Your university provides full-ride scholarships to needy kids from families that never sent anyone to college.
Victims of gang muggings, a young immigrant whose parents were murdered in Sierra Leone, an inner-city kid who once saw his father kill someone.
How to get out the word and increase your donor base to support a program of such promise?
Saint Mary's University of Minnesota turned to a brand journalism guru to create a storytelling platform that presents of the lives of students in its First Generation Initiative.
The university recently launched a website—created by communications strategist and former CBS News correspondent David Henderson—that offers lessons for nonprofits and corporations striving to catch the public's attention. For starters, tell stories.
Reaching the media
"In today's news media world, an organization or company really needs to know how to skillfully take the story to the media if they want coverage," Henderson says.
"Newsroom budgets have been cut back so much that if you are located more than 30 miles outside a metro area, there's less of a chance the media will cover your story unless there's a four-alarm fire."
St. Mary's is a Lasallian University located in Winona, Minn. The Roman Catholic order has founded inner city schools for economically disadvantaged students, says Brother Ed Siderewicz, a special assistant to the president who helped found four such schools in Chicago.
"We're taking these kids into the system in sixth grade that are years behind, performing at the second-grade level, and really giving them a rigorous program, support and everything," Siderewicz says. "It's a full-court press to get them up and on into some of these high schools in Chicago and other cities."
A $35,000 scholarship
In 2008, Brother President William Mann called on the college to expand its mission to economically disadvantaged students. St. Mary's provides the young men and women in its program with room, board, tuition, and books, at a total cost of $35,000 per student per year. To endow the initiative, the college needs $42 million.
"We saw quickly that we really had to get our story out there to rally some resources," Siderewicz says.
He ran across the idea for the site after attending a Ragan conference in Dallas in October. The brother found himself mingling with communicators from places like Southwest Airlines and FedEx. "I felt like a fish out of water," he said.
But it led him to Henderson, whose work Siderewicz had seen at the conference. He felt Henderson understood what the program was about.
Henderson went to Winona in January with his high-definition video and camera gear, spending a week interviewing students on campus. It became clear that the emotional power lay not in blabbing about programs, but in the stories of the students. He focused the site on them.
"I found this a profoundly moving experience," Henderson said. "I'm trying to think of a client that has moved me as much as these kids."
Henderson wrote stories of 250 to 350 words each on individual students, and he conducted video interviews. All video is in broadcast-quality, high-definition format and is available on the Internet. These days much TV news video is exchanged online rather than via satellite because the Web costs nothing, Henderson says.
The website is hosted by Hostgator.com and runs on WordPress. This is increasingly the platform of choice of major corporations and media, such as Lockheed Martin and The New York Times, Henderson says.
FirstGenerationStories.org has been online for less than a month, and by Tuesday it was among the top 74,000 in a listing of U.S. websites ranked by popularity, according to Alexa.com, a Web information company. This is an amazingly fast rise, Henderson says. Google analytics show that not only does it have a big audience, but people are spending time on the site.
Henderson says he typically charges as much as $25,000 to $30,000 a month to get a company newsroom up and running for corporate clients. St. Mary's is paying a fraction of that because Henderson believes in the work, though he won't disclose the cost.
The First Generation Initiative doesn't start when the students show up on campus. St. Mary's partners with schools in the Midwest and Arizona, Siderewicz says. In high school, kids participate in an academic boot camp every summer for four years.
"There's a pipeline we're building from grade school through college, K through 16," Siderewicz said.
Henderson designed the project so that St. Mary's can sustain it. He has trained staff at St. Mary's to run the site and write the student bios, and the college has an IT department that can handle technical issues.
If corporate communicators have trouble getting buy-in for new approaches, they're not alone. Back at St. Mary's, some university officials were skeptical, Siderewicz says.
"It's a bit of a clash of cultures, to be honest," he says. "Initially they weren't thrilled with the idea, but they were open to it. Intrigued. And they're trusting it at this point. ... It's beginning to energize folks."
Social media spreads the word
To increase the reach of the stories, students and staff have been tweeting, sharing links on Facebook, and emailing friends and family.
First Generation scholar Daniela Martinez, 20, is the daughter of Honduran immigrants. Her father was imprisoned when she was in eighth grade, and her mother worked two jobs to keep the family afloat. She plans to go to law school after college.
Though university officials emphasize reaching potential fundraisers, Martinez says she wants the site to send a message to kids who might not think they can go to college.
"We're definitely trying to tell people out there that don't go to school for lack of money that there is hope," she says.