This week in our #lovelocal interview we're talking with Suhanya Ketheeswaran, Community Engagement and Marketing Specialist at United Way Cambridge. What do these two things have in common? Read on to find out!

When I asked Kris Cummings, Director of Community & Voluntary Sector Investment and COO of United Way Cambridge, if he had someone on staff I could talk to about their brilliant marketing and communications, his response was, “Do I ever!” He put me in touch with Suhanya Ketheeswaran and included a brief introduction: “she’s fiercely proud of Cambridge, and quite brilliant.” After an hour of talking with Suhanya, I can confirm that both of these things are absolutely true… and I might add, generous and inspiring, too.

What’s in a Name?

With a youth engagement strategy, a program for Corporate Community Involvement, and a host of collaborations under four priority areas (among a million other things I’m certain I’m leaving out), the United Way Cambridge staff is busy with a capital B. However, this doesn’t prevent Suhanya from giving me her focused attention and a thoughtful response to every one of my questions. After sharing some ‘I love Cambridge’ stories between us, I asked Suhanya about her title at the agency, Community Engagement and Marketing Specialist. That’s an interesting fusion of roles! I said. She explained that the crossover is a natural one. “From poster and brochure design to crafting press releases and dealing with media, the goal is always rooted in engagement and in mobilizing the community.”  An important part of Suhanya’s role is ensuring a connected and cohesive message and experience across all departments, and within the community. So you’re The Branding Police? I asked. “More like the Branding Support Desk,” she laughed.

An Inside Job

I asked her why this was an important focus for non-profits, who are often short on time and capacity. “That dedicated person with a solid overarching understanding of the work can see where there are natural cross overs, and connections.” So how does she provide that support and encourage connection internally? One important key is regular meetings with internal teams to review any new materials or messages. Another is an “Internal Case for Support,” which is currently being developed for use by UW staff with input from a cross section of United Way’s key stakeholders, including donors, corporate partners, and senior volunteers. “We’ve progressively been getting better at collecting feedback, incorporating research and executing suggestions from stakeholders and partners in a more intentional way like this.” Suhanya said that beyond being very humbling and inspiring, it’s been a useful process to keep the staff on message and (literally and figuratively) on the same page. “It’s especially important for us since our role has evolved organically to respond to the needs in the community over the last 75 years. It takes a lot of work to help people understand that evolution. Our donors, and potential donors, are looking to understand better what impact their contribution is supporting. Seven years ago for example, our annual report detailed our financials only. Now, our message is more story and impact-focused. From our Capacity Building work to the work we’re doing with youth to create future leaders, we’re demonstrating what influence donor and sponsorship dollars have in the community.”

Room to Grow

Suhanya told me about her 12-year background in the non-profit sector, which began with roles focused on front-line service delivery. In her 4 years at United Way, her role has changed partly by choice and partly by chance to respond to the needs in the community. “Part of the evolution of my role has come as a result of what stakeholders were asking for, which was more hands on opportunities to experience the work.” Suhanya told me about some of the things that fall under the scope of the job, which includes organizing corporate volunteerism events called Days of Caring, as well as Seeing is Believing tours, which allow donors a first-hand look at the impact made possible through their support. “There’s nothing that can replicate walking in the doors of a partner agency. We consistently get feedback that as a result [of the tours], donors have a profound respect for the work being done in their community.”  She also told me about their issue stimulations, where UW staff bring problem solving games into a business to facilitate a deeper understanding about priority areas and local needs.

Autonomy in the Making

I asked Suhanya about the interplay between representing a national brand, and responding to the needs of the local community. She explained that though guided by a national strategic direction and priority areas, every United Way member is autonomous. “Having that guiding body is hugely important to help standardize our message, especially in creating a presence with national corporate partnerships. The results are more cohesive and professional.” Guided by focus areas that help to consolidate the scope of UW’s work, each agency is invited to take unique consideration in how that focus translates locally. “We have to ask, what does poverty look like here in Cambridge? How can we mobilize most effectively, to have the greatest impact?”

Re-imagined R & D

Suhanya talked about how “valuable and useful” belonging to a network of United Ways has been, especially for smaller agencies who can use it to expand their capacity. “Not long after I started in this role, it was explained to me that the R & D stage was a little different throughout United Way agencies: instead of ‘Research and Development,’ we call it the ‘Rip off and Duplicate’ stage. To get source files, taglines, and other branding components, and gain support to work within certain campaigns: it’s all widely encouraged. It’s a key strategy for helping to further the brand nationally which is good for all of us.”

Selling and Socializing

Photo 2 for Love Local StoryIn a rich conversation about the importance of marketing in the non-profit world, Suhanya told me they’ve seen great impact as a result of their communications and marketing initiatives. “Corporate Sponsors are looking to our website. They’re depending on those materials to make the case for funding,  to speak about our work, and help people understand it. It’s a chance for them to sell our work, and the opportunity to connect and make a difference.” Suhanya spoke specifically about the success of a recent video project which highlighted the lives of 3 people in our local community. “They were very cinematic and engaging, and gave people the chance to see themselves represented.” Suhanya said that Facebook and Twitter will be valuable [free!] tools that help to showcase the project, as well as provide continuous engagement opportunities.

Live to Learn

Though there is a LOT of wisdom I haven’t even included here, I asked Suhanya about what she thought was the most important and useful advice worth sharing with non-profits. Especially in an organization that by definition is stronger if it’s continually evolving, making learning available for herself in areas where she doesn’t have a background has been of paramount importance, Suhanya said. “If it isn’t available internally, seek out formal training from sources that understand the realities of working within a non-profit. Ones that understand that you are time and money strapped, and are able to give you hands-on and actionable resources.” Capacity Canada, as well as The Waterloo Wellington Learning Alliance, are among those that she recommended. “And building a community of people you can bounce ideas off of is critical,” she added.

What important last words: go and find your tribe!

There’s more, folks: much more to learn about United Way Cambridge! Connect with them directly by visiting them on their website. Consider ways your business can support them today!


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