If at First You Don’t Succeed, Re-brand

For the last 6 months Winona Caesar has worked diligently to fulfill her role as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator at the Digital Harbor Foundation located in Baltimore City.  Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF) is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to foster innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship by helping youth develop digital age skills through maker activities and tech workforce development.

When Winona first arrived at DHF, there was a strong need to fill two volunteer positions: tech coaches and mentors.  In these positions, volunteers would work directly with students to assist them with tech literacy and hands on projects in the after school program at the Tech Center. Volunteers would also be tasked with leading community classes and events in the tech center.  Once Winona began her service term, she quickly settled into her role and started trying to recruit volunteers as well as set in place the tools needed to manage those volunteers.  However, despite her drive and efforts, Winona kept running into the same obstacle; people weren’t interested in volunteering at DHF because they did not consider themselves to be tech literate. Winona was fully aware that volunteers didn’t need prior tech knowledge or experience in order to fill a volunteer position, but the challenge for her was finding a way to make potential volunteers aware of that fact.

Once Winona realized that volunteers had a misunderstanding about the expectations concerning their expected level of tech knowledge she decided to do some re-branding.  Winona started by re-distributing DHF volunteer recruitment materials such as informational flyers, online postings, newsletters, and outgoing emails.  On those materials, Winona emphasized the fact that no tech knowledge was needed in order to fill open volunteer positions.  She also made sure to highlight some of the tech benefits that would come from volunteering at DHF, such as access to training and enrichment session that would help to expand skills and enhance abilities surrounding tech topics such as 3D printing and circuits.  Winona wanted potential volunteers to start seeing their service as a chance to learn about technology and increase their tech skills with the bonus of giving back to kids in the community.  In addition to volunteer recruitment material, Winona also understood that many of her volunteers were introduced to DHF through word-of-mouth.  In order to re-brand this portion of her volunteer recruitment and outreach Winona made the “no tech experience” point very clear when engaging with potential volunteers via phone calls and through in-person conversations.  When a volunteer contacted DHF and expressed interest in volunteering with the organization, Winona made sure to address any and all concerns regarding the expectations of tech knowledge or skills.  By doing so, Winona not only re-branded the physical materials of DHF, but also the word-of-mouth aspect of the organization.

Since beginning her service at DHF, Winona’s efforts have led to the recruitment of nine volunteers who have served a total of twenty-three hours in service to the Digital Harbor Foundation, and a majority of those volunteers have little to no tech experience.  This is a significant point because it shows the effectiveness of Winona’s rebranding efforts and the ability of DHF to reach a larger audience of potential volunteers.  When Winona began at DHF she encountered one type of potential volunteer: individuals already involved in the tech community.  She attributed this singular type of potential volunteer to the lack of understanding on the part of volunteers regarding opportunities at DHF and the tech knowledge required.  However, in the last 7 months, Winona has started to see a shift in the type of potential volunteers who contact her.  She has noticed that she now receives more calls from persons outside of the tech world who are interested in volunteering and this has led to a steady increase in the number of volunteer, and a gradual shift in the type of volunteers, serving at DHF.

Recruiting volunteers who are not directly linked to the tech world has been advantageous to both the volunteers and the kids they serve.  As Winona explains it, “When we recruit a volunteer with a non tech background we are able to expose kids to someone who can help them develop an array of professional skills outside of tech based ones.”  For instance, DHF currently has a volunteer with a background in business who serves as a mentor, but also serves as someone who can provide tips and advice on how the youth can enter into the world of business.  Although still in its infancy, DHF hopes that this new pool of potential volunteers will continue to help the organization thrive and fulfill its mission of fostering innovation, tech advancement, and entrepreneurship by helping youth develop digital age skills through maker activities and tech workforce development.

The Strength of Branding

Yesterday, I got to hear a great presentation from an AmeriCorps alum, Dara Goldberg, on personal branding.  While “personal branding” is a hot buzzword that a people tend to love or hate, what it really refers to is deliberately designing your reputation.  What do you want to be known for?  How do you want people to talk about you when you’re out of the room?

To create a strong personal brand, Dara stated that you need to have the 3 Cs: be clear in what your central message is, consistent in repeating that message, and constant in getting it out there for people to hear and remember.

Taking the idea of branding back to it roots as a marketing tool for companies, I started thinking about how I had seen branding taking place at some of Volunteer Maryland’s partner sites.  How had I seen Volunteer Maryland Coordinators employ branding strategies?  And how could I apply those examples what I was learning?  I thought about how Kelly Danz at Habitat for Humanity Choptank has created posters, flyers, pens, and buttons with their name on it to make themselves more visible around the community. Applying this to a more personal level, it’s similar to being sure that you have business cards on you all the time, and are passing them out whenever you meet new people – whether it’s networking, volunteer events, conferences, and anywhere else you interact professionally.  Kelly has made sure that people are having constant interactions with HFH Choptank and its brand.

And then I thought about what Crissy van Hooff was doing at GLCCB.  She has unified the structure for the numerous programs that take place at the center, allowing for individual missions but a shared structure.  She created unified system for oversight relying on constant communication with the group leaders.   This created a more tightly knit community of programs that share both strategies, and a mission.  Crissy clearly sees the importance of having a consistent message while not losing flexibility.  If I wanted a strong personal brand that extended across multiple roles in my life, I don’t want to seem like I am remaking myself for each role, but instead drawing from different aspects of me.  I’d want to keep a consistent brand while fitting into each situation.

But what if you are in changing circumstances?  How do you handle your brand then?  I think that Stephon Hutt at the Center of Help is a great example of keeping a clear, consistent brand.  As Stephon has developed a new volunteer program for tutoring students, she has made it clear that this is not a new mission, but is an important part of supporting their original mission.  Clarity is crucial to ensure that people know that the mission has not altered and is in fact supported by these changes.   Stephon support’s the Center of Help’s brand by being clear about what they are and what they are not.

I am inspired by Dara’s presentation and what it had me see in our Volunteer Maryland Coordinator’s work.  A strong brand is important at both the organizational level and the personal level.  It is important in showing people what makes you unique – and why you (or your organization) is the best.  I am keen on seeing what more I will be learning about branding from the Volunteer Maryland Coordinators!