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The Power of Partnerships in Community Engagement

As the lead organizer of The Solar Laundry Project (SLP) here in Kamloops, I’ve been on a steep learning curve. The SLP is an initiative of the Kamloops Chapter of the BC Sustainable Energy Association which encourages people to reduce their electrical consumption by hanging clothes to dry instead of using the dryer. For the past two years, we’ve organized an awareness campaign based on weekly draws for high-quality clotheslines during the summer months.

I’ve learned that a focus on fun goes a long way, great promotional photos are like gold, simple messaging is best, and good relationships with media are key to coverage. But perhaps the biggest single eye-opener has been the importance of partnerships.

Partnerships. Doesn’t sound all that exciting, does it? But our project is a perfect example of how a campaign can multiply its reach overnight by leveraging strategic relationships.

Building partnerships starts long before the campaign launch date. In fact, it can start years earlier, by searching out and nurturing contacts with organizations that might have a mutual interest. In our case, we gained major sponsors for The Solar Laundry Project by providing a channel for our partners to enhance their own community profile.

When planning this project, we looked at who might like to support our message of energy conservation through clothesline use. We looked at the ways they could support us, and how we might be able to provide something of value to them. What do we need in order to make this project a go? Who might provide that for us? How might we frame the project so that it clearly meets their goals as well as ours?

The first and most obvious thing we needed to run the campaign was clotheslines. Should we buy, or have them donated to the project? Our answer was a bit of both. For cash, the target was Team Power Smart. Interest in promoting energy conservation: check. Interest in being a visible supporter of community initiatives: check. Provide a platform for related conservation messaging: check. Agreement to earn free media coverage and present positive messaging through our campaign: check. A break on the purchase price of clotheslines was provided by our second major sponsor, RONA. Providing a profile for RONA as a local business that supports sustainability through our messaging and signage was something we could offer them. In addition, we drove traffic to their store by making them the main pick-up location for the prize winners. This was a double win, since it removed the burden of distributing prizes from us. We took promotional photos at the store with RONA staff, set up a booth at the entrance to the store, and used their well-marked tent at our public events at other sites.

We were especially thrilled when the City of Kamloops came on this year as a sponsor. We wanted two things: an official endorsement that would increase our credibility, and the promotional power that an in-house sign shop, print shop, and regular paid advertising could provide. The City of Kamloops actually has targets around reducing household energy consumption, so our goals aligned from the outset. Although they were supportive of the project in the past, they were hesitant to become an official partner. The success of our first year was enough to convince them to jump on board this year. A lead story on the front page of the City’s public website, ongoing features on the employee-only intranet, free printing of promotional material and signage, and regular paid ads in the newspaper were just some of the benefits this partnership brought to us.

Urban Systems was another big win for us. This highly regarded consulting firm’s stated desire to “help build communities that are safe, sustainable and prosperous” meshed perfectly with our message. The cash they provided enabled us to significantly increase the number of clotheslines given away, and we did our best to ensure that their image as a caring, future-oriented provider of solutions would be enhanced through our community outreach.

Two local media companies were also big boosters, bringing both good ideas to the planning process and valuable public exposure. InKamloops.ca video magazine is an relatively new online community news site which also places TV’s in waiting areas around our city. The owner did several blog posts, Twitter updates and even short ads about our project, in exchange for us publicizing his service. Shaw Communications used their cable TV expertise to help us organize a video contest, did on-site filming and interviews, and followed up with excellent coverage through their public service announcements.

Other organizations who share an interest in sustainability (or simply wanted to help their members win free clotheslines!) were only too happy to help us spread the word. Kamloops Parents, Interior Wellness, the local Seniors Outreach Society and Kamloops Youth Soccer Association all shared our news in their own communications. This got our messaging into homes that we never would have had access to on our own, at zero cost to us.

Strategic thinking is essential, but it’s good to be open to serendipity as well. One of our more interesting partnerships came to us out of the blue. MD Creations, Ltd is the distributor of a new product, called a Krinner Ground Screw, and The Solar Laundry Project had caught the owner’s attention last year. He approached us with a sponsorship offer that was once again a win-win. By providing us with ground screws to go with each umbrella-style clothesline we were giving away, his product and business gained exposure in a new market, while we were able to make the installation of the clothesline far less onerous by eliminating the need to dig a hole and pour cement. Talk about a mutually beneficial arrangement!

To sum up, our low-budget project has received a disproportional amount of community exposure due to the strategic partnerships that were nourished both before and during the campaign. By targeting groups and organizations that could offer us something we needed, and framing the request within the context of what the partnership could offer them, we were very successful at extending the reach of our project this year.