This marketing agency pivoted to helping local nonprofits pro bono after losing work to Covid-19
As the coronavirus pandemic's impact in the U.S. became more severe in the spring, organizations such as Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation realized their services were going to be more in-demand than ever.
The nonprofit, which provides free legal services and social support to people experiencing intimate partner abuse as well as landlord-tenant issues, needed to recruit more attorneys to keep up with an increasingly dire caseload.
Faced with the risks of the virus itself, people experiencing domestic violence were left with little option but to stay in close contact with their abusers at home, says AVLF communications manager Ashleigh Starnes. Additionally, "The housing crisis in Atlanta was bad before the pandemic, and Covid-19 has exacerbated that. There are thousands of evictions lined up waiting to be heard when courts reopen and the eviction moratorium is lifted." In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned most evictions for the remainder of 2020.
The organization was concerned how to use its limited resources to recruit new volunteers when their usual outreach efforts usually yielded just 10 new people per month to its database of over 1,000 private attorneys.
But in July, one AVLF board member introduced the organization to a new campaign called BrandAid being launched by local PR and marketing firm Jackson Spalding. The agency, which had experienced a drop in client work while businesses paused their ad spending due to the pandemic, wanted to use their newfound time to provide pro bono marketing help to local nonprofits instead.
One of those beneficiaries was AVLF. BrandAid marketers pitched AVLF's call for volunteers to the local press and launched a targeted LinkedIn recruitment campaign. Within a few weeks, over 100 people filled out AVLF's volunteer interest form to provide legal services to people in need during the pandemic. "That is huge for us," Starnes says. "These were all new people who hadn't heard of our organization before who are interested in the fight for equal justice. We're excited to expand our volunteer base."
Starnes adds that while improving AVLF marketing efforts had always been an ongoing goal of theirs, doing so on a nonprofit's budget, especially with the time and resource crunch caused by the pandemic, just wasn't feasible. "Having the BrandAid team come in and help us for free at a really critical time — we're really grateful for their help.
"The court system can be difficult to navigate even without a pandemic, and having a lawyer by your side can make all the difference," Starnes continues. "With this new surge of volunteers, we can provide more free legal help to low-income Atlantans throughout the Covid-19 crisis."
Jackson Spalding, the agency that led the BrandAid initiative, wasn't immune to its own Covid-19 related economic losses. The agency of about 110 people had to lay off a small number of team members due to a significant reduction of work resulting from the pandemic. Staffers who remained, however, wanted to channel additional efforts into helping others disproportionately impacted by the virus.
"Recognizing that sharing our people's time and talent was the best way we could help the community, we started thinking creatively how we could do the most good for the most amount of people," says Robin Hubier, Jackson Spalding's corporate social responsibility lead. The company sent an agency-wide memo introducing the campaign and asking employees to encourage local nonprofits to apply for the partnership. The agency received about a dozen applications from organizations that focused on issues ranging from housing to social justice to Black-owned business support to disability advocacy.
"When businesses are met with challenges like what Covid-19 has presented, the instinct can be to turn inward and focus 100% solely on your business," Hubier says. While she recognizes not every business will be able to support others financially, she encourages them to think about other ways they can give back, such as by donating their time and skills. "It's important to recognize that no business operates in a vacuum, and every company is embedded in the community."
She says this value should be core to efforts led by the Business Roundtable, a group of nearly 200 CEOs of major U.S. companies who in 2019 said shareholder value shouldn't be the No. 1 business priority. The Roundtable's critics, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, say the group hasn't done enough to center empowering workers and community members first.
"Now, when so many businesses are facing challenges, it's really where we'll see how many have truly embraced what the Business Roundtable said a year ago, that businesses have a broader group of stakeholders, including our communities," Hubier says. "The ones that give back — those are the businesses I think we'll see come out strong out of this crisis."
In total, Jackson Spalding says 25 employees contributed to BrandAid efforts and invested more than $60,000 worth of pro bono work into 12 nonprofits over the summer.
Leaders at Extra Special People, a social services organization that serves families in the disability community, feel their work with Jackson Spalding will help them expand even now that their BrandAid partnership has wrapped up.
Executive director Laura Hope Whitaker says her organization also saw increased need due to the pandemic: In the early weeks of spring, her team called the roughly 600 families supported by ESP to learn what they needed to stay housed, fed, receiving their medications and cared for. Many families, for example, benefit from ESP's dependent care services, something they desperately need while schools are closed. Some school districts in Georgia began phasing students back for in-person learning in August, though other districts in the surrounding Atlanta area have just begun to reopen this month.
Over six weeks, ESP worked with BrandAid marketers to completely rebrand the organization, complete with a new website, logos and materials that highlighted its three core missions: providing everyday support to people with disabilities, an employment program where community members work as baristas at a mobile coffee cart and an annual flagship summer camp.
"To be honest, within our own staff, we tried to do a rebrand ourselves but didn't land on anything that made sense," Whitaker says. With professional help offered at no cost, ESP says they're now able to better communicate their mission and reach people who may benefit from their services. They also have a clearer story to generate awareness for fundraising.
Importantly, the rebranding support also freed up ESP leaders to focus on how to safely organize their annual summer camp that helps 300 kids and their families throughout Georgia. "For ESP, summer camp is more than fun," Whitaker says. "It's essential care for a lot of the families we serve, particularly for those whose support was taken away" due to other camp and facility closures during the pandemic.
Within weeks, the team figured out how to host the camps across six campuses in Northeast Georgia.
"Typically we give out $40,000 in scholarships for summer cam," Whitaker adds. "This summer, we gave out $90,000 in scholarships. It goes to show the economic challenges our families are facing, so we spent all our time and resources so those who needed camp the most were there.
"Every dollar makes a difference as it relates to our budget," Whitaker says. While summer camp is over, ESP is still focused on continuing its essential care, after-school programs and employment opportunities for families in need.
As for the BrandAid partnership, "sometimes gifts come in cash, and sometimes they come in kind," Whitaker says. "Every gift is important to us at ESP."
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