred to get my message out effectively,” she said, re-connecting with media contacts she established in 2010.

Breakspear urged the thousands of attendees to pay attention in order to make the most of an unexpected moment. “Take notice when something starts to take off.”