In Scottsdale, Testing Government Messages Yields Notes of Gratitude

By Kristin Taylor

The holiday season can be a lonely time of year for Rafaela Garcia. A former flight attendant, she lives on a fixed income in a retirement home in Scottsdale, Arizona, and her only son lives across the country. But she is overcome with emotion as she thinks back on her most recent Christmas and the care package she received through the City’s Adopt-a-Senior program. “You send in a letter, fill out what you would like. Magnifying glasses with light. Anything we need or want,” she explains. “It made me believe people care about seniors.”

Rafaela Garcia is overcome with emotion as she remembers the care package she received through Scottsdale’s Adopt-a-Senior program.

The program — which relies on donors to fulfill the requests of participating low-income, homebound seniors (as well as adults with disabilities), and social workers to make the deliveries — is one of many government initiatives serving aging residents in Scottsdale. This is important in this Southwest city, where one in five residents is 65 or older, the highest rate of any large city in the United States, according to the 2010 Census. When Adopt-a-Senior started in 1997, it served just eight people, but that number quickly rose to 56 within a year. In 2017, 328 people were on the list to be served, a 48% jump from the previous year. Up to that point, program staff had simply mailed letters to prior donors; those who wanted to participate again had to fill out and return a paper form. But now, the program would need to recruit significantly more donors to overcome the shortage on its hands.

When Scottsdale joined What Works Cities (WWC) in 2016, a challenge the City wanted to tackle was determining whether government messages to residents were achieving their intended result. To get to the bottom of this question, staff teamed up with WWC partner the Behavioral Insights Team to apply the techniques of behavioral science as they crafted and tweaked messaging, then tested its effects using randomized control trials. Those efforts helped the City determine which email language and layout boosted contributions to Scottsdale Cares, a program that encourages utility customers to donate $1 per month to help local nonprofits. The efforts also helped the City determine what language on a mailing insert would get more utility customers to opt in to paperless billing, a greener option that also leads to cost savings for the City.

(Left-right) The author with Scottsdale City Volunteer Program Manager Cindi Eberhardt and What Works Cities Director of Communications Sharman Stein

After Scottsdale’s technical assistance with WWC ended, the City decided to create a team of internal consultants who would apply behavioral insights to a wider range of challenges and train more staff across City Hall on how to use the techniques. “I don’t sit in a room where I’m not thinking about an A/B test now,” says team leader and City Volunteer Program Manager Cindi Eberhardt. She began reaching out to departments, asking where there might be a possibility for potential intervention by running a trial. When Rebecca Kurth, the Adopt-a-Senior program lead, said she needed help getting more volunteer donors, Eberhardt’s mind immediately went to how changes in messaging might make a difference.

As the team began working together on this problem, they wanted to test the effect not only of different messages on a wider pool of recipients, but also of creating an online application form. So they went through a series of steps and measured response rates during each: mailing donor letters; making the online form live without promoting it through marketing; and mailing donor letters with a link to the online form.

The team was also curious about the possibility of recruiting donors via email and randomly tested five different messages, among them messaging in official-sounding language and messaging that centered on telling stories of seniors like Garcia who had been helped. The insights gained will help inform the types of messaging the team uses not just for Adopt-a-Senior going forward, but also for additional programs where donations are needed.

The team is also helping other teams across the City apply behavioral science to their challenges, including the Solid Waste Department as they work to increase the recycling rate.

The combination of making the form available online, expanding outreach through the e-newsletter, and sending the messages that were proven most effective ultimately led to the Adopt-a-Senior program recruiting enough donors to meet the needs of all 328 people who signed up in 2017. And while Kurth and her colleagues will continue to determine the effectiveness of various messages to strengthen future recruitment efforts, there’s one message that’s already coming across loud and clear: the impact of the donors and their generosity.

“I would not have anyone to give me anything, if you had not been so kind,” writes one senior in a thank-you card.

Garcia sums it up another way: “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be old, but it’s all about what comes out of you. The most important thing in life is knowing how to give and how to take.”

Kristin Taylor is Senior Communications Manager for What Works Cities. She and Director of Communications Sharman Stein recently headed west to see what’s working in cities in California and Arizona. Read more about what they learned on the road here.

Continue reading: Scottsdale Assistant City Manager Brent Stockwell outlines the City’s work with the Behavioral Insights Team and what other cities can learn from those efforts, in Route Fifty.



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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.