World Food Program USA (WFP USA) is a nonprofit organization working to build support within the US for the United Nations World Food Programme, which provides humanitarian and development aid to over 80 countries. We recently partnered with WFP USA to create their Women Are Hungrier campaign around the global crisis of poverty and hunger specifically affecting women.
We interviewed Jessamyn Sarmiento, WFP USA’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, about her background, the successes WFP USA has seen, and what the nonprofit and for-profit sectors can learn from each other.
What follows is an edited and condensed version of our conversation with Jessamyn.
To start off, let’s talk about your background. You have an incredible amount of both in-house and agency experience — tell us what led you to your role at World Food Program USA.
I got my start in politics: I worked in the Clinton campaign starting in ’91, which led me to the White House. On the campaign, I had a chance to be a press secretary. It was one of those things you never expect yourself to end up doing, but then when you have an opportunity to do it, you realize that you’ve finally found “your thing.”
For the next decade, my focus was on the media. I did media relations in the White House; I worked at an international consulting firm. Eventually, I went to USAID, which is what sparked my love of international relations. I did communications at National Public Radio for a while, and then I worked at FleishmanHillard, where I eventually became a partner running the consumer marketing division. I started my own company in music entertainment, which pretty much gave me permanent pain in my chest for a few years. When Obama became president, I had another opportunity to go back into politics at the National Endowment for the Arts.
As a political appointee at an independent agency, I didn’t actually have to leave when Obama left office. I stayed on for another year, but I left because I wasn’t part of an administration that I believed in. Then this role at WFP USA came up, and it was a perfect opportunity to try and get back into international development. It was a nonprofit with a great culture and really good people. WFP USA is the perfect place to bring all of that previous experience to bear because it’s a very entrepreneurial, risk-taking environment. It’s an exciting place to be.
Was there one particular experience that you think best prepared you for what you’ve embarked upon at the World Food Program?
When people come to me for advice, I usually tell them that two things have prepared me for everything I’ve done. One is working on political campaigns: Especially as a very young person, you get to do things that you otherwise wouldn’t get to do at that age, so you get a lot of experiences filling in the dots. You have to make judgment calls — that’s a big learning experience.
The other is working at an agency. When I’m looking at resumes and I’m talking to people that have agency experience, I know that they are a certain type of person and know how to do things with a certain level of professionalism.
Those two experiences not only prepared me for my current role, but also helped hone my skills, define how I work, and acclimate me to the communications world that we live in.
We’d love to know a bit more about your day-to-day. How do you learn and stay up to date? What are you reading, and who are you bouncing ideas off of — internally or externally?
I’m on a lot of email lists that keep me up on the latest trends, but I also spend a lot of time with my team: the things that they’re seeing, what they’re learning, and what they’re valuing. I’m very much on the same page as them, which is good and bad — you do want some dissension, so I often play the devil’s advocate so we can work through the conversation and get to an even better result. I also like to talk to my senior colleagues and get their outside perspectives — they often see things differently than how we’re seeing them.
Is there one aspect of your role specifically that you think might surprise people?
Up until recently, a big chunk of my role has been focused internally to help transition our organization from the way we were about a year ago to what we are today. That includes reorganizing our departments and functions to get to the next level of where we need to be. Until we brought on our VP of Development, I probably spent the majority of my time with our Development team to understand what they do and how to better leverage those channels.
Another thing that might surprise people is that I host and am the Executive Producer of our podcast, Hacking Hunger. I like being able to get out from behind the desk, albeit virtually, and tell some interesting stories about what goes on in the field.
The competition for audience attention has increased both online and offline — from your perspective, how has that affected your approach to engaging your audiences and donors?
WFP USA doesn’t have a lot of name recognition in our industry. Compared to our peer organizations, we barely register. But with that lack of recognition comes a lot of opportunity for much audience growth over a short period of time — especially when you’re targeting your activities carefully.
This has affected our approach and our strategy in that it has allowed us to experiment a lot more and be more risk-taking in our approaches, because we don’t really have a lot to lose. This has given the team a lot more flexibility. I wouldn’t say we make a lot of mistakes, but we try new things that might not turn out as successfully as we expected — but you can take those learnings and apply them to things that do work.
What areas do you think that you’re seeing success in that may be tougher for your peers?
We’re starting to see success by changing our strategy around display ads, focusing more on what we are driving potential audiences to and getting some other kind of engagement from them rather than a donation. We’re seeing a lot of success from this strategy, and it has allowed us to diversify our funding so we can put it in places that are succeeding the most.
In talking to our peers, many of them continue to spend a significant portion of those dollars on display ads, but I’m not sure that they are actually getting a good return on that. Because we don’t have a lot on the line there, we were able to shift our budget without losing growth — we’ve actually continued to increase our growth instead.
“One thing that the nonprofit world has over the for-profit sector is that we’re selling a passion, the ability for someone to do good in the world and feel good about it.”
Speaking of looking to the future, how much of your strategy is rooted in what works right now — our industry’s best practices — versus figuring out what’s next?
On average, it’s probably about a 50/50 split, but on any given day it can tilt more in one direction or the other. It’s certainly necessary to maintain best practices across the board — but because we have a lot of room to grow, we can take chances.
For example, our return on our display ad spending has been about 3% or less over the past year, even though we were doing all the “right” things — using industry-standard strategies. A few months ago, we stopped our display program entirely, moving some of that investment to other channels. We recently started it back up again in a very different way: One aspect of the display program is to use it as a tool for engagement and later retargeting, not for donation.
With the Women are Hungrier campaign, our display ads take people to an issues hub page on our website as opposed to a donation page. We’ve had about 7,500 visits to that page from display ads. When we retargeted those web visitors on Facebook, we’ve seen a .01% return on that spending. We were able to make this pretty significant turn-around in a very short time by taking a risk, using what we know about our audience and how they interact with us.
What do you think brands can learn from the nonprofit world, and vice versa?
One thing that the nonprofit world has over the for-profit sector is that we’re selling a passion, the ability for someone to do good in the world and feel good about it. On the flipside, nonprofits could learn a lot from the corporate side in terms of taking a more “commercial” approach to decision making: making sure that you’re selling an idea that makes people feel good, but in a way that lets you be viable and compete in the marketplace with similar organizations.
WFP USA could potentially be a lot more successful in everything that we do if we had more money, be in more places more often, but sometimes more money can also put limits on what you can do. It can hinder your flexibility to go to where people are and talk to people where they want to be talked to.
Do you admire any specific companies outside of the nonprofit world? If so, why?
One of the companies that we work with is UPS. They are an amazing company — I’m sure nobody knows this, but they have staff in Rome with WFP who do all of the logistics work for our humanitarian network around the globe. They are getting planes and boats and trains into disaster areas, or other aid to people who need it. UPS saves lives every single day. I’ve never seen them talk about that publicly or use the fact that they’re doing this to get publicity. They do it because it’s the right thing to do, because they can, and because they care.
Maybe they should talk about it more. But I admire that because they’re doing it for the right reasons. They’re not doing it to make more money. They’re not doing it to get a pat on the back. They’re doing it to make a difference. I think that’s pretty cool.
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