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Open Arms of Minnesota dishes up food and support

Open Arms of Minnesota dishes up food and support

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.

CTI markets innovative farm equipment to fight poverty

CTI markets innovative farm equipment to fight poverty

Used with permission: CTI

Used with permission: CTI

Compatible Technology International (CTI)

An article in this weekend’s Star Tribune business section introduced me to Compatible Technology International (CTI). A quick look at the mission statement on CTI’s website convinced me that if I wanted to dive deeply into the marketing of an organization working on the UN’s first sustainable goal “No Poverty,* CTI would be an excellent choice for investigation. The first sentence of their mission statement reads:

‘We believe that a world without extreme poverty is entirely possible, and for us, it starts with providing tools for communities that are traditionally overlooked by mainstream engineering.

No povertyCTI’s Communications Director and Grants Manager Meghan Fleckenstein generously answered my questions about how CTI’s marketing facilitated CTI’s success.

What caught my eye about CTI’s marketing

To begin our conversation, I shared with her my impressions of what I admired about CTI’s marketing:

  • The home page has a clear attractive brand and brand colors and allows responsive viewing across various devices. (Meghan: We update the website several times a week and typically redesign it about every five years. Our next move will not necessarily be toward minimalism but will tend toward easier navigation and a cleaner design.)
  • Right at the top there’s a bright (brand-colored) call to action requesting donations, along with invitations to other social media platforms and to sign up for CTI’s newsletter.
  • The site’s menu layout seemed clear to me, offering plenty of opportunities to explore without confusion. The pages had an interesting mixture of pictures, graphics, and video. (Meghan: the pictures are helpful because the type of work we do isn’t familiar to many. The pictures help visitors to the site understand what we do quickly without bogging them down in technical details and help them connect on a human level with the people CTI serves, too.)
  • CTI puts their annual reports right on their website. That transparency is a good thing to see in a non-profit.
  • The mission statement was clearly written and concise.

In fact, just about the only thing I could find to have a quibble with was the lack of updates on the website calendar.


Who do you see as the audience for your website? Judging from the FAQs, it looked to me as though you were talking both to potential donors and to the farmers using your products.

Yes, we really do have two audiences we’re communicating with, and we have to keep them both in mind. Obviously, donors are an important part of what we do and that’s the key focus. But there are the collaborators, partners, and farmers who are online. Sometimes we’ll get requests for equipment directly from the farmers.

What about volunteers? The Star Tribune mentioned you work with retired business people and engineers; how do you reach out to them?

We put out ads on Volunteer Match, our website, and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.  A lot of businesses we work with, including big businesses, have internal volunteer databases. We don’t have as many opportunities for people to come in to do non-technical work and leave after a few hours.  Instead, we’re often looking for retired people with a lot of time who are willing to volunteer, who have a lot of expertise and experience that we don’t have the resources to pay.  St. Thomas (University) works with us, especially their engineering department. We also work with a lot of senior design classes where we’ll challenge them to solve a design problem in a new technology.

The challenges of marketing internationally

What we do at CTI

Used with permission

For the most part, the rural communities that we target won’t have internet access. They do have cell phones with text capability and text apps.  So we use old-fashioned techniques: getting out into the field, introducing farmers to the technology, and leaving behind flyers. So many organizations come in and make promises, but their technologies break down. We need to build trust in a brand that is seen as reliable and rugged.  We’re not going to go away if something fails to work the way it should.  Instead, we’ll make sure that someone’s there to help you.  Just because someone lives on a dollar a day doesn’t mean that they don’t recognize quality.

The marketing materials we leave behind are very well-designed.  When we were introducing our thresher in Senegal a few years ago, we developed posters instead of brochures.  People would often hang them up on their wall, so our marketing materials doubled as artwork that people might want.

Training materials have to be sort of IKEA-style, with not a lot of words but pictures so that it can be used in multiple languages. Many of the people we target aren’t able to read, so the technology manuals must be really easy to interpret.

Targeting your message for different platforms

To take one specific example, what would be different about your website versus your newsletter? I saw a reference to the newsletter containing ‘exclusive updates from the field.’  Is there anything else different about the newsletter and the way you present yourself, sort of a philosophy of handling it or presenting information because it’s a newsletter rather than a website?

Anything on the web, we have to imagine that people are going about busy with their day. It has to be easy to scan, easy to read quickly.  Click here if you want more information.  Usually, with the newsletter, emails will be sent out with links to click to read longer articles on our blog. Really, anything we put out should be easy to scan, apart from the annual report. People just don’t sit down and read long articles.  But with the newsletter, with the option to read updates from the field, we want to offer that option for people who are interested in reading more.  We’re going to be introducing an in-print newsletter, which is something we haven’t done. That’s going to be a little bit longer format with more in-depth information.

Written marketing strategy

Do you have a written marketing strategy, apart from the CTI Design Innovation Path?

Yes, we do. We have a communications plan. We also have separate pieces, like a social media guide with some standards because we work with interns and volunteers a lot.  Sort of tips for volunteers who help us, specifically with Facebook.  But yes, on top of that, we have a communications plan in which we put out specific goals and strategies for each year, and it’s really looped in with our development plan each year.

What might you add?

What would you like to do to add to your marketing if you had more time and resources?

  • If we had more money to invest, I think we’d definitely want more video. It is so important for people to hear the voices of the farmers that we’re trying to help, but it can be very expensive. We don’t have a lot of money to hire professional videographers, so we’re always trying to balance just getting video out but making sure it’s professional.
  • We’d like more communications resources in-country. We just had our staff here from Malawi and Senegal.  We spent a lot of time training them on communications: how to take good pictures on a smart phone camera, basic practices on video, and how to interview people.  Our in-country staff needs more tools because they’re talking with farmers every day. That knowledge will help.
  • We’re always looking for help with the technology, the product marketing.  Not a lot of people have focused on targeting small farmers, so we’re breaking new ground, and trying new things.

How are you doing it all?

You have so much going on, and I understand you’re doing the fundraising and development work, too. You’ve said you have relied on interns. I was wondering whether you were using any particular marketing tools.

Honestly, we’re all super passionate about what we do. It’s fun, so we try to keep it fun and then it doesn’t feel like it’s work. But we’re really conscious of setting goals and managing our time.  We all have our own organization tools. I still love writing out a to-do list so I know what’s coming up.  We use an Excel-style dashboard that’s for communications about fundraising, mapping out what opportunities we know are coming down the pipeline, like who’s going to be traveling. What are the big pieces we need to put out each month? We try to re-use content as much as possible to save us time, as we do with the newsletter and the blog. We get a lot of volunteers, and two communications interns are helping us this year. And we try to be very conscious about not overlapping work, so we’re very organized about what we’re working on.

For further reading:

Meghan referred me to a blog post she wrote about CTI’s marketing strategy in Senegal.  She also recommended the blog How Matters, which covers international development and marketing.

Your turn

What do you find particularly striking or inspirational about CTI’s marketing? Are there some ideas here which you might like to bring to your own organization?

[*This is the first in a series of posts examining the marketing of non-profits and organizations that are addressing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  See my initial post “Helping the Pale Blue Dot: Earth” for the beginning of the project.]

Finally, here is one of the videos on CTI’s home page, created for them by a talented intern.