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Growing a Conservation Ethic Among Gen Y
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
The Trustees of Reservations was facing a challenge. The statewide nonprofit, whose focus is land conservation and historic preservation, wanted to grow membership rates among 18- to 24-year-olds. But the organization was uncertain how to best engage this sophisticated, media-savvy group known as Generation Y.
Who better to ask than fellow members of the target audience?
This past spring, the Massachusetts-based nonprofit turned to students in the undergraduate Marketing Project course taught at Bentley. The charge: Develop strategies for raising awareness about The Trustees among the next generation of potential conservationists.
Low Cost, High Value
Led by Ian Cross, director of the Center for Marketing Technology, the Marketing Project course is one of many “corporate immersion” classes available at the university. Students collaborate to tackle genuine business problems for companies and other organizations.
“Students are able to try marketing tools and techniques they may only have read about,” explains Cross. “They become an external marketing resource for our project partners and complete real market research. Students learn firsthand how marketing decisions are made and how marketing strategies and tactics are evaluated and implemented in the business and nonprofit worlds. It’s a great résumé builder.”
This low-cost, high-value approach was just what The Trustees needed. Established in 1891, the organization owns and cares for more than 100 properties of scenic, natural and cultural significance, including Crane Beach in Ipswich, the Old Manse in Concord, World’s End in Hingham, and Monument Mountain in the Berkshires (pictured above). Most of its 100,000 members are in the baby boomer, middle-aged demographic.
“We thought it would be really useful to have students create a marketing plan to attract fellow young people to the organization,” says Cross. “This research 2.0 approach assumes that, as members of that group themselves, students offer a unique perspective as both consumers and marketers.”
At the start of the semester, students formed two teams and began the project’s important first phase: market research. Team members conduct- ed focus groups and developed an electronic survey, held brainstorming sessions, and even visited Trustees properties with the Student Hiking Club for an up-close look at the Gen Y member experience. Their goal was to explore Gen Y attitudes toward the environment, conservation, outdoor recreation, and volunteerism.
The research yielded a sobering fact: Very few young people were familiar with The Trustees of Reservations.
The point rang true for Danvers, Mass., native Megan Berry ’09, who grew up enjoying the popular Crane Beach. “I was shocked to learn that the beach is a Trustees property,” says the former Marketing major. “I had no idea.”
Building brand recognition for the organization emerged as a top priority. Students focused their marketing plan on individuals they had already identified as having a strong interest in outdoor pursuits.
Their strategies for reaching the younger set included creating a Trustees “sub-brand” that uses social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and launching a separate web site tailored for Gen Y. Another recommendation was to hold special events at Trustees properties, providing opportunities for young adults to get involved in the organization. For example, the coastal World’s End in Hingham could offer an ideal backdrop for a triathalon, complete with Gen Y-friendly music and corporate sponsors.
In early April, students showcased their hard work at the Bentley Open House for Accepted Students. As Cross observes: “Prospective stu- dents were able to see that challenging and rewarding work goes on at Bentley — and that business approaches are necessary and valuable in the nonprofit world.”
The Trustees pitched in by speaking to prospec- tive students and parents, sponsoring raffles, and creating an on-campus experience for visitors to learn about the organization’s mission and properties. In fact, support from the organization was a component of the course throughout the semester.
“Trustees executives Laurie O’Reilly and John Bradley attended every single class; that’s an incredible time commitment,” says Berry. “We got to hear about their past experiences and bounce ideas off them. It made the whole experience that much more real.”
The organization also made free memberships available to faculty, students, and other members of the Bentley community. Nearly 700 people took advantage of the offer.
At the end of the semester, student teams presented their proposals on campus to Trustees President Andy Kendall and other senior leaders. The organization is exploring the recommendations and intends to keep working with Bentley to implement some of the strategies.
“We were interested in partnering with Bentley for many reasons, including access to strong fac- ulty, high-quality programs and facilities, and a talented pool of students,” says Kathy Abbott, executive vice president of The Trustees. “It has been a wonderful experience, and the students impressed us as hard-working, creative and professional. I look forward to continuing to grow and build our relationship with Bentley.”
Berry, who graduated in May, added the corporate immersion project to her résumé. “During my job search, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from employers,” she says. “For me, the greatest benefit has been the opportunity to see what even a small idea can turn into.”
The Yawkey Foundations have recognized Bentley University’s longstanding commitment to service-learning and awarded the university $500,000 to educate students to effectively lead nonprofit organizations and expand student efforts to help community groups.