Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sustainability Week: Learning How to Reach Out Beyond the Choir

This past week was Sustainability Week at the university where I work, which is a regular event I've been involved in putting on for three semesters now, and I am always left wondering what (if any) impact it had on the audiences we tried to reach.

With any environmental outreach efforts, you're always running the risk of only singing to the choir. That is, only reaching the folks who are already concerned enough to show up on their own.  As a card-carrying member of that choir, I admit that I love being sung to and you don't need free food to entice me to show up to a talk about population growth, sustainability & food, or reusing bikes to empower developing communities. (All real talks I went to this week).

Me, looking ridiculous in the homecoming parade for the benefit
of Mother Earth. Photo by Darrell Hoemann, News Gazette
But convincing the apathetic, the skeptics, and the oblivious to care just a little and show up is where the real challenge lies. I overheard more than one conversation this week between students, describing how they were only attending something because their teacher offered extra credit for going to that particular event. I suppose it's better than nothing, but it left me wondering if they were even paying attention during the talk, because I could see lots of phones and laptops out, just browsing online throughout the talk.

And we didn't only try to reach people through lecture-style events. We had an environmental expo with booths sharing free giveaways and information at one of the busiest dining halls for three hours around lunch time, and we had a fleet of decorated bicycles in the homecoming parade last night just for the sake of raising awareness. And while I know these other awareness-raising events didn't reach everyone we passed or who passed us, I do think they were worth the effort, and next year we'll do them even better to have an even greater impact.

A few take-aways from the week, as advice for planning sustainability events in a community:
  1. Good advertising is absolutely key, and should be done with every medium you've got. Flyers, chalk on sidewalks, facebook, etc. All of it. There needs to be someone in the planning group whose only responsibility is advertising, and they need a small team to help them execute the plans they develop.
  2. Be very clear on who your intended audience is for each event. It's very possible that each event will be slightly different in terms of who you're trying to reach, and knowing who that target audience is should inform how and where the event is advertised.
  3. Use each event to advertise for the other events, and for the week as a whole. Brand all of them as part of your Sustainability Week. You shouldn't have been able to walk through that expo without immediately realizing why we were having it, and also learning about 10 other things later in the week that you might want to attend. Instead, we had the expo on Thursday, after most of the week had already passed, and so many students came up to us asking "what is this?" For every one student that came up to ask that, 25 probably walked by completely unaware and thus untouched by our efforts.  It shouldn't have been possible to walk through those doors and know exactly what was going on.
  4. Get more people involved in planning from the start. Much of the weight of the week fell on a small handful of people's shoulders, so it's totally understandable that advertising and execution of certain events was a little low. If each event has a unique owner, that person can focus whole-heartedly on making it as awesome as possible. And if you're only asking each person to only do one thing, you'll have a much better chance of convincing them to sign up for the job. Don't be shy, invite everyone to the table, and then welcome their input and help.
  5. Get outside of the sustainability community while planning your events and partner up with other groups as a way to get beyond the choir. Most events had some obvious tie-ins to other areas of expertise, and we could have done a better job of taking advantage of existing communities that might have been interested in that topic, even if they had little interest in sustainability, per se.
  6. Find out who is coming to your events. Always have a sign-up sheet, and get contact info so you can inform attendees about your next event. Ask them how they heard about the event so you can get a sense of what advertising efforts are working and which ones aren't worth your time. Having a firm head count from each event can also be informative to compare interest in different topics, or to measure the success of different advertising efforts.
  7. Get more teachers to offer extra credit to their students for coming to your events. ;)

No comments: