Two non-profit agencies tap Penn State Harrisburg PR students for local campaigns

An estimated 55,000 undergraduate college students are living in the greater Harrisburg area.

Nonprofit agencies like the American Red Cross and Central Pennsylvania Food Bank see these students as a vast untapped resource - and the next generation of volunteers.

Both agencies had targeted college students for volunteer recruitment, but neither had an effective strategy for how to reach them.

Thanks to a class of public relations students at Penn State Harrisburg, now both agencies have a strategy.

The students in Instructor Amy Sauertieg’s Public Relations Campaigns course spent the past spring semester developing a campaign for how each agency can connect with college students in the region. One team worked with the Red Cross, the other team with the Food Bank.

The students made their final presentations to representatives of the two agencies at the end of the semester, just days before most of them graduated from Penn State Harrisburg with degrees in communications.

Not surprisingly, both presentations focused on the role of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Four Square in reaching college students, getting them involved as volunteers in fundraising and in other types of activities, and keeping them involved.

The stakes are high for both agencies. Volunteers are essential to their missions. Today’s adult volunteers – many of them aging Baby Boomers – won’t be around forever.

“We’ve had a hard time trying to engage this demographic of college students,” said Brad Peterson, Food Bank director of communications. “If you can engage them at this age, you can bring them back. These are your volunteers for the future.”

Peterson said the Food Bank would have spent at least $10,000 to pay a firm to develop the kind of public relations campaign the students developed for free. That’s money the Food Bank can spend on feeding undernourished people and families in Central Pennsylvania.

“Every dollar we save goes back into our mission,” he said.

This is the first time Penn State Harrisburg has offered the PR campaigns class.

Sauertieg said her goal was to provide the students with an educational experience as close as possible to working for a real-world client.

Andy Dessel, a student on the Food Bank team, said the team developed its own survey to administer to students. Combined with existing research, the survey findings showed that students today are more apt to get involved in volunteer projects as a group, instead of as individuals.

“The class groups had several deadlines throughout the semester for the research to be done, tactics to be done, etc.  Learning the process was the most important skill I took away from the class project,” said Dessel, an intern with the United Way of Franklin County this summer and the American Cancer Society last summer.

Sauertieg sought proposals from nonprofit agencies throughout the region through The Foundation for Enhancing Communities. More than 25 agencies applied to be part of the class project – a greater response than Sauertieg expected. She assembled a group of Penn State Harrisburg faculty to help drill down the choice to the Red Cross and the Food Bank.

“It was a really difficult decision,” Sauertieg said. “We received applications from organizations that really needed help, but had fewer resources to provide a learning experience for students, which is the ultimate goal.”

Kathy Troy Smyser, regional communications manager for the American Red Cross, said that coming up with a strategy to reach college students and young people was the focus of a recent conference of Red Cross professionals from throughout the eastern United States.

“What they came up with was what we were looking for,” Smyser said of the campaign the Penn State Harrisburg students developed. “I haven’t heard of anybody coming up with anything better.”

Smyser told the students she would present their proposal to the next regional Red Cross summit. She thinks the students’ campaign could be a national model for the Red Cross.

“They hit the nail on the head. They really did,” Smyser said of the students.