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An EPIC opportunity for Twin Cities nonprofits

An EPIC opportunity for Twin Cities nonprofits

Minnesota has long been a hotbed for successful nonprofits and for innovative advertising and marketing agencies. EPIC, a Chicago-based nonprofit, plans to build a bridge between these two of the metro’s great strengths. EPIC has been honing their model of pro-bono creative work in Chicago since 2008, and in early 2013 they expanded to the Twin Cities.

EPIC provides creative work to small nonprofits that don’t have the budget for it by pairing them up with teams of local creative marketing professionals, who volunteer eight weeks of intensive discussions, planning, and production with the nonprofit’s staff.

EPIC calls these eight-week sessions “creative rallies.” For their first project in the Twin Cities, they’re partnering with Youth Farm and Market, a St. Paul nonprofit that provides leadership training for youth through urban agriculture, including planting, growing, preparing, and selling food.

“At Youth Farm, we have no dedicated staff member working in development or marketing communications, yet that work impacts so much of what we do in the community with youth and partners, donor engagement, grant proposals and more,” says Kristi Hamilton, board member of Youth Farm and Market. “All that work falls to the Executive Director and the committees that support him in those areas. The creative Rally team members come to the table with amazing experience and perspective, which will deepen the impact of the work for the organization.”

The Twin Cities is EPIC’s first expansion out of Chicago, and they hope to continue perfecting their model here and eventually expand throughout the country. Haley Kilgour, who works with Minneapolis agency Barrie D’Rozario Murphy,  is leading the Twin Cities branch as Program Director. We shot her some questions below.

What about the Twin Cities made EPIC want to launch an offshoot here?

EPIC’s founder, Erin Huizenga, and I met while working together on a client account a few years ago during my time at VSA Partners. Shortly after I was introduced to EPIC. EPIC was already well on its way to a becoming working and stable organization that combined all my passions, and I knew I wouldn’t rest until I saw this amazing concept shared.

A couple of years later when Erin and the EPIC board felt they had worked out many of the kinks in the process and got national sponsorship from HOW Magazine, Erin reached out. She was willing to put a little faith in me, a little faith in Minnesota, and we are both curious to see where this would lead. Minnesota is now serving as EPIC’s litmus test in determining feasibility in extending the brand to serve cities with interest in developing the program in their metro area.

How many creative rallies do you hope to complete in your first year here?

My goal in this first year is four. If we have more, or two going at the same time, fantastic! But for now I think four is a safe number to shoot for. We initiated the rally for the Youth Farm and Market project on January 21, led by Creative Director Kris Lindquist of FAME (as well as founder of After this inaugural Minnesota rally we will have rallies beginning every 10–12 weeks. After each one, we have a rally wrap party to celebrate the work and announce the next NPO and creative team to hit the ground running. Next wrap and networking event is tentatively scheduled for April 2 at Seven Corners Republic.

What do you seek in your nonprofit clients?

Our criteria is that they are doing something healthy and productive for children, families, or education in the metro community; make under $2 million in donations, grants, and fundraising; and ideally have a semi-structured marketing plan for us to build on. If they have laid some of the groundwork already, we have a much better chance of success than if we have to start with the basics.

What would you estimate is the market value of an EPIC Creative Rally?

We track our hours and can say rallies in the past have yielded between $60,000 and $100,000 in volunteer creative services based on the hourly rate each creative currently bills out through their agency. Each team member puts in 5–10 hours of time per week for 8 weeks.

What's the biggest challenge that creative teams run into working with nonprofits?

There is certainly no lack of passion for in what these nonprofits are doing, and this is why we love working with them. Because of this there are often many people involved; therefore, timing and approvals can be a bit of a challenge. We are all used to working for clients that can be very demanding, wanting everything and the kitchen sink…yesterday! Nonprofits typically aren’t used to moving so fast. They have small budgets and make slow and calculated decisions, so it is often tough to get them to trust us and commit to approving and executing a particular idea in the short timeframe. Although I must say our experience thus far with Youth Farm has been fabulous. Everyone there is 100% committed to getting us what we need as soon as humanly possible.

What is something nonprofits could do to enhance their marketing if they don’t currently have a pro-bono team of creative professionals working with them?

There are so many things you can do, but it all comes down to capacity and not completely burning people out. Finding ways to educate yourself and continue learning and sharing your challenges and solutions with other nonprofits is always a good start.

I was actually just made aware of this organization on Twitter the other day, MN DoGooders, who “provide a forum where nonprofit professionals can exchange insights about our industry’s best practices and technology.” I’m looking forward to attending some of their presentations. Also, I know a few years ago Andrew Eklund started a group called SMAWG (Social Media Arts Working Group) that came together as a group to discuss current issues and challenges specifically around social media. I don’t think they meet anymore, but I attended a few of those events and the nonprofits in the area found this extremely helpful.

That said, social media is an NPO’s best friend! That’s one way to stay top of mind with your audience, but it takes time to learn best practices and build a strong and engaged community, so if you aren’t doing that now, you’re already behind someone who is…catch up! Learn it, there’s a TON of valuable information out there if you are networked with the right people and organizations.

Where do you see the future of creative marketing for nonprofits? Is pro-bono work like this sustainable in the long-term?

I personally struggle with this one and I wish I had the answer. The EPIC model works because there are equal benefits to everyone involved. Creatives get to use their talents for good and network with folks from other agencies. They also get a finite commitment and the challenge of coming together and working with people they’ve never met before, with budgets that make us get scrappy (in a good way of course). NPOs get a dedicated team of creatives for eight whole weeks, build relationships with professionals in the creative industry, and are given advice and best practices that they can carry forward in their organization for years to come.

In the long term, the NPO may value creative work enough after seeing the results this rally yields to hire a team from time to time when they need a big push. Will any business ever value design and creative thinkers as much as they should? I think these conversations are starting to take place more and more, through TED Talks and AIGA Design for Good, for instance. And EPIC is becoming the go-to place for this kind of conversation and exchange of ideas. I am beginning to see more and more organizations value the power of creative thinking to the extent it deserves to be.

How does EPIC encourage nonprofits to keep telling their stories after their eight-week session? How can these organizations keep this burst of creativity going? Is any effort used to help them foster their own creative talents to continue telling their stories?

The NPOs we work with have a passionate group of dedicated staff that has been telling their stories since they started up and will continue to do so long after we come in and shake things up. If these NPOs weren’t doing that already, they wouldn’t be around, so they are already doing something right! What EPIC is here to do is add fuel to their fire and ignite a sense of what is possible given a $60–$100k marketing budget. This is partially an education process teaching folks the value of creative thinking. I am excited to see how much we are able to impact social change through EPIC as well as impact and draw awareness to the true power of great creative work.

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