What Sesame Street Can Teach Us about New Nonprofit Initiatives

Your Profitable Nonprofit- Karen Eber Davis- September  2012

Imagine yourself as a preschool child having to say good-bye to someone who is nearly your whole world.

This summer, on a lovely July morning, I sat in the outdoor amphitheater at Chautauqua Institute listening to a lecture by Melvin Ming. Ming is the President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street. Listen here. In his lecture, he shared the background of Sesame’s Talk, Listen, Connect series. As I took notes, my Fundable Idea Meter went into overdrive.

What is a Fundable Idea Meter? It’s a meter in your brain that listens to new ideas and picks out ones that your nonprofit can use. It measures if the idea will support your mission, income, and community development. Your meter clicks when you hear an improved way to do donor follow-up, a way to streamline your operation, or in this case, a needed program that is very, very fundable.

Talk, Listen, Connect is a Sesame Workshop program series designed to help 700,000 young American children who have parents in the military. The inspiration for the effort was a newspaper article about military families losing their homes to foreclosure. Sesame Workshop wanted to reach out and support these families. The resulting initiative was a series of videos and related support materials to help children and their families cope with parent deployment, return, injury, and death.

The results are wonderful. Get out a tissue and watch. You can also study this initiative for inspiration and wisdom to help your nonprofit thrive.

Let’s examine the strategies behind Talk, Listen, Connect. What components make this project so successful?

1. Mission Driven. The series helps children who have a parent in the military to use the power of media to reach their potential, or in short, reach Sesame Workshop’s mission.

2. Need Based. An article on a military family experiencing foreclosure inspired digging and thinking about the needs of military families. Sesame Workshop learned that some 700,000 young children were being impacted by deployment.

3. Built on Your Expertise. The initiative builds on Sesame Street’s fundamental operating mindsets: be repetitive, be entertaining, be flexible, and be measurable. To create the series, Sesame Workshop uses its best skills: creating entertaining video programming using Muppets and people to teach children.

4. Big Numbers. Media platforms such as Sesame Workshops bring mission to many. By modeling helpful conversations and using humor, listeners of every age learn helpful words and actions to use with children whose families are going through similar transitions. The availability of the videos on the Internet and ancillary products also increase the numbers served.
The above four components, mission driven, need based, expertise based, and big numbers are all sound strategy—and universally work with many nonprofit initiatives. What components make this opportunity standout?

5. Feel-Good Emotional Content. The concept of serving young children of military families is a feel-good, nonpartisan concept, and supports a long list of related values, many of which would be attractive to investors. Big picture, the initiative allows partners (donors, funders, and partners) to support military families making difficult sacrifices. Designing your initiatives to intentionally create a huge number of feel-good, nonpartisan wins greatly increases your odds of its success and your fundability.

6. Support for Existing Investments. Each year the U.S. military invests over $1 trillion dollars. Since Talk, Listen, Connect offers value to this existing investment, funding is a solid possibility.  Talk, Listen, Connect was funded by Wal-Mart, American Greetings, foundations, and a number of military related offices and enterprises, like the USO. Nonprofit projects that make existing large investments more successful are fundable.

How Might You Use This Idea?

Based on these six components, here are six questions to ask as you explore new or expanded initiatives. Use them as you start to work with ideas to solve mission needs.


1. Does your new initiative support your mission? If it’s wobbly, how can you align it more closely?

2. Does the data prove that the initiative is worthwhile and needed? Sesame’s interest in this area came from a New York Times story about military families experiencing foreclosure. It did not stop there. Instead, it studied the issue and found substantial need.

3. How can your best skills and successes be used? At the initiative planning stage, everything is flexible. It is easy to add more of what you do best. What are your best skills? How can you incorporate them into your initiative?

4. How can you serve large numbers? Can you create video or audio recordings? Print materials? How about an interview with an expert that you can share? Sesame serves substantial numbers by creating tools that can be reused. Find ways to design your efforts to serve significant numbers before, during, or after an activity, or all three times.

5. How can you also create wins that matter for many, but especially your main focus? The Sesame initiatives create wins for children, families, teachers, the military, and all of us as we watch and learn. Create wins, but especially wins that matter. This is one of the two most important components of Sesame Workshop’s success. It also is the one that is most difficult to copy. It matters deeply that these children are supported. How can you create wins for your key groups? Get this one right and you’ve got a strong contender to attract income.

6. How can you support existing investments? How might you add value to investments already being made in your community? This is the opposite of duplicating; it’s hitching your vehicles to a loaded truck heading for the Interstate. Where is investment being made, or where will investments be made? How can the efforts of your nonprofit support it?

Today’s column installment helps you to appreciate Sesame Workshop’s success and to evaluate and strengthen new initiatives. Next month, in Your Profitable Nonprofit, we explore how a group earned money by inviting young people to gather around one of their interests. By reading it, you will learn new ways to quickly earn income.