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Expert Help: Council of Churches pursues rebrand with help of United Way

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Council of Churches of the Ozarks Inc. has a branding problem.

With 10 separate programs that in 2022 fed 53,000 people through Crosslines food pantry, offered 10,000 bed-nights for unsheltered women through Safe to Sleep and donated 1.5 million diapers through Diaper Bank of the Ozarks, officials say many people in the community still aren’t quite sure what it is that CCO does.

“For many, many years, the name Council of Churches has not been reflective of what we truly are,” said CEO Jaimie Trussell.

Through its United for Greatness program, now in its second year, United Way of the Ozarks – an organization known for collecting and channeling donations to charitable organizations through workplace giving drives – has stepped up to connect the organization with branding experts who can help CCO tackle the thorny challenge.

As a result of the daylong marketing brainstorming session held in October and organized by United Way of the Ozarks, CCO is on track to introduce new branding next fall.

United Way of the Ozarks launched its United for Greatness program last year to pair nonprofit agencies with skilled volunteers for a day of consulting and capacity building.

In the program’s inaugural year, four nonprofits were brought together to work with teams of experts at no cost to the nonprofit, and this year 10 experts participated.

CCO was one of the nonprofit teams, working with Michael Hammer, Michael Stelzer and LeAnne Garoutte – a dream team, according to United Way President and CEO Greg Burris, of three of the top marketing professionals with ties to the area.

“We asked nonprofits, ‘What’s your gnarliest problem?’ – the thing you can’t get over,” Burris said.

Then, working with coaches from the Great Game of Business, who helped develop and implement the program, United Way broke the problem down and identified the skill sets needed to address it.

“Then we go out into the community, look at our partners, United Way donors, and ask who’s got these kind of skills who would be interested in doing this,” he said. “People raise their hand and come forward to join these teams.”

The challenge
CCO started in 1969 when 13 churches got together to collect and distribute food to Springfield’s hungry. Today, less than 5% of the council’s operating budget comes from church donations and it serves 54 counties in southwest Missouri and northern Arkansas addressing wide-ranging programs, all aimed at its mission “to improve the quality of life in our region through compassionate service and outreach to our most vulnerable neighbors by doing together what can best be done together in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Even so, Trussell still gets the occasional phone call from people wanting to lodge a complaint about something their pastor said at the pulpit with the mistaken idea that the Council of Churches is a governing body for local congregations.

“We don’t do that,” she said. “We don’t do anything like that.”

Churches are still involved in the mission, however, as Trussell said close to 200 church partners donate and/or volunteer with the nonprofit.

“We have so many lanes of service, but there’s a general lack of awareness about what we actually do,” Trussell said.

The experts
Hammer is president of Gig Harbor, Washington-based Atomic Brand Lab, which provides brand building and marketing expertise for food businesses. Garoutte’s background is as executive vice president and general manager of the Marlin Network LLC foodservice sales and marketing agency. And Stelzer, now retired, co-founded Marlin, which has since sold.

“The three of us each had our own perspectives on a process and were pretty similar in how we approached it,” Stelzer said of the United for Greatness initiative. “One of the first things you do is you define your strengths and weaknesses and start defining not what you are today or what you want to be perceived as today, but what you want to be perceived as down the road.”

The branding trio spent an eight-hour day with CCO officials, hammering out a plan and establishing an aggressive timeline.

“In the agency world, that would be a $30,000 project,” Stelzer said.

Stelzer said part of the process is determining what an organization’s main competitors are.

“Ironically, one of them is a church that has their own community support program,” Stelzer said. “They have a name for it and are doing a pretty good job of branding it.”

From a marketing perspective, that other charitable organization is stealing market share, Stelzer said.

“When you say compete, especially with another church, people think, no, that’s crossing a line,” he said. “It’s not really. If you want to grow your organization, you have to find out where the gaps are and go after it.”

Stelzer said Trussell is exactly the right leader to tackle the problem.

“She’s brave and smart and she gets it,” Stelzer said.

He added that Burris picked a good team to help CCO with its goals.

“Greg picked a really good, complementary team to get some things to the surface,” he said. “I’m anxious to see what the follow-through is.”

Speaking of follow-through, all three marketing professionals have stayed in touch with CCO after their brainstorming session in October, extending the day of planning into a long-term relationship. Trussell said she is going to need to tap into that expertise as her organization moves forward, as many people in the community are reluctant to embrace change.

“It’s a challenge,” she said. “We’re very faith-forward – very proud of our background, and we don’t want to back away from being a Christian organization. But our work is something anyone can get behind. It’s about linking arms with people to serve one another. Our thing is to just love and serve.”

In the near future – the timeline developed from the marketing brainstorm says an announcement will happen in October 2024 – Council of Churches of the Ozarks plans a name change and new logo as it aims for a single, recognizable identity for all of its programs, Trussell said. Donor surveys have shown resistance to change, but Trussell said someone is going to be ticked off no matter what the organization does – and board notes from 20 years ago already acknowledged a need to rebrand to better reflect the organization’s identity.

“We don’t proselytize – that’s not our gig. Our thing is just to love and serve,” she said.

She noted supporters include churches, businesses, schools and grant agencies.

“Like any other great cause in Springfield, we’re comprised of a lot of like-minded folks who want to get things done,” she said. “If that isn’t a picture of better together, I don’t know what is.”

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