[Executive Edge] What can a ‘basket of hope’ teach you?

Ezra Ferraz
The most illuminating of case studies most often falls outside the purview of traditional dollars-and-cents business speak

In the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda, 24-year-old Kei Obusan saw opportunity. She noticed that most of the relief efforts focused on the immediate physical needs of survivors, such as food, water, shelter, and health care. Of course, these matters were very pressing, but just as pressing was their mental welfare.

Her thinking went like this: There is much more to a person than meets the eye. Once you restore them to full health, they will need much more than supplies and rations to rebuild their lives. They will need some semblance of continuation of how their lives were pre-Yolanda, so that they can thrive and prosper post-Yolanda.

This being the Philippines and with Christmas then being about a month and a half away, Obusan narrowed her focus to Noche Buena. This was a tradition for most Filipino families during which they have a nice dinner together on Christmas. If she could provide a Noche Buena meal to some of the survivors, Obusan reasoned, they could bring with them a greater sense of hope and dignity into 2014.

“Sponsor a Noche Buena for Yolanda Victims” was thus born.

Vision for change

It’s important to note that Kei Obusan is not a businesswoman in the traditional sense of the term. Having graduated from University of the Philippine’s College of Mass Communication, Obusan was working as a social media analyst at the time she started the Sponsor campaign. In this role, Obusan pored over the social media analytics of companies both home and abroad, so as to help them strengthen their reach and engagement.

Nor is “Sponsor a Noche Buena for Yolanda Victims” a true social enterprise. Due to the urgency of the situation, Obusan elected to run Sponsor as more of a campaign than as an organization. This allowed her to focus purely on the task at hand – providing Noche Buena meals to families affected by Yolanda – rather than the more complex task of starting and sustaining a whole new organization.

You thus might wonder: If Obusan is not a businesswoman and Sponsor is not a business, why is it being written about in these pages? I would like to submit for your consideration the idea that the most illuminating of case studies most often falls outside the purview of traditional dollars-and-cents business speak.

If you think of Sponsor in these terms, the story of Obusan and Sponsor are telling, particularly for entrepreneurs and business people in the Philippines. For one, the campaign was ultimately successful. Obusan and her team personally delivered 1,550 of what they called “Baskets of Hope” to families in Leyte, Negros Occidental, and Iloilo, far surpassing their original goal of 1,000 such packages.

These were full of all the items necessary to organize a proper Noche Buena dinner, including spaghetti sauce, dried pasta, canned goods, and even a Christmas card. Upon giving them, Obusan noted that “the families were very happy and grateful – they did not seem like victims of a super typhoon.”

When they handed out baskets at Tigbao Diit Elementary School in Tacloban, for instance, teachers sang as they did so. From Bethany Hospital, a staff member told Obusan that the “‘Baskets of Hope’ were truly helpful because they had yet to receive their 13th month salary (which would have been used for Christmas preparation).”

In providing Filipino families with such cultural essentials, Sponsor is an inspiring testament to what a few people united under a common goal can accomplish even in the most trying and urgent of circumstances. Obusan and her team had the vision to recognize a need in the community and the wherewithal to see it though.

Connecting the Filipino diaspora through social media

On another level, it’s revealing to look at who these people just are. Common sense would have most readers guess that they were local Filipinos – those who were intimately familiar with the scale of the destruction and the comprehensive approach it would take to rebuild the lives of survivors.

Local Filipinos certainly played a part. What was most surprising for Obusan, however, was the outpouring of support she received from Filipinos (and in some cases even non-Filipinos) living abroad. For example, she said, “Members of the UP Sigma Alpha Nu Sorority in New York organized ‘Shots for Hope: A Night of Giving’ fundraising event at the Ugly Kitchen Bar.”

Such support was truly global, as Obusan summed up: “Kinetic Social NYC sponsored Facebook ads and gave a cash donation. National Oilwell Varco – IMO, a company in Dubai, donated a generous amount. In New Zealand, The Styx Nelson and Rutherford Hotel Nelson – A Heritage Hotel put up donation boxes for the cause.”

This is nothing short of amazing once you really take the time to think of it. If you’re living abroad, Yolanda – as heavily documented though as it was – is still just a news story. You see images and video of the affected areas, maybe read a few stories, and certainly feel sad for the victims and survivors – but ultimately, you have your own life to live.

It takes real skill to pull someone out of the vortex that is their daily life, and it takes even more skill to accomplish this from thousands of miles away. Obusan and her team were masterfully able to engage them through the sphere of the former’s own expertise: social media.

As I myself have mentioned many times in this column, the Philippines is so often celebrated as the unofficial world capital of social media. I hear people say things like: This website has X amount of Filipino users, or this website has achieved Y amount of market penetration into the Philippines.

Yet what is rarely discussed is the extent to which social media can potentially produce real social change in our country. The Filipino diaspora has sent us to all corners of the world in search of lucrative work, and it is social media which can connect us once again. Done properly, social media can bridge distances, galvanize patriotism, and encourage in overseas compatriots a Philippines-first orientation.

Obusan recognized this fact: The Filipinos who could really help the Sponsor campaign were overseas and thus primarily reachable through social media. She thus made it a point to campaign for her cause aggressively over Facebook. In doing so, Obusan did not want to make the mistake that she noticed so many companies made: conflating pure numbers (like “X” amount of Facebook likes or “Y” amount of Twitter followers) with success.

“I didn’t have a target number of followers on Facebook,” Obusan said. “I was more concerned with reaching out to possible donors and sponsors who would be interested in supporting the cause. For any business or social enterprise, the numbers don’t matter so long as you reach out to the right people.”

In her case, this meant people who could commit to volunteering for her campaign in some way, whether it be doing marketing, outreach, or organizing. To reach them, Obusan made it a point to act quickly. She knew interest in the Yolanda relief efforts would sadly wane as time went on, so she needed to get people invested into her cause while it was still fresh on their minds. To wit, she launched the Facebook page for Sponsor literally minutes after coming up with the idea and began a grassroots campaign to market it in the coming weeks.

Though the buzz surrounding the Facebook page, many people volunteered to help Obusan. She got a co-organizer in Sigma Alpha Nu Sorority from UP Diliman. She got sponsors in Unilever Philippines and the Philippine Survey and Research Center. She got a media partner in WhenInManila.com.

This saw Sponsor go through a whirlwind couple of weeks, during which Obusan was interviewed over the radio and on television; flew to Leyte with 1,200 “Baskets of Hope,” distributed them across the region to Yolanda survivors, and flew back to Manila physically exhausted but spiritually energized.

With such success, it’s easy to forget that Sponsor began as any social enterprise or business should. It all started with the simple act of recognizing an opportunity that most others would overlook. – Rappler.com

Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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