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A supportive arm at a difficult time

Open Arms of Minnesota Logo

Exactly three years ago yesterday (thank you, Facebook memories), I stopped for the first time by the beautiful headquarters of Open Arms of Minnesota for food. I walked in, gave a slip of paper with my name to the receptionist, and walked out again. I now had a grocery bag for myself, another for my husband Rob, and a third for our two daughters.  Each bag contained five fully cooked frozen meals, frozen soups with fresh accompanying baguettes, sandwiches, a green salad, breakfast offerings, string cheese, crackers, marinated vegetable salads, some lemon poppyseed crisps, and hand-baked treats.  A half gallon of milk accompanied each bag.

We had recently received the stunning news that my husband Rob had lymphoma. And so, like many others, we entered the bewildering labyrinth of Dealing With Cancer (a journey now into its fourth year).  Rob felt sick.  I felt afraid and overwhelmed, filled with questions and faced with a daunting list of things to do before Rob could enter chemo. But fortunately, we heard about Open Arms of Minnesota early in our journey.  The knowledge that Open Arms of Minnesota stood by ready to cook for us truly felt like an utter blessing in the midst of bleakness. With everything else we had to deal with, at least we wouldn’t have to worry about going to the grocery to purchase food, cooking it, or cleaning up afterward.

And the food was delicious! An army of volunteers prepared individual meals every week, often using fresh organic produce from Open Arms of Minnesota’s own Open Farms program.  I marveled at the variety offered.  The cooks carefully tailored the menu for Rob’s condition. They didn’t just help him feel better physically; they let him know that he was supported by a community happy to care for him. And I (as his caregiver) and our children could participate in the program, too.

Food means comfort.  Open Arms of Minnesota knows that and shows it throughout their program.

Zero hunger

Open Arms addresses hunger–and does so much more

I approached Open Arms of Minnesota for this post with the intention of examining how their work addressed  the second UN Sustainable Development Goals,* “No Hunger.” Open Arms’ Communications Manager Jeanne Foels was happy to discuss Open Arms of Minnesota’s marketing.  She took care to point out, however, that “we don’t actually see ourselves as a hunger agency. While we do serve to alleviate hunger for some of our clients, our focus is much more on nutrition. We aim to provide medically-tailored meals that strengthen clients as they face specific illnesses.  Our staff includes a full-time dietitian working with our chefs to plan meals that fit within specific nutrition profiles of the illnesses we serve.

Volunteer delivers food to a client

Used with permission

“Overall, we aim to put relationships at the heart of everything we do at Open Arms. Our goal is to not just feed people, but nourish them during the most challenging time of their life. Our home-delivered meals are a message that someone cares.  We put tremendous effort into making sure those meals are delicious, comforting and appropriate for their medical, cultural and dietary needs.

Delivering food for Thanksgiving dinners

Used with permission

“In addition, we aim to nourish our volunteers. We have a robust community of 5,500+ volunteers each year, and providing them with a great experience is very important. We want them to leave Open Arms feeling connected to their community, nourished by the relationships they form here, and proud that they are making a difference.

“As the Communications Manager, I hope to capture these efforts and values in everything we put out. Open Arms has a positive, open, warm brand that focuses on hope and abundance.”

Overall, this goes back to the roots of Open Arms of Minnesota’s history.  Founder Bill Rowe began the organization thirty years ago, cooking food in his apartment and delivering it to men with AIDS too sick to cook and shop for themselves. The stigma of AIDS meant that many of these men had no help at all. Open Arms of Minnesota kept many of them from hunger.  After twenty years of feeding people with HIV/AIDS, Open Arms of Minnesota enlarged their mission and began serving families dealing with other diseases, such as MS and Lou Gehrig’s disease. And families like mine, facing cancer.

Recently, on their Twitter Account, Open Arms looked back at how far their marketing has come:

Open Arms of Minnesota’s marketing today

I noted the following about the organization’s website, social media, and a few publications:

  • I liked the warm brand colors, which are suggestive of growth and harvest. All the materials I saw nicely coordinated within that color scheme (such as the color overlay on the slideshow at the top of the home page). I liked the logo, too: the ‘O’ combined with the ‘A’ in harvest colors, with the leaf again suggesting growth. It looked like a stylized apple, bringing to mind the old aphorism “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  The language throughout struck me as warm, welcoming, and easy to understand.
  • The three buttons at the top identify Open Arms’ key audiences: Donors, Volunteers, and Client Families (Get Meals). This is clearly reflected in the menu bar at the top, too. Visitors to the website, then, have at least two different ways to access this information.
  • I admired the interesting graphics work in the occasionally published magazine, Scoop, and the one annual report I reviewed (the most recent one). True, I haven’t reviewed many annual reports, but the publications sported more imaginative graphics than I expected.  On the website’s menu bar, Donate, Volunteer, and Get Meals may have been clearly defined, but another category, News & Events, seemed more amorphous.  The Recipe of the Week and Client and Volunteer Spotlights seemed stuck there randomly.
  • Unfortunately, the pull down (secondary) menus drove me nuts. The type was VERY small.  Every time I tried to move over to click a link, the secondary menu would disappear before I could get there. Judging from the frames layout, I suspected that the website hasn’t been redesigned in awhile. (Jeanne: The current version was built in 2009 and we are hoping to have a new website in the coming months.  We’re hoping to make it a priority in the coming year. Our website is our front door to clients, volunteers, and donors. We know it’s a very important piece of the marketing puzzle!  We did prioritize having a mobile-friendly version of the website. This helped us both to comply with Google’s mobile-friendly ranking preference and to improve access for our clients. Many of them only access the internet via mobile devices. We used a neat little WordPress plug-in to build a stripped-down version of the website that can be easily navigated on mobile.)


How do your client families find out about your services?

Client with food delivery from Open Arms of Minnesota

Used with permission

On the client side, we do much of our outreach through the medical community rather than digital channels. Our Client Services team works closely with doctors and case managers who regularly see patients with cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis or ALS.  We attend fairs and outreach events focused on the illnesses we serve, too.  We also collaborate with other organizations who work with the same illnesses (such as the Angel Foundation and the Hope Chest for Breast Cancer).

 What about volunteers and donors?

Volunteers prepare food in Open Arms of Minnesota's kitchen

Used with permission

Many of those find us through word-of-mouth, since we strive to provide a top-notch volunteer experience. Our volunteer orientations are full of people who have heard about us from friends and neighbors and coworkers who loved their time with us.

Using food expertise for event marketing

We introduce people to Open Arms through events like the Cook-a-Thon (a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that widens our reach to the networks of our supporters) and Moveable Feast (our largest fundraising event of the year, a unique twist on a normal gala that involves generous support from our friends in the restaurant industry).

We’ve also started hosting pop-up dinners several times a year to share the talent of our restaurant-trained chefs with our supporters. These dinners are fabulous multi-course feasts with wine. They give our kitchen team a chance to exercise their creativity, all while introducing new people to what we do.

Once people come into our ecosystem, we build on the relationship through our communications channels. These channels include our email newsletter the Weekly Dish, print publications and mailings, and social media. A lot of our efforts drive back to the in-person experience that is so central to Open Arms.  Once you walk in our door, you usually leave transformed, so we aim to get people in the door as often as possible.

What marketing tools do you use in your work?

We use MailChimp (which I love) for email campaigns, TweetDeck to schedule Twitter posts, and good old-fashioned spreadsheets for marketing calendars. Google Adwords has a nonprofit program, so we get free display ads.

Which marketing blogs do you find particularly useful?

Two of my favorite blogs are The Storytelling Nonprofit and SmartCause Digital – thanks to the latter, I just started testing a pop-up on our website today, and already have new subscribers to our email list because of it.

Upcoming initiatives

What are some upcoming marketing initiatives you’ll be proud to introduce?

One thing that I’m excited about is video – we are currently working with Twelve Plus, a terrific film production company, to create a retrospective film about Open Arms’ 30-year history that we’ll screen on Dec. 1. We’ve worked with them on two videos in the past: a general intro to what we do, and a video about how we came to have our beautiful building, both of which were designed for events we hosted.

Does their marketing achieve their goals?

Judging from my own experience Open Arms of Minnesota has met its marketing goals.  I pick up the meals at the building every week rather than have them delivered as many clients do.  I’m always happy to see Rod, who frequently volunteers at the front desk.  The people in the kitchen remember me from week to week.  Sometimes they ask how my husband’s doing, and I end up getting sympathetic hugs from the cooks.

On my own behalf, and on behalf of my family, I’d like to say a personal “Thank you” to Open Arms of Minnesota. They’ve kept us going, day by day.  Thanks for giving a birthday cake to Rob each year. Thanks for providing our Thanksgiving dinner the past three years: turkey, potatoes, pumpkin pie and all.  I can say without hesitation that you’re a terrific organization.

Your turn

Have you attended any of the Open Arms of Minnesota’s pop-up dinners or joined the volunteer crew? Tell us about it in the comments. Know someone with one of the serious illnesses mentioned above who needs some help with meals? Have them contact Open Arms of Minnesota.

*This is the second in a series of posts examining the marketing of organizations addressing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Here is the first video Jeanne mentioned above, which was developed as an introduction to Open Arms of Minnesota.