Paul G. Allvin
Paul G. Allvin is Vice President of Brand Advancement for the Make-A-Wish Foundation® of America. His long history with the Foundation dates back to 1996, when he joined the national communications team as a temporary hire. His 90-day contract lasted five years and eventually took him to a chapter office in Seattle. In 2002 Allvin moved into state government, as chief speechwriter and ultimately communications director to Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. In 2004 he left the Governor’s Office to serve as Associate Vice President for Communications at his alma mater, The University of Arizona.
Q. It has been 9 years since you left the Make-A-Wish Foundation and moved to work for Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and then as associate vice president of communications at the University of Arizona. In what way are the challenges of your position different today from 9 years ago?
A. It’s all about the rise of social media. When I left Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office in October 2004, Facebook was six months old, and the first Tweet would not be issued for nearly two more years. Rapid communications meant blasting emails and updating websites. Crisis communications was still driven by news cycles. Today, breaking news can go global in hours to minutes, and players in the news cycle need to take to Twitter, Facebook and blogs to stay in the game. Media relations in the traditional sense is now a second-wave discipline in the communications business. One doesn’t break news there, or respond to breaking news there. One clarifies and provides vital perspective and background there. Now, world news breaks on our smart phones, and we can respond globally from our smart phones. It’s a very different world than it was 10 years ago.
Q. You have such a wide pool of stakeholders, including 25,000 volunteers with whom to communicate. How is the communication program structured?
A. We’re rapidly evolving our model from one generalist department to a team of specialty units. What was a single communications shop 18 months ago is now called Brand Advancement, comprised of four specialty units: Communications handles media relations, corporate communications, entertainment communications and public service advertising. They reach mass audiences through legacy media, and the Make-A-Wish family through corporate communications. Brand Marketing and Digital Strategy handles online community engagement, national and online branded seasonal promotion campaigns, and sponsored, donated and online advertising. They narrowly channel our message to crisply-targeted audiences. Creative Services department creates the style in which we tell our story — visually, in writing, graphic design, video and overall emotional context. And finally, we recently brought our Celebrity and National Sports Programs team aboard, in recognition of the powerful role that celebrity and sports franchise wish-granting plays in driving public exposure to our mission. These are often the most high-profile wishes we grant.
Q. Make-A-Wish has a cadre of celebrities that have become the foundation’s “influencers.” Are they tapped on a per opportunity basis or is there an actual celebrity program whereby there is planned participation?
A. We have a six-member team dedicated to managing relationships across the entertainment and sports space, and they are kept hopping, because each year we grant about 1,000 of those wishes nationwide. Their job is to manage relationships across the industry sectors — Hollywood, the recording industry, across national sports leagues, etc. — so that we can say “yes” to as many wish kids as possible. Beyond wish-granting, we work carefully with our celebrity friends to see how else they might be willing to help us. But unlike other charities, who can only use celebrities as spokespeople, we engage celebrities to actually deliver on our mission of wish-granting. Precious few charities can actually invite celebrities in to do the work their mission, like curing disease. On the contrary, we can’t accomplish our mission without direct celebrity engagement. So we work each day to strike the appropriate balance between asking them to help us in a more public way and reserving our asks for wish-granting requests. One things is for sure: We touch nearly 1,000 celebrities and national sports figures a year in a unique and profoundly personal way. No other charity has such reach or emotional connection to America’s celebrity and sports communities.
Q. Can you please elaborate on the grassroots program elements that are so intrinsic to the Foundation? Is there a social media component that expands the reach?
A. The heart and soul of the Make-A-Wish Foundation lies in community-based action. Most of our money is raised locally, and all of our wishes are granted by trained volunteers who live in our wish kids’ communities. As such, innovation at the Make-A-Wish Foundation tends to work its way from the ground up, and that’s a great thing. Many of our branded campaigns for support — Season of Wishes(r), Walk For Wishes(r), and Kids For Wish Kids(r) to name a few — were the products of chapter innovation. They caught on locally, spread to other chapters looking for the next great idea, and eventually went national. Today, that local energy is being channeled more consistently into online community engagement through social media. We are growing along with that community, and learning what does and doesn’t work for us just like every other charity is. Most of our chapters are promoting their events online, and many are getting very active and savvy at using social media venues to smartly cross-channel market their efforts. As a result, our online presence is growing rapidly. Facebook now competes with Google as the No. 1 source of traffic to Make-A-Wish websites, and that shift occurred just within the last year. Most recently, we learned that the Make-A-Wish brand ranks among the top 25 percent of all consumer brands for social media engagement. Those two facts are astounding to me. What remains to be seen is how helpful the buzz and chatter is in the long run. So far, it’s not helping us to grant more wishes, because people who talk us up on Facebook, and come to our website from Facebook, aren’t yet making financial contributions. With each wish costing thousand of dollars in cash to grant, we can’t ignore the financial pragmatics of wish-granting. Our mission costs money, and we have a responsibility to all those kids waiting whose wishes are pending, to find ways both to inspire people online and convert them to active supporters.
Q. Your position includes the overseeing of the gamut of communication disciplines, but in particular, can you discuss what are some of the new branding initiatives?
A. Great final question. It’s the most fun one of them all. We’re taking a fresh look at everything. We’re headed into a creation cycle for our next national public service advertising campaign, which traditionally has been deployed to TV, radio, print publications, and out-of-home venues like airports and bus shelters. We want our next iteration to (a) go beyond basic awareness messaging, and (b) be interactive. We’ve dabbled in Jagtags, and we’re now exploring QR codes. With our freshly-minted mobile-optimized website, we want our next campaign to be fully interactive, and we want it to land where people will not just see/hear/read it, but engage. That means taking a fresh look at airports, movie theaters and malls, where smart phones and 2D bar codes are enjoying a love fest right now. We’re also ramping up for a complete overhaul of our online presence. Our website is outdated and anemic. It needs to reflect the energy, inspiration, and just plain fun of our work. I want a best-in-class nonprofit web experience by 2012. We’re also making a run at penetrating the entertainment industry more deeply and competently. Given our prohibitive advantage in that space, I think we’ve got a lot of potential to be far more visible and savvy in that area. My bottom line to my team is this: In 30 years, the Make-A-Wish brand has grown from nothing to one of the 10 best-regarded nonprofit brands that exist. With all the wind we now have at our back, and with a little ambition and a lot of focused effort, there is no reason we can’t be America’s most beloved charity brand by 2020. That’s where we’re headed. Stay tuned.