A look at how Unusual Suspects Theatre Company leveraged pro bono support
Born out of the ashes of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, the Unusual Suspects Theatre Company is a model mentoring program using theater arts to reach youth in underserved and at-risk environments, including kids in foster care, violence-plagued neighborhoods, gangs and juvenile corrections facilities. Between 2005 and 2008, the organization quadrupled in size and was recognized by the White House with the Coming Up Taller Award , the nation’s highest honor for out-of-school arts programming.
Although the theater company’s successes naturally bred media exposure, the coverage Unusual Suspects received didn’t always paint a full picture.
“We knew that the depth of what we were doing was exceptional,” Executive Director Sally Fairman explained. “But what was often coming out was ‘Kids are writing a play. Isn’t that fun?'”
Marketing had never held a dedicated place in the organization’s annual budget, but Sally knew that accurate messaging was central to building a larger, more engaged donor base that could help sustain and fuel the theater company’s current and future growth.
“We were always marketing ourselves,” Sally said. “That’s just part and parcel of being an arts organization. But we were never strategic about it.”
To address this need, Unusual Suspects made marketing a central piece of their 2008 strategic plan and set out to raise the funds to hire consultants in brand strategy, graphic design, and documentary film-making. After a promising grant from another foundation fell through, Unusual Suspects was left wondering how they were going to pay for their planned marketing efforts.
It was around this time Frances Carley, Unusual Suspects associate director of development, heard about Taproot and applied for a Key Messaging and Brand Strategy Service Grant in 2009.
A pro bono Taproot team, led by Account Director Chris Kurjanowicz, was quickly assembled to assess Unusual Suspects’ brand and messaging needs.
“The team was great,” Sally said. “They spent a lot of time with the discovery interviews, learning from board members, staff, and other stakeholders what each perceived we were doing. The team attended workshops and performances at almost all our sites, and they read through all our marketing materials. They did a very hands-on assessment of the organization.”
It was through this in-depth assessment that the pro bono consultants produced what Frances described as an “a-ha!” moment for the nonprofit organization. Prior to the pro bono engagement, Unusual Suspects staff and volunteers usually explained their work as a theater arts program for at-risk youth. But the Taproot team provided the insight that what they were really doing was deep mentoring through theater arts.
“Nobody takes it to the level that Unusual Suspects does,” Chris explained. “Nobody deals with the really hard-core kids, or spends as much time per youth as the Unusual Suspects does. The way they were communicating potentially left the impression that they were teaching kids to sing and dance. But mentoring emphasizes that they’re providing communication and social skills–skills to use when they get out of jail.”
Once this insight was shared with and agreed to by the Unusual Suspects board, the Taproot team fleshed out “arts mentoring” into a comprehensive brand strategy. The deliverables they submitted to Unusual Suspects included an elevator pitch, a boilerplate, organizational descriptions of varying lengths, and key messages broken out by target audience, as well as training in how to best use these materials.
Unusual Suspects began to implement the brand strategy immediately both by talking about their organization differently and by incorporating the key messages into all marketing and promotional materials, from their Web site to their playbills. And they have already seen tangible results: in the past year and a half, individual contributions increased more than 700 percent.
“I believe the messaging has helped us get there,” Sally said. “It has helped us capture people’s imaginations with this work, so it’s definitely been a contributing factor to that increase.”
They were also able to secure additional grants from new funders.
“Foundations are not funding new organizations with the economy the way it is,” Frances explained. “They are sticking with organizations that they’ve worked with for a couple of years. I think the messaging helped us to distinguish ourselves. It’s given us an edge.”
Unusual Suspects Theatre Company are not done making the most of the brand strategy provided by Taproot. The theater company is in the process of redesigning its logo to match the messaging and plan to hold a formal communications training for all personnel.
Sally summarizes the experience of working with Taproot: “Working with a professional team of this caliber was a new experience for Unusual Suspects. We ended up learning so much about our organization through their eyes and expertise. They were so dedicated, and it was clear they were genuinely interested in our work and in helping us.”
Upon successful completion of the Key Messaging and Brand Strategy Grant, Unusual Suspects Theatre Company applied for and was awarded Taproot’s Board Recruitment Service Grant in March 2010.
Jason D. Nemeth is a principal at Nemeth Consulting and a pro bono copywriter with the Taproot Foundation.