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Image courtesy of Dr. Seuss / MGM

How I Hacked a Holiday Food Drive and Increased Donations By 70%

Masterminding the best marketing campaign of my career, all to benefit those most in need

Some years ago, I was working at a small tech company in the Bay Area and right around this time of year (November), they announced our participation in a food donation drive for a local charity.

More than a week later, the donation barrel remained empty. While it’s possible that it was just too early in the season and that people were intending to donate much closer to the end of the drive, I had a sense that this wasn’t likely to be a successful philanthropic effort.

This is not to say that I thought my colleagues weren’t generous. Rather, I suspected that a number of factors unique to tech made the challenge of soliciting food donations even greater. First, in a setting where food (at least lunch) is provided by many employers, I wondered: how often might employees step foot into a store in order to purchase food items for donation? Second, even if not fed by one’s employer, how often would the average tech employee cook for oneself, thus stepping into a supermarket to shop?

I say “tech employee” but really I mean engineer. And by engineer, I am thinking of the pre-dominantly young and male workers who are more inclined to order takeout than prepare a meal at home (a tendency that I think is even more common in today’s era of DoorDash, UberEats, Postmates and all other food delivery services). The point is: the tech lifestyle suggests a lack of exposure to groceries, thereby decreasing the likelihood that employees would be participating in the food drive.

I wondered: was there a way to rally employees to overcome these lifestyle-based obstacles and to encourage them to donate to this worthy cause?

Intrigued by the challenge and driven by the potential of a positive outcome, I assembled a plan…

PART 1: The Plan

I approached the Marketing team with an idea. With a suggested $10 contribution per team member (with some individuals choosing to be more generous ❤❤❤), we went to the nearby Target to shop together. Back at the office, we staged our bounty and I snapped and emailed this as well as a picture of the team shopping together to the rest of the company, alongside the note that follows:

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The Marketing team goes shopping
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The Marketing Team’s contribution of 100+ food items

“In one lunchtime retail blitz, [the Marketing team] contributed 112 food items to the Second Harvest food bank drive.

Game on, Engineering, Sales, Client Services and all other multi-member teams.”

In the group activity alone, we achieved the baseline of my goals: ensuring that at least one barrel was filled. The email, however, was the linchpin in my plan, involving these tactics:

Tactic #1: The framing. Framing is a term used in social psychology and marketing, and involves strategies to influence how people consume information. In other words, it’s not what you say or show, but rather how you do it. Being deliberate in how you connect ideas can help persuade people to do what you want them to do.

Showing the food items in the shopping carts and then also propped up alongside (not inside) the barrel was meant to show how “do-able” it would be for a team to band together and make a substantial impact on the food drive. The suggestion at the start (the $10 per person) was similarly a framing tactic to get my own team on board. Being able to break down audacious goals into bite-size steps or parts is a nice way to frame things to drive engagement (like the “for just 25 cents a day…” messaging that charities often employ).

This was also true in the inclusion of the shopping trip photo. Where personal inertia or lifestyle could get in the way of a donation, the photo was intended to reframe the act as a fun activity performed together as a team. In tech-esque terms, I like to consider it the use case in this scenario: an example detailing the manner and context in which a person can accomplish a task, inspiring the subject to understand relevance and benefit, and adopt the intended action.

Tactic #2: The metrics. Anyone working in tech knows that metrics are beloved, and that quantifying benefits through data is by far the most direct path to a techie’s heart. In addition to showing the impact through pictures, it was important to define and share our success metrics.

And finally…

Tactic #3: The messaging. As a marketer, I am sometimes peeved when my job is described as “making things pretty” or “just writing content.” The creation of (effective) messaging and other communications assets is part of a larger process that first requires a deep understanding of the message recipient(s) (their fears, uncertainty, doubts, dreams, desires, etc.) and what it will take to get them to pay attention to you and take a defined action.

I thought about the messaging typically tied to a charity: that there is immense need and every little bit helps. We are all aware of the increasing economic disparity in the Bay Area and most of us have grown up in environments where we recognize our place of privilege and understand our civic duty to help those less fortunate. This message, in theory, should have worked. And yet, the barrel remained hopelessly empty.

Then, I thought about your run-of-the-mill tech worker. If messaging focused on social responsibility wasn’t enough to drive action, what would? What do tech workers, specifically engineers, care about? What could I tap into to compel this population to overcome inertia and help those in their community?

Reflecting on my years working in tech, the answer I came up with was this: engineers like to solve problems and they like the recognition when they have done this successfully. They like being told they are the smartest and the best. They like to one-up others. They like to win.

So in putting together the plan, I hypothesized that if challenged, a competitive spirit would take over and engineers would do everything needed to win. So, the key to my messaging was the challenge to everyone — but with the Engineering team specifically in mind — to do better than we had.

Would my plan work?

PART 2: The Results

Time passed and nothing seemed to happen. The barrels remained as the Marketing team had left them. I felt a little disappointed.

Then, one week after the challenge was issued, an email arrived from a member of the Customer Success team. Addressed to the whole company, the note contained this message and a series of photographs detailing the team’s excursion to Costco:

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The CS team goes shopping
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The Customer Success team filled well over 2 barrel

“[The Customer Success team] contributed 2+ barrels of food items to the Second Harvest food bank drive.

Game on, Engineering, Sales and all other multi-member teams. Game BACK ON, marketing!”

And not to be outdone, a day later on a Friday afternoon, the Engineering and Product teams made their move. Like a sports team in the lead and running down the clock, they issued their proclamation at 3:56 pm on the Friday of the week before the charity’s scheduled pickup:

The Engineer and Product teams, in all their well-earned glory

“Engineering + Product!! Two Barrels+ of food, and additional cash of $161.”

True to character, the engineers rose to the challenge. This was their spectacular coup de grace.

The following week, the charity came by to collect the barrels. The HR team sent an email sharing the final results:

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“[Our company] and [the other company in the building] collectively donated 12 full barrels of food to Second Harvest, PLUS $1,166 to the fund!!

It was a remarkable turnout, as we exceeded our goal by over 5 bins.”

PART 3: The Reflection

I write about this today — years later — not to gloat or deride. (Though I will admit that I am exceedingly proud of this project. In fact, I consider it the highest ROI campaign I have run in my entire career — for every $1 invested by Marketing, we “got back” 4x+ in returns!)

Instead, I reflect on this today — as the barrels again roll out to lobbies and communal areas of companies everywhere — because I think some of the key aspects of marketing can help encourage participation and I wanted to share my story with anyone willing to listen. As a product marketer, I know that just building a product doesn’t always result in adoption. Seeing a stimulus and knowing that they should do something isn’t always enough to get someone to take the first of necessary steps. Rather, understanding an audience’s motivations and then framing up and employing the right message can be one step in driving change. Make it easy for people to say “yes.”

I think that even the most serious of things can be fun — and I think people respond positively when they are. My plan aside, the most important part of our shared success was the generosity, kindness, and good-spiritedness of everyone at that tech company who came together to “compete” and to chip in as a team to help out those who needed it the most. People like to be a part of fun, happy, and important things. This is true in tech. This is true everywhere.

I guess my final point is: an empty donation barrel isn’t solely an indication that people don’t care. At a higher level, I say this to mean: things aren’t always as they seem. While it can be daunting to look down the barrel of a… um, empty barrel, it can an opportunity to understand and then meet people where they are, and to find creative ways to coax out the best from others. Because it’s there. You just have to give people a reason to show you.

Stephanie Kong is a Bay Area-based product marketer in the tech industry. She tries her hardest to apply the zaniest of her ideas for the good of others. She likes to think she is reasonably successful at this. These ideas and opinions are her own and do not represent the views of her employer.

Product marketer living and working in San Francisco. These thoughts and ideas are all my own.

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