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Defining a vision for the future

Todd Butler thinks a lot about the year 2040.

As president and CEO of what until last month was known as the Advertising Council of Rochester Inc., Butler helped lead the non-profit organization into a strategic planning process that tried to look deeper into the future. In doing so, the agency saw Rochester gaining a national reputation for its ability to tackle the community’s most pressing issues in a collaborative way.

“We came up with a vision that in 2040, the Rochester area would be seen as a community where big change happens through collaboration and that this organization would be seen as a leader in that effort,” says Butler, 45. “We will be a magnet for passionate people looking to do good, and our organization will be the place where people come when they’re trying to build momentum and build a movement.”  

With this new vision came a new name—Causewave Community Partners. The organization announced its name change in January, the culmination of a gradual shift taking place over the last 15 years. The agency had moved from providing individual support to agencies centered on specific issues to developing more comprehensive, strategic initiatives aimed at creating larger action and impact.

It is a major shift for an organization founded in 1950 by what Butler terms “Rochester ad men” and for decades focused largely on supporting the marketing and communications goals of local non-profit agencies.

Today the agency has an operating budget of close to $750,000 and a staff of eight, with volunteers that number in the hundreds.

Butler now leads the agency into a future focused both on strengthening non-profit organizations and on leading communitywide efforts on specific issues ranging from reducing distracted driving to cutting back on truancy and absences in the Rochester City School District.

Joining the Ad Council
When Butler joined the agency in 2005, it was the culmination of a nearly 20-year career moving toward that point.

He received an undergraduate degree from Ithaca College in television and radio communications, with a specialty in advertising and public relations. His first job was for the Harrisburg Patriot- News after college, working in sales.

“I found that I was really good at it and good at building relationships with clients, but after a while I wanted to get out of the daily sales environment,” he said. “I still think it was such a valuable time, and I’ve recommended sales to many people looking for advice on a first job. You can never go wrong in sales; it’s just such a transferrable first skill.”

He went to an environmental engineering company next, but Butler says he and his wife knew they wanted to move back to Rochester, where they both had grown up.  When his wife was pregnant with their first child, he found work at the Seneca Park Zoo Society as the public relations and marketing manager.

“It was great because I was on a small team. Here I am this 25-year-old kid sitting in on decisions about marketing and other important things,” he says. “It was also great to be able to tell the story of the zoo; it was a lot of fun.”

It was there that Butler first came into contact with the Advertising Council of Rochester, which had partnered with the zoo.

Butler worked at the zoo for four years and then spent some time working in the private sector at an advertising agency before being drawn back into the non-profit world, working at Genesee Country Village & Museum.

He spent more than four years there, helping create a new strategic plan that moved beyond the events the museum had leaned on to drive attendance. During this time he continued to work with the Advertising Council both as a volunteer and as an agency client. This volunteering continued on through Butler’s move to Harris Interactive Inc., until an opening came up at the Ad Council that seemed a perfect fit for his skill set.

Dawn Borgeest, the agency’s previous president and CEO, had left for the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and creating an opening that was intriguing to Butler.

“Though I had never held a top-level position, when I looked back at my career to that point, I had worked at an advertising agency, at a couple of non-profits, at a media agency, I had touched every part of what the agency did, so I threw my hat in the ring,” he says.

For Butler, re-entering the non-profit sector also would be a chance to strike a better work-life balance, something he still emphasizes. Butler, who lives in Greece, spends time outside of work kayaking and reading, as well as spending time with his wife and three children.

Board members say picking Butler was an easy decision.

“He had a huge passion for the Advertising Council and really understood where the organization had been, where it progressed to and what it really could be in the future,” says Karen Menachof, who served as the organization’s chairman when Butler was hired.

Butler joined the agency at a time of transition. The Advertising Council was moving beyond the more superficial relationships with clients and taking aim at building greater capacity in these organizations.

“We were good at connecting agencies and volunteers that needed help, but we didn’t feel like we were building much capacity,” he says. “It was like that saying, ‘If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach him to fish you’ll feed him for a lifetime.’ We weren’t doing much on the fishing education side.”

The agency shifted its focus from simply matching up talent to organizations to helping those organizations develop a strategic approach that can create the impact they wanted to achieve.

The work pre-dated Butler, but has marked the major focus of his tenure.

Making an impact
Building capacity is only half of the work Causewave Community Partners does, Butler says. The agency also works on nine separate initiatives to address pressing issues in the community, including distracted driving, attendance in city schools and lead paint awareness.

“Our approach for those has been to bring the relevant parties to the table and come up with a consensus-based approach to attack that challenge,” he says.

Originally this work was done through different partners, who would submit ideas for initiatives. The agency would select the most appropriate ones and then find an advertising agency to partner and come up with an approach.

The approach has since undergone an overhaul, with a greater focus on groups working together to identify problems and the way to address them.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail,” Butler says. “For a long time, the only tool we had was message development. While that’s an important tool and can be very powerful, if it’s done in isolation and not really looking at the program, it can become like the beautiful, ruby red lipstick on a pig.”

The approach needs to be based on a well-thought-out, consensus-based approach, Butler says. Advertising itself is not powerful enough to change communities, so the agency has worked to create what is known as collective impact, an approach gaining popularity in the non-profit sector.

This approach, which also is used in the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, includes all partners being at the table, a convening organization to bring them there, a shared measure of success and agreement among diverse stakeholders to commit to coordinate activities in pursuit of a single strategy.

“That is something that’s easy to articulate but hard to do, especially when you’ve got organizations that are heavily invested in the way they’ve bene doing something for a long time,” he says. “You have to tell them that maybe they can do what they’ve been doing but in a slightly different way, and that can be hard to hear.

“That’s where the relationship-building I found in my first job really comes to bear, because I’m not telling people they’re doing things the right way but need to get them to understand that we’re all working together, and all of us col-lectively are smarter than any one of us.”

This strategy was seen in an effort to reduce distracted driving. The campaign drew in medical professionals, insurance professionals and other community experts.

Butler and the agency led the way, conducting a street-side study that found nearly 5 percent of drivers were illegally using cellphones while driving.

“We found that most of the approaches to address this took a moralistic approach, saying it’s so unsafe and people need to reduce the temptation,” he says.

That was not always practical, Butler says. When the phone rings inside a car, many people try to sneak a quick look, he adds. With the average text message taking about four seconds to read, that means the car traveling hundreds of feet.

“That temptation to look at the phone when it goes off is so strong that we wanted to go a different way,” he says. “Most people in the car don’t initiate conversations when they’re behind the wheel, so we moved the campaign at the person outside the car, saying to them not to reach out to that other person when they’re behind the wheel.”

The end result was a campaign focusing on the person outside the car, imploring them not to reach out when they know someone is driving. It has helped to reduce distracted driving and serves as a model for other communities to attack the problem, Butler says.

Richard Constantino M.D., a doctor who had been working on addressing distracted driving before joining Butler on the campaign, says Butler’s leadership was important in getting to that point.

“I found how exceptional Todd is both in his organizational skills, planning skills but also in his interpersonal skills,” he says. “He’s just remarkable and played a great role in shaping a very effective program that has gone to television commercials and radio commercials.”

Aside from his skill in bringing different groups together to work on important issues, Butler also had an enthusiasm that makes the process fun for those involved, Constantino adds.

“Todd is incredibly optimistic and enthusiastic and just really fun to work with,” he says.

“He does this while being just so good at what he does. No matter what I’ve gone to him for he’s found a way to help me, and he’s a master of data accumula-tion and interpretation.”

Other initiatives have seen results as well, Butler notes. Since the implementation of a lead poisoning prevention program in 2006, there has been an 84 percent decrease in childhood lead poisoning in Monroe County.

Butler attributes this in significant part to the coalition that came together under the Advertising Council of Rochester.

We’re certainly not responsible for that entire drop, but we’ve played a major role,” he says. “Things like the message campaign are important but so is policy change, like legislation in the city of Rochester that says housing has to be inspected for lead. The fact that the county and the city and landlords and contractors have all come together to see that this is important and that they all need to work on it is the reason we’ve had such success.”

Becoming Causewave
As Butler and the agency looked forward to a future of generating collective impact and making progress on important communitywide issues, there was one stumbling block—the organization’s name.

As the Advertising Council of Rochester, the agency evoked ideas of ad campaigns and not necessarily all the work it was doing in the community and with non-profit agencies.

“We realized we had a brand problem, not just our name but what our name made people think we’re all about,” Butler says. “People knew that we did ad campaigns for causes, but didn’t know about the capacity building we do. We found that instead of having a name with 65 years of equity, we had a familiar name with words that were easy to understand but didn’t really convey all that we do.”

The organization came to the name Causewave Community Partners through a strategic planning process that looked far into the future, Butler says.

“We needed to look on a long time horizon to develop our vision,” he says. “If you’re just putting together a strategic plan that looks three or five years into the future, that’s not really developing a vision. In that time frame, your vision is pretty predictable. But if we set up something more like a 25-year timeline, then it frees you from the constraints of today.”

That process is how Butler came to the idea of 2040, with Rochester gaining a national reputation as a community that tackles these issues collectively and with Causewave Community Partners leading the way.

While Butler envisions Causewave Community Partners growing physically as the vision moves forward—including immediate plans to add another employee—he says the more important aspect is the development of the mission itself.

“The most impactful non-profit organizations are not the ones that focus on building their size but the ones that focus on building a movement around their mission,” he says. “If your mission is something that is important to the community, people will want to invest their time and talent in you.

“That’s really been core to the redevelopment of our vision. It’s not about this organization growing and having a staff and a bigger budget, but how can we have an impact and how can we be a movement unto ourselves.”

Todd Butler
Position: President and CEO, Causewave Community Partners (formerly the Advertising Council of Rochester Inc.)
Age: 45
Education: B.S. in television/radio communications, Ithaca College, 1991; master’s in strategic leadership, Roberts Wesleyan College, 2011
Family: Wife Andrea; daughters Sarah and Caroline; son Alex
Residence: Greece
Activities: Reading, hiking, kayaking, watching hockey
Quote: “We needed to look on a long time horizon to develop our vision. If you’re just putting together a strategic plan that looks three or five years into the future, that’s not really developing a vision. In that time frame, your vision is pretty predictable. But if we set up something more like a 25-year timeline, then it frees you from the constraints of today.”

2/19/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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