Social Services, Social Change Must Be Marketed
nonprofit management tips

Some 86 million Americans are pre-diabetic, yet just 20,000 individuals enrolled in a Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) last year, according to Taz Hussein, a partner at Bridgespan’s Boston office. DPP has about all one could want from a health initiative, Hussein said, it was built off of years of National Institutes of Health research and was applied to a deliverable, community service with the help of the YMCA. But, clients still weren’t biting.

The curious behavior led Hussein to reach out to Bridgespan’s LinkedIn network and he found that the disparity was not an anomaly. Of the 85 respondents, 70 percent said that they’ve had shortfalls in program participation and half indicated that the matter has worsened during the past five years.

The findings and subsequent recommendations are highlighted in a new study, “Selling Social Change.” Hussein, a co-author of the report, indicated that Bridgespan’s work on this topic is still in its early stages and that leaders are looking for feedback in terms of what organizations are struggling with and where successes lie.

Findings and recommendations in the report are unique to initiatives that require behavior changes among participants — “good for you programs” such as health, family planning, youth development and job training. One key consideration early on is who is best to serve as a credible messenger for the program. In DPP’s case, for example, Hussein identified an instructor who successfully combatted pre-diabetes as a quality choice to help initiate a program. Other key recommendations from the report include:

  • Be conscious of how large a leap you are asking participants to make. DPP, for example, was conceived as a one-year program. The Centers for Disease Control advised organizations to market it as such and many took that as gospel. Omada Health, a for-profit provider, has found success in easing participants in with a 16-week intervention before introducing additional months of support. It has worked as Omada anticipates DPP enrollment of 100,000 in 2016 – five times more than all other DPP providers in 2015. “They kept the year-long promise for the program, but made it easier to get on board,” Hussein said;
  • Target early adopters. The study likens this to Apple’s success among tech-centric individuals early on with the iPhone while the market kept with flip phones for a number of years before turning Apple’s way. Take the path of least resistance by finding clients who are more inclined to try something new. By doing so, the program can build references and testimonials while being refined for late-adopters; and,
  • Market your program. Pharmaceutical companies do not rely on the merits of their new drug, they actively market it, Hussein reasoned. Marketing should be seen as an investment not unlike finding quality trainers and direct-service staff. “An investment in sales and marketing should be part of an overall program investment,” said Hussein. “This shouldn’t be considered another aspect of overhead.”