For more than 35 years, national real estate franchisor ERA Real Estate has been committed to enriching the lives of children and adults living with muscular dystrophy through its support of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Embracing the concept of “community” is at the core of ERA’s brand mission, and to date, ERA brokers, agents and executives have raised over $35 million for the cause by working with their own regional MDA chapters and, though the financial support and heart for the cause was strong, the sense of unity between brokerages and their alignment with a collective brand philanthropic goal was wavering.
MDA’s Summer Camp for children living with muscular dystrophy hit a chord with many of the senior leadership team at ERA when they were able to experience it locally through their long-term partnership. The camp provides children with limited physical mobility the opportunity to experience summer camp, as many fully-abled children do, in ways that are safe and exciting for them. Building summer camp participation and opportunity demonstrates a strong commitment to communities on a local level, utilizing ERA’s wide networks and resources.
As ERA underwent a reimaging campaign to introduce a revitalized brand to the real estate industry, the leadership team sought to reinvigorate and refine its support of MDA in tandem. ERA’s executive team issued the ERA MDA Summer Camp Challenge to its network at its annual ERA International Business Conference in February 2015. The challenge’s goal was to collectively send 1,000 kids to camp over a three-year period. Read on to learn how ERA implemented the campaign, which won two Silver Awards—in the “Best Employee/Stakeholder Engagement Program for Good Works” and “Best Event Supporting a CSR/Reputation/Sustainability Campaign” categories—in Bulldog Reporter’s 2016 CSR Awards.
The Challenge: How do you rally a network of 15,000 professionals in more than 500 offices across the country around a singular cause? You cultivate a campaign so seamless that it fits as a natural evolution of the brand – and yet, still stands for a new time of change and fundraising action. ERA did just that.
Tara Davis, Manager of Public Relations & Internal Communications at ERA Franchise Systems LLC, outlines the campaign’s mission by identifying three key challenges that are unique to CSR campaigns:
“First and foremost, you need to be positive that the cause or organization your campaign will support is something you and your team are truly passionate about,” she explains. “While you want to be enthusiastic about any given fundraising initiative, it’s even more crucial when planning a longer lasting campaign. This will naturally encourage motivation among the group, keeping everyone vested for the duration.
“Next, you have to make sure your goal is attainable. Over-reaching runs the risk of ‘over-promising and under-delivering’ to your community and designated charity. An unrealistic goal can also have a negative impact on your employees and affiliates’ willingness to engage,” she adds.
“Most importantly, you have to lead by example—if there isn’t room in the corporate budget to donate money to the campaign, it’s critical to designate a corporate team leader who will rally the troops and inspire the corporate to roll up their sleeves and fundraise right along with their affiliates. ERA Real Estate has done this by participating in the MDA Muscle Walk, hosting a book-signing fundraiser at their annual conference and a memorial 5k fundraiser, also at their annual conference.”
The Strategy: The ERA campaign team decided on the following strategic and tactical objectives for the initiative:
- Leverage existing gatherings of ERA professionals to increase wide-spread awareness
- Humanize the ask
- Provide accessible materials for ERA network to leverage
- Provide one-on-one consulting to the field
- Create a moment for the campaign
- Emphasize the end goal
“Prior to the Challenge, some of our ERA companies had existing relationships with their local MDA office and were raising funds annually on their own. When we decided to employ a full ERA Team campaign, we opted for a rallying cry rather than pure marketing promotion to inspire engagement,” says Davis. “ERA is built on a strong foundation of collaboration and commitment to community, enhanced with a little friendly competition among ERA companies. Strategically, we leveraged that team spirit and encouraged all ERA companies to fundraise and, more importantly, to help one another to fundraise—shifting the initial MDA philanthropy strategy from a one-off to a full company/team effort. And for those companies that go above and beyond sending a child to camp and choose to send five or more, we employ an award system which also encourages them to strive for greater fundraising numbers because of course, they are vying for the top fundraising award.”
Because excitement rolls down, the message and challenge must come from the top—so ERA made it a point early on to get its senior leaders on board and engaged. “We employed our 2014-2015 ERA president and CEO, Charlie Young, and our current ERA president and CEO, Susan Yannaccone, to issue the challenge on stage at our annual conference,” she continues. “Throughout the campaign, they encouraged and thanked participating ERA companies, participated in our corporate fundraisers, attended local fundraisers throughout the country, gave participants recognition on stage at major ERA events and did some fundraising on their own. They became the face of the Challenge which lent credibility to our campaign while energizing the community. Without senior leadership buy-in and leadership, your campaign can lose momentum quickly.”
The Execution: Following the announcement of the challenge at its event in 2015, the 2016 conference featured an MDA National Goodwill Ambassador, 11-year-old Reagan Imhoff. Her appearance and speaking session coupled with an ERA book signing served as a reiteration of the brand’s community-wide commitment to the cause. The book signing alone, which also featured meet and greets with Imhoff, resulted in nearly $9,000 raised in less than 4 hours.
Unlike many fundraising campaigns which ask for financial support, the key message of this campaign focuses around the kids. Pledge forms ask ERA companies to commit to a number of kids rather than a dollar amount, which served to humanize the initiative. Then comes the fun—ERA companies created and executed a number of unique and successful events to meet their pledge commitments.
To showcase their own commitment to the cause, the ERA Corporate Team visited the MDA Summer Camp themselves—reinforcing to their network of brokers and agents that they too are invested in reaching, and even exceeding, the brand’s three-year goal.
The campaign was complemented by a suite of branded communications, including a campaign logo, a printed brochure, a website and an email signature. In addition, ERA regularly reports campaign progress to their system in internal and external communications—for example, via the brand’s Facebook page, which has over 23,088 likes. This served to spotlight the successful fundraising efforts to help encourage others to participate, as well as to create a competitive environment among companies.
“Our best digital tool is a closed Facebook Group titled MDA Supporters. This page has been active since before the Challenge launched and has more than 100 members, which represents a large number of our ERA companies,” says Davis. “On this page, we share fundraising ideas, celebrate fundraising success, post event and summer camp photos, and encourage each member to share their ideas and ask questions. The group promotes and garners great engagement and makes it easier for the Challenge’s corporate leader to communicate with, thank and encourage supporters.
“Supplemental to the group, we use the ERA Facebook Page and Twitter to tout success. Many companies will share these posts with their own sphere to show their alignment to ERA’s corporate social responsibility platform,” she adds. “In tandem with our social media strategy, we employ an ERA MDA Summer Camp Challenge web page that houses the Challenge logo, summer camp photos to use for collateral, pre & post-event press release templates and a toolkit with fundraising ideas and how-to’s. This enables ERA companies to quickly access promotional and planning tools for a successful fundraiser.”
One-on-one consulting is provided by both the communications staff as well as field-based business consultants to help educate people new to the cause, provide fundraising ideas and connect ERA members around best practices. Veterans of the cause also receive constant touchpoints throughout the year via dedicated phone calls, emails and newsletters.
ERA named August 2016 “MDA Month,” during which time the corporate team focused intently on reaching as many pledges as possible, resulting in a gain of nearly 200 pledges via personalized phone calls, emails, text messages and dedicated MDA emails on every Monday of the month.
“Our greatest obstacle has been in the end of year reporting,” Davis relates. “With so many companies throughout the country reporting their total to various local MDA offices, it can be difficult to keep track. We check in with our affiliates each quarter to get a feel for what they have accomplished and what they are working on so that we have our finger on the pulse of the program’s progress.”
The Results: The ERA community has exceeded its pledge goal at 1,045 pledges within 20 months of the three-year challenge. In 2016, ERA is on track to double last year’s fundraising proceeds with no signs of slowing down.
“Our primary goal was engagement—we wanted to reach 1,000 commitments to send kids to camp within 3 years. In just two years, we are more than 104% to that goal,” Davis offers. “Our secondary goal is to reach $1 million—the cost to send 1,000 kids to camp. We are more than 70% to goal.”
The brand has managed to bring together more than 500 brokerages nationwide, all in support of and working toward one shared goal. “Communication and gratitude is key. When a company holds a fundraiser, our campaign leader emails a thank you and congratulations note or picks up the phone to say thank you,” says Davis. “Saying thank you is a great, cost-free motivator. It goes a long way.”
ERA’s efforts around MDA have been recognized via numerous accolades including Ragan’s 2015 Employee Communications Awards, PR News 2016 CSR Awards and a Bell Ringer Award. Reagan Imhoff, MDA National Goodwill Ambassador, has also just recently reached out to Team ERA to thank them for their continued commitment and encourage them to keep up their hard work.
Susan Yannaccone, president and CEO of ERA Real Estate also shared her thoughts around the initiative: “Dedication to community is at the core of the ERA Real Estate brand. While the real estate industry continues to evolve, and ERA focuses on innovating to keep pace with the changes, the core of what we represent doesn’t alter. We help others in need, from buying and selling a home, to raising charitable contributions and awareness of charitable causes. We are not just sending kids to camp. We are giving them the opportunity to enjoy new experiences, make new friends, discover their strengths and passions and build the confidence to achieve their goals.”
Secrets of Success: Davis shares four key takeaways from the campaign that will help you in your next CSR effort—and demonstrates why ERA won Silver in Bulldog’s 2016 CSR Awards.
- Ensure the initiative is something your team believes in: “For more than 35 years, ERA Real Estate has been committed to enriching the lives of children and adults living with muscular dystrophy through its support of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Embracing the concept of “community” is at the core of our brand’s mission, which has inspired ERA brokers, agents and executives to raise over $35 million to-date for the cause. It is crucial to present a CSR initiative that is a natural evolution of the brand – yet still represents progress and action.”
- Create a moment for the campaign: “For example, ERA named August 2016 “MDA Month,” during which time the corporate team focused intently on reaching as many pledges as possible, resulting in a gain of nearly 200 pledges via personalized phone calls, emails, text messages and dedicated MDA emails on every Monday of the month.”
- Humanize the ask: “Unlike many fundraising campaigns which ask for financial support, the key message of our campaign focuses on the kids we are helping. Pledge forms ask ERA companies to commit to sending a number of kids to MDA Summer Camp rather than a dollar amount, providing a humanizing element. This makes the campaign more relatable, invoking memories of people’s own families and helping them understand the bigger picture of their contributions.”
- Lead by example: “Most importantly, you have to lead by example so if there isn’t room in the corporate budget to donate money to the campaign, it’s critical to designate a corporate team leader who will rally the troops and inspire the corporate to roll up their sleeves and fundraise right along with their affiliates. ERA Real Estate has done this by participating in the MDA Muscle Walk, hosting a book-signing fundraiser at their annual conference and a memorial 5k fundraiser, also at their annual conference.”
ERA Real Estate was founded on the premise of building a franchise system based on the principle of collaboration—the idea that by working together and helping one another, a stronger community of real estate professionals could be built. The ERA MDA Summer Camp Challenge is a shining example of that principle in practice.