6 ways the Gates foundation ignited its employee ambassadorship program

How did the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation turn its staffers into advocates? Provide training. Offer content to share on social media. Segment the internal audience.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training . The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

In theory, inspiring an army of employee ambassadors shouldn’t be that hard.

After all, who’s more involved in an organization and dependent on its success than those on its payroll?

The trouble is, it is often hard to get your people to advocate for you. The secret lies in providing employees with the tools, training and information they require, says Rodney Jordan, director of employee and community engagement at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a Ragan Training video, “Employee communications: An underused, powerful source of business results,” Jordan answers the question, “How do you empower people to really represent your organization outside of its walls?”

Free download : 7 ways to personalize content for employees

The foundation gave $4.2 billion to nonprofits in 2015 to support education, fight poverty and battle diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, Jordan says. In total, it has given away $37 billion.

Ambassadorship has three advantages, he says. You can make the focus whatever you need it to be. It drives business results in a measurable way. And it offers a “selling proposition” for employee communications professionals.

Here are some points to consider when beefing up your brand ambassador program:

1. Most employees are eager to defend your organization.

Jordan, who formerly worked at Coca-Cola, says brand ambassadorship means equipping devoted employees—those who know and love the product—to tell its story. At Coke, he says, this meant talking about its safety, the quality of the ingredients, and its sugar content compared with orange juice and its caffeine content compared with coffee.

Armed with this information, they feel comfortable chatting at the kitchen table with a colleague who works for a health food store and challenges them on why they’re working for a soda maker.

“They can explain and say, ‘Let me educate you. Did you know…? Did you know…?'” Jordan says.

2. Even non-sales staff can sell.

Before landing at Coke and the Gates Foundation, Jordan worked at UPS. The company had a brand ambassadorship program focused on sales and volume. It recognized that those ubiquitous truck drivers in brown uniforms often had the best opportunity to make sales.

“If they knew more about the product and portfolio, they could help provide information and open up doors for the sales people,” Jordan says.

3. Identify and segment your ambassadors.

The Gates foundation has a growing staff of 1,300 in Seattle, London, Washington D.C., Beijing, and Africa. The foundation segments its ambassadors into four categories:

1. Story sharers. At the most basic level, this group will share content on social media if nudged to do so.

2. Conversation starters. One step up in their willingness to spread the message, this group says, “If you give me the information, you can send me to a conference. I will host tours in the visitor center,” Jordan says. They will talk to school groups and other audiences about the foundation.

3. Community builders. These people might take a more active role beyond your four walls, serving as volunteer coordinators or on a local organization’s board of directors.

4. Opinion makers. This is the top level of engagement. The foundation’s staff comprises many academicians and scholars whose voices could resonate in the broader community. The foundation encourages them to blog and pitches them as sources to reporters and producers.

4. Ambassadors need information.

Staffers must clearly understand where the foundation gives its money. Until recently, such information wasn’t unavailable in any central, easily accessible location. People were speaking at conferences, but, Jordan says, it wasn’t clear what were they saying or what sources of information were they were drawing on. Besides, any employee should be able to answer basic questions.

“Just by being an employee of the foundation, you’re going to be asked about what you do,” Jordan says. “You get into Uber, and they pick you up at the foundation, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, what’s it like to work there?'”

The foundation uses Ampersand, its SharePoint-designed internal channel, to provide information for ambassadors about the health and educational problems it seeks to address. There’s an “ambassador central” section that provides deeper information, with headlines such as, “Why do we care about Zika?”

5. Try a series of five-minute talks.

The foundation has arranged for its experts to give five-minute talks to employees. Mosquito experts have described the battle against diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus. Others spoke about water sanitation or the foundation’s attempts to eradicate polio.

Do you have interesting potential speakers whom you could highlight internally?

6. Provide training and incentives for social media sharing.

In some organizations, employees are reluctant to get promotional on their social media. At the Gates foundation, the problem is often that its highly academic staff doesn’t spend a lot of time tweeting and posting. Some didn’t even have social media accounts.

The foundation is training them on the basics of social media. They can earn a badge and can get the foundation to donate $100 to a local charity that aligns with its mandate.

Having provided the training, the foundation can now say, “We’ll have five pieces of content that we want everybody in the world to know, so we’re asking you to share on your social media channels.”

@ByWorking

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