Charity PR: Food Bank serves up empty plates to bolster donations

Every holiday season the Food Bank of Central New York faces the same problem as other nonprofits seeking donations: clutter. How could it make itself heard among the din of worthy charities?

Every holiday season the Food Bank of Central New York faces the same problem as other nonprofits seeking donations: clutter. How could it make itself heard among the din of worthy charities?

The Food Bank had been helped over the past few years by working with integrated marketing agency MRA to focus its brand identity. For 2002, MRA came up with a great outdoor, print, and direct-mail effort featuring empty plates and the slogan "Empty plates are every- where in the community. Won't you help us fill them?"

The ads were great. They'd surely help the charity reach its annual goal of $322,000 in donations, but both the client and the agency felt a little extra oomph was needed. It turned to PR.


Chuck Beeler, SVP of PR at MRA, says the PR campaign already had a great start from the ad creative: The empty plates were an emotional tug that got across the message better than statistics on how many people go hungry (though it is estimated that 30,000 do so in the central New York area). And the call to help fill those plates was a call to donate money to the Food Bank, which supplies millions of dollars worth of food every month to soup kitchens, food pantries, emergency shelters, child-care agencies, and community centers in an 11-county service area.

The team decided to create an event to garner media coverage.


MRA got Syracuse China, Sam's Club, and food-service provider SYSCO to donate ceramic and plastic plates. On more than 1,000 of them, it affixed stickers with the slogan, a plea to donate, and the Food Bank's phone number.

Two days before the event, MRA hand-delivered plates and a media alert to all four major TV stations in Syracuse, inviting them to come to Clinton Square, a downtown public square, at lunchtime on December 12. It contacted other reporters by mailing an alert and doing phone pitches. Community leaders also were invited.

The morning of December 12, which happened to be cold and snowy, MRA employees scattered more than 1,000 plates throughout Clinton Square and downtown Syracuse. People were soon picking them up and taking them home. "That's what we wanted," says Beeler. "Why not take home the message?"

At the Clinton Square event, Tom Slater, executive director of the Food Bank, explained what the plates were about and that it doesn't take huge donations to stem hunger. MRA worked with Slater on the talking points and media training. It also had prepared a media kit for the event.


The two major news-talk radio stations spoke throughout the day about how Syracuse was teeming with empty plates. The four major TV news stations covered the event on their afternoon and evening broadcasts. Total viewership was 464,880.

The Post-Standard, Syracuse's daily paper, whose offices are located next to where the event was held, ran a story with a photo of Slater surrounded by plates in Clinton Square.

"That picture was worth thousands of ad dollars and thousands in donations," says Slater. Slater says that the day after that article appeared was the charity's largest donation day, "so I know it had an immediate impact."

Most important, the Food Bank raised $573,746 - exceeding its fundraising goal by 78%.

"As PR people, it's sometimes hard to quantify what you do," says Beeler. "But previous to this they had not done experiential marketing as an attachment to an ad campaign. So you can directly attribute the PR."

Beeler notes that the PR fees were under $2,500. He adds, "That's pretty good ROI."


MRA and the Food Bank of Central New York are already thinking about the creative for this holiday season's fundraising campaign.

PR team: The Food Bank of Central New York (East Syracuse, NY) and MRA (Syracuse, NY)

Campaign: Empty Plates fundraising campaign

Time frame: December 2002 to January 2003

Budget: $2,400, with an additional $1,200 pro bono

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