Advertising Faculty Bring Nonprofits into the Classroom

There are countless nonprofits doing incredible work all over the world, from organizations focused on helping the environment to groups tackling world hunger. While some have a breadth of communications resources to choose from, many of these organizations — especially small, local nonprofits — encounter difficulty in conveying their mission to the world. 

Nonprofits rely on donations and support, and with thousands of organizations to choose from, it can be difficult to convince the public to support your goals. In today’s world, eye-catching communication is an organization’s best hope to set themselves apart. Faculty and students from the Department of Advertising and Public Relations are using their skills to help — and it all starts with crafting a compelling message. 

More Than Just a Ride

Advertising and Public Relations Professor of Practice David Regan has had his ADV 486: Integrated Campaigns students work with nonprofits for the past 17 years. His nonprofit client list grows every year, including organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Lansing Promise, The Davies Project for Children and Boy Scouts of America.  

“I felt [this relationship] would truly benefit the Mid-Michigan community and the MSU brand,” said Regan. “The students get more involved because they’re helping people in need and they feel their work will actually get used and be beneficial to the nonprofits more so than the big brands who have powerful ad agencies doing their campaigns.”     

Regan’s students are divided into 2-3 ad agencies, and each group conducts research, plots a strategy, creates an integrated advertising campaign and presents their ideas to key decision-makers within the nonprofit organization. 

Pam Miklavcic, executive director for The Davies Project for Children, worked with two of Regan’s classes last summer. The organization adopted the student-created tagline “More than just a ride”, which is now used as an integral piece of their branding. 

“Because we are working on a shoestring budget, we do rely on community support, so to be able to have that kind of valuable input saved us money while giving us incredible ideas to work with,” said Miklavcic. “To have the viewpoint of younger generations to work with is critical to helping us spread our message.”                         

An Integrated Approach

Advertising and Public Relations Professor of Practice Stephen Flaster was inspired by Regan’s course structure and began adopting similar methods two years ago. His ADV 486 and ADV 492: Special Topics classes have worked with nonprofit organizations such as Rejuvenating South Lansing, Crime Stoppers of Mid-Michigan, The First Tee of Mid-Michigan, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Local First Mid-Michigan. 

“We want the students to realize that there are opportunities for them in many non-traditional areas of communication that never existed before,” said Flaster. “A lot of students want to be involved in organizations and companies that have a meaning and a purpose. They see themselves that the traditional tools of advertising and communication have a role to play in organizations that they never imagined needing them.”

Senior Communication and Psychology major Josie Boumis is a student in Flaster’s ADV 492 class. She worked with Crime Stoppers of Mid-Michigan throughout the year and believes it has been extremely beneficial to learn about some of the organizations in the community. 

“I have really enjoyed getting to learn some of the day to day operational challenges nonprofits have, and what I can do to help them,” said Boumis. “It has been uplifting to see how willing and excited they are to implement our ideas.”

Using Data to Inform Digital Strategy 

Assistant Professor of Advertising and Public Relations Kjerstin Thorson teaches ADV 442: Digital Analytics, where she has brought nonprofit work into the course curriculum every semester since the class launched last spring. 

Thorson’s students work with both local and national nonprofits. This semester, her class is working with the Lansing Symphony, Allen Neighborhood Center, Humane Animal Treatment Center, Campus Vote Project of Michigan and League of Women Voters of Lansing

With access to the organizations’ social media and web analytics data, students conduct a digital audit to measure how well the nonprofits are performing. They then present their findings and set objectives going forward so the organizations can have a more effective digital presence. 

“I think our students are going to have a lot of time to go out in the world and make money, and I think it’s the responsibility of a university to understand and to help our students understand the potential impact they have on society and for the good of the world,” Thorson said. “Not every one of them is going to go out and work for nonprofits, but I hope that every one of them will take away from that experience that they can have a real impact.”

Students are further challenged by a lack of resources to implement their suggestions. Thorson believes this is a good lesson for students to learn, as many of them will take jobs early in their careers where they will have similar constraints. 

“Being able to revamp their social media channels and just being able to create a single strategy for their social media channels is beyond rewarding,” said Joey Goodman, an undergraduate TA and former student of ADV 442. “You can see the excitement in their faces as you present to them.”

By Rianna N. Middleton