Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lessons from Polk Bros – Power of Advertising!

On January 8 I attended the Polk Bros Foundation’s 25th Anniversary. I wrote about that in this article.

While leaving the event I was given a copy of a book titled “I Bought It at Polk Bros: The Story of an American Retailing Phenomenon”. It’s available on Amazon. Free copies might be available from the Polk Bros Foundation.

This is the story of the growth of a Chicago retail giant, starting with a very, very small appliance store, in the 1930s. It’s the story of an immigrant family, and the vision of one man, Sol Polk, the company’s founder and president until he died in the 1980s.

This story resonated with me because from 1973 to 1990 I held retail advertising management positions with the Montgomery Ward Corporation, a competitor of Polk Bros in the Chicago market. Being part of the advertising department, I and the writers, artists and production people who worked with me, were constantly frustrated by how the merchandise people would change ads often, and frequently at the last minute.

In reading about Sol Polk’s commitment to advertising, and how he watched competitor ads and made last minute changes to TV and Radio scripts and print ads so Polk Bros could have a lower price, I recognized what was happening in my own company, and how savagely each business competed for customers every day.
(This is the front cover of one supplement I created for the Automotive Department at Wards)

So what does this have to do with volunteer-based tutoring/mentoring? I led the tutoring program at the Montgomery Ward headquarters in Chicago from 1975 to 1990, as a volunteer while holding advertising roles with growing responsibility. By the early 1980s I was in charge of creative development of all national print advertising.

Thus, leading a volunteer program with 200-300 pairs of kids/volunteer meeting weekly, and virtually no paid staff, was a real challenge.

I learned very early that there was no way to provide enough training to volunteers to solve every problem they would face as a tutor/mentor. All kids were different. All volunteers were different. They all were constantly changing.

Thus, I began to borrow from my advertising experiences to share ideas and motivate actions within my volunteer world. Every week I created a one or two page “newsletter” which included tips for tutors, announcements of weekly activities, and an encouragement to dig deeper into our resource library to understand why the tutor/mentor program was needed, and ways volunteers could support the overall program’s growth.

Initially my “mass communications” was a mimeograph machine to make copies, and my own two feet to pass out these copies each week to our volunteers. The format for making copies changed as we moved to desk top publishing and copy machines in the 1980s and 1990s, but what really changed was the Internet becoming a place where we could host ideas that any of our teens, volunteers and donors could find them. By 2002 I was sending a weekly email newsletter to our volunteers, and a monthly email newsletter to all of our supporters.

While this works within a single program, if you have the time to create a newsletter, and to research ideas that you would put into it, not every program has people who can do the design, writing, formatting, publishing and distribution of electronic communications.

What’s more significant, motivating people to read the communications weekly and dig deeper into the research, and to form small groups to discuss the ideas with peers and other volunteers, is a challenge that still has not been solved.

Busy volunteers, staff members, directors, donors, etc. have many other priorities in their lives beyond their involvement in the tutor/mentor program. Even people paid to do the job spend so much time with day-to-day challenges of supporting youth and volunteers and keeping funds coming in, that there is very little “flexible time” to spend reading and “learning”.

I’ve written about MOOCs in the past year and this week I’m participating in a Deeper Learning MOOC, that engages more than 1000 people from around the country around the topic of “Deeper Learning”, which according to the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, is…..“students engaged in deeper learning—are using their knowledge and skills in a way that prepares them for real life.

They are mastering core academic content, like reading, writing, math, and science, while learning how to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, direct their own learning, and believe in themselves (known as an “academic mindset

Over the past week I’ve read several hundred introductions, mostly from educators. What concerns me, is that too few of these are people working in big city school districts, such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, Houston, LA, etc. If leaders and thinkers from these cities are not engaged in “deeper learning” how can we expect to bring higher quality learning experiences to inner city youth.

I’ve also seen very few participants in my MOOCs from people who lead non school tutoring and/or mentoring programs. If representatives from programs, and from those who support these programs, are not engaged in “deeper learning” how can they find ways to constantly improve the impact of their programs, or the flow of operating resources and talent that are essential to program improvement?

Sol Polk understood the power of advertising. He also recognized that he could get other people to pay for a large part of the costs of his advertising. The people who manufactured the merchandise sold in Polk Bros stores provided dollars for advertising costs. There’s an entire chapter on this in the book.

In his TED talk, Dan Pallotta talks about the power of advertising, and shows how donors are not willing to pay the costs for non profits to advertise. Read more here.

When I started Tutor/Mentor Connection in 1993, one of the key goals was to increase the frequency of news stories talking about tutoring/mentoring programs in Chicago. That’s still a goal.

Tutor/Mentor Connection and Tutor/Mentor Institute, LLC will never have millions of dollars for advertising. Thus, companies, churches, college groups, athletes, etc. need to become our “advertising partners” using their own media, visibility, in-store displays, etc. to build awareness and draw “customers” --- youth, volunteers, donors, etc. --- directly to the different tutor/mentor locations operating in Chicago or other cities.

Polk Bros did not just spend millions of dollars on advertising and promotions without a clear purpose. They ran “sales” and “events” throughout the year, which were intended to motivate customers to come to their stores. VOLUME was the goal of Sol Polk.

VOLUME is also the goal of Tutor/Mentor Institute, LLC. We must dramatically increase the number of people who are thinking about tutor/mentor programs every day, and who are visiting web sites to learn more about where, why and how they can help programs in different neighborhoods of Chicago.

National Mentoring Month is in January every year. Events throughout the month have encourage people to post articles on blogs, comments on Twitter and Facebook. New stories have shown how mentors can change a youth’s life. This needs to be happening 12 months a year, not just in January.

Every story needs to end with a “call to involvement”. A “hook” as Sol Polk would have described it, that motivates a customer to come to a store, or to support a tutor/mentor program in one of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

If you’re an advertising professional, a retail executive, a PR manager, etc. this is a strategy you certainly should understand, and that you can support in your own efforts to help Chicago become a place where EVERY child has the opportunities and support to find work, establish a career, and raise a family out of the grip of poverty.

If you are a foundation established using wealth created by entrepreneurs who started their companies in the early part of the 19th century, why not go beyond giving grants. Why not spend some of your own capital to create “advertising” that draws other donors, volunteers and leaders to support the same programs you are funding?

Few foundation grants provide more than 5% of the total operating costs for any non profit. Many don’t even cover costs of general operations…which is the cost of keeping the doors open and constantly improving. Thus, it would seem to make sense that using foundation dollars (in addition to advertising and sales promotion from others) would help attract more (up to 100%) of the dollars every non-school tutor/mentor program needs to operate effectively every year.

Where are people talking about this? Is anyone hosting a “Deeper Learning” MOOC that engages donors, business leaders, advertisers and shows them more ways to help draw on-going customer support to all of the different non profits needed to enrich a city like Chicago? During the National Mentoring Summit, being held in Washington, DC on January 30 and 31, many of the sessions will be available on line (for $20 fee). Maybe some of us can connect via that forum.

Who wants to help fund the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conferences so they can attract leaders and support this type of conversation, face to face, and via online communities? The next conference is May 19 and sponsors and workshop presenters are encouraged to step forward and introduce themselves.

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