It was late-November 2020. The Los Angeles Mission, a nonprofit that provides for the homeless, was seeing a 200% spike in demand for the weekly food boxes they provide. The pandemic was causing numbers they’d rarely seen. Now, Thanksgiving was making it worse.
While brainstorming about what to do, the Mission approached their newly formed LA Mission Arts Council for their expertise. In response, the council used social media to post about the need for canned goods.
The next thing they knew, the post was being shared repeatedly and continued to garner thousands of ‘likes.’ Several local TV news stations even contacted the Mission to do a story.
For weeks, the LA Mission received boxes – and trucks – full of canned food. They received so many donations there weren’t enough bins in their warehouse to store them. The nonprofit bought more containers, and that food is continuing to help fill boxes today. Even celebrities like Ben Affleck, the nonprofit said, reached out to see how they could help.
This is just one example of how a group of volunteers is transforming fundraising efforts and improving awareness about The LA Mission and the homeless crisis in Los Angeles County. Called the LA Mission Arts Council, the group consists of 11 volunteers who work in various creative professions.
The journey here began in the summer of 2020. Eli Graham, a former producer at a marketing agency in Los Angeles, found himself yearning for more purpose. He watched and participated in the Black Lives Matter protests that began after the death of George Floyd. He saw how social media became a breeding ground for meaningful conversations, education, and change — he wanted to be part of it.
Graham, who had experienced addiction and mental health issues in his past, decided he would best serve the homeless population in LA County — the place where he grew up.
In August, he reached out to The LA Mission to see how he could be of service.
“I got an email back from the Mission telling me that there were limited volunteer opportunities right now because of the pandemic,” Graham said.
But Graham had another idea about how he could help: he could use his expertise in production and marketing to support the Mission in promoting itself and tap into a younger audience of possible donors. And then, he realized he could bring friends and fellow creative experts along for the ride.
Graham reached out to friends and former coworkers— people working as graphic designers, art directors, copywriters, etc. — and asked if they would be willing to volunteer their time to do pro bono digital marketing work for the LA Mission.
Immediately, people jumped on board.
Then, Graham went to Michelle Trinh, the Vice President of Marketing and Media Relations at the Mission, and proposed the idea.
“Eli shared what ignited his passion for wanting to serve others. Seeing all the social injustice issues happening that summer prompted him to want to serve this community of homeless men and women and children in Skid Row,” Trinh said.
“And so I told him, ‘Well, you know, I do work with a marketing agency. But how about helping me with social media?’ He came back to me and said, ‘Sure, and I have a group of friends who are also into the same industry that want to serve.’ So then he formed this group, and we started working together.”
According to Trinh, most of the Mission’s fundraising comes from individual donors through their direct mail and digital programs. For years, they’ve sent newsletters and written appeals; they fundraise, as she would say, through ‘traditional’ efforts.
But since the explosion of social media, the Mission couldn’t quite figure out how to utilize the space. Within just a few months, Graham and the LA Mission Arts Council tapped into the territory.
“I worked with social media agencies before, we’ve tried different people to help us with social media. But I haven’t seen the type of response that I have with the LAM arts council,” Trinh said. “Their posts resonate with people in terms of engagement and even giving.”
The 11 volunteers who are part of the council all have full-time or freelance jobs but have continued to put tremendous effort into improving the visibility of the Mission.
First, they created a series of slogans, copy, templates, and a style guide to adhere to as they began building the Mission’s brand on social media. Because of the pandemic, they would meet over Zoom, planning, and creating. And then they got to work.
They’ve created unique and exciting content that resonates with the Mission’s now 25,000-plus Instagram following. And they see success both financially in donations to the Mission and when it comes to exposure.
According to Trinh, the group has raised around $50,000 for the LA Mission in less than a year. The success can be measured in multiple ways, including posts that have gone viral to newly formed campaigns.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to disrupt the way that the fight against economic housing and food insecurity is currently taking place,” Graham explained. “We want to use disruptive tactics, disruptive marketing efforts, new media. We want to create interesting partnerships; we want to bring new energy to this fight.”
Graham and the LA Mission Arts Council recently launched a project and campaign called ‘Do It For LA.’ They partner with a celebrity or influencer, design a piece of clothing, and then sell it — with all proceeds going back to the Mission. The project also spreads awareness about a local business the celebrity chooses to amplify.
Their first partnership was with Dillon Frances, a DJ from LA. Then, they partnered with fashion model Tyra Banks on International Women’s Day, with 100% of sales going to the Mission’s Anne Douglas Center for Women, helping homeless women in LA get back on their feet.
The council also teamed up with actress Tia Mowry to create a shirt with the slogan, “Protect And Respect The Black Woman,” with all money made from sales going back to the nonprofit. With this partnership, they also spread awareness about the local Ethiopian restaurant Meals By Genet.
“Their first campaign was with Dillon Frances; they knocked it out the park,” Trinh said. “They sold over $15,000 in merchandise — this is the first time for the mission ever did something like this.”
“I mean, it’s just been phenomenal seeing this young group of volunteers who are taking volunteering to a whole other level.”
As the nonprofit continued to grow on social media, more and more people wanted to help, including Courtney Ann, an art director and stylist with her own connection to homelessness.
Ann says her father struggled with undiagnosed mental illness for most of his life. She describes a sad and angry man who managed to thrive as a lawyer and prosecutor, even eventually becoming an assistant district attorney in the Oklahoma town where she was raised. Sadly, his undiagnosed bipolar disorder became overwhelming. He ended up manic, then in psychosis, and eventually homeless, living on the streets and unwilling to accept help.
“He’s now off the street, but to have your father living on the street, to have a family member with mental illness. [Homelessness] is something I’ve always cared about,” Ann said.
“And I think more than anything conversations need to be had about homelessness, mental illness, everything in between. Because the minute we’re able to release that shame, that’s when we can make a positive impact. And we can make a difference and change lives.”
Homelessness has been on the rise in Los Angeles County for years. In June of 2020, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority released the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count results, showing 66,436 people in the county were experiencing homelessness— a 12.7% rise from the previous year. Experts believe that number is even higher now, as Covid-19 and the pandemic continued to impact people’s economic well-being.
A large percentage of the homeless population in LA County were working homeless. Another report from early 2020 found that 74% of people experiencing homelessness in California were recently employed.
The problem is pervasive, and nonprofits like the LA Mission work tirelessly to improve those statistics and get people housed and healthy. The newly formed Arts Council has also been using its social media to spread awareness about the issues.
In February, they shared a post about a new Tiny Home Village being built in North Hollywood for the homeless in collaboration with Hope Of The Valley nonprofit and the city, and received over 115,000 likes, and thousands of shares.
They are also starting up a podcast to speak to experts working in the realm.
For Trinh and the LA Mission, they hope their newly formed volunteer arts council inspires others to see different ways of giving. Graham and the LA Mission Arts Council hope to continue the Mission’s work while also expanding to help other nonprofits.
“This was a pandemic project that worked into something much bigger than the idea of doing part-time work for some charity,” Graham said. “It was conceived as that, but now there is a whole board – it’s become a lot different than what we originally set out to accomplish.”