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Sarah Harris

"It's an incredible program that makes a difference in our communities and reinforces our commitment to improve the quality of life in all the cities where we operate."
— Jeff Smulyan
Chairman of the Board, Emmis Communications

Sarah Harris

Giving a voice to community causes

Sarah Harris was hired by Emmis Communications in 2001 to sell advertising time on radio. But it turns out her biggest "sale" might have been convincing company leaders to take a new approach to community relations for Emmis and its clients.

Nine years later — and aided by master's degrees in IUPUI's dual-degree program in philanthropic studies (MA 2005) and nonprofit management (MPA 2005) — Harris has become a self-described "social entrepreneur," part founder, part shepherd and part mother hen to a community outreach program that has helped Emmis advertisers and nonprofit organizations across the country. And better still, her program has added a welcome jolt to the radio giant's bottom line in a time when media outlets are facing financial upheaval.

The results "have reaffirmed my conviction that companies don't have to choose between doing well (financially) and doing good," Harris says. "They can do both, and do them at the same time. It's our job to help them achieve that."

Three-pronged program

Harris's idea sounds simple: use the marketing expertise and "big megaphone" of radio to create campaigns that wed the resources of Emmis's advertisers to worthwhile nonprofits and community causes.

Those resources help tackle community problems and build goodwill for advertisers. And the resulting campaigns provide a financial means for Emmis to make the program sustainable.

But Harris wasn't always certain her concept would succeed.

"I thought several times I was going to lose my job the first 12 to 18 months," she recalls. "We didn't really have a model to follow."

Indeed, her idea was so new and different that she wondered if officials like Chairman of the Board Jeff Smulyan and other Emmis leaders would worry about diluting company resources.

Smulyan says she needn't have worried. Most people in the company "liked the idea" from the start. "I'm not sure any of us knew what it would look like, but we knew Sarah was the right person to lead it," he says.

Patrick Walsh, the company's chief operating and chief financial officer, says the Community Outreach effort has enjoyed remarkable success.

"By combining our media expertise and ability to craft effective messages that reach more than 90 percent of Americans each week via radio, Internet, mobile messaging and local events, we can improve branding and awareness of causes and social programs in a way most advocacy groups only dream about," Walsh says, crediting Harris for launching the innovative effort.

"Our revenue growth from Community Outreach has been explosive, but more important, the impact we have on the lives of our listeners has been profound." Harris admits that she was "overwhelmed with the opportunity" when she first launched the initiative. "But it's not rocket science or a cure for cancer. It's about doing our best to make our communities stronger and bringing people together to build something good, while also improving our company's financial performance."

Master's program vital

Harris recognized quickly that she needed a strong foundation to make her concept work. She found what she needed at IUPUI through IU's Center on Philanthropy and the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, aided by fellow students and guidance from such faculty as Les Lenkowsky and Greg Lindsey.

The dual-degree program "opened my eyes to a lot of facets of philanthropy and outreach that I hadn't imagined before," Harris says. "I can't tell you how many times I've used things I learned there. I would run into a problem during the day, network and learn the academics at night, and then apply that (idea) the next day."

Lenkowsky, the director of graduate programs at the Center on Philanthropy and a faculty member in both SPEA and the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, isn't surprised by Harris's success.

"Sarah is blessed with the gift of initiative," Lenkowsky says. "She doesn't sit back and wait to be told what to do. She's always ready to take on the next challenge."

He admires her creativity in turning a relatively old technology and medium (radio) into a tool "on the cutting edge of social responsibility." That's the reason she has been a national finalist (once) and regional finalist (twice) for the prestigious White House Fellows program, a launching pad for such notable Americans as Colin Powell.

Lindsey, formerly the associate dean of SPEA at IUPUI and now the associate dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, likewise was impressed with the youthful radio executive.

"Sarah clearly has a social conscience, but she also has an appreciation for both the private AND the nonprofit sectors, and that isn't always the case," Lindsey says. "She is proving they can work together in some interesting and effective ways." Harris's ties to the Center on Philanthropy, to the program and to IUPUI are ongoing.

"The network of students and professors and graduates helps keep me in touch with new ideas in the field, all things I need," she says.

Going nationwide

Early successes encouraged Emmis to put her "interesting and effective" program to the test. Harris was asked to replicate the program in such company markets as Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis and Chicago.

"It's an incredible program that makes a difference in our communities and reinforces our commitment to improve the quality of life in all the cities where we operate," says Smulyan, who expects the Emmis program — "like most good ideas" — to be replicated throughout our industry. "It's too good not to be."

He likes to tease Harris about her appearance — "sometimes, she looks like she's about 12 years old," he teases — but advises others "not to underestimate her drive and leadership."

"She's a very talented young person, and she knows what she wants to do," adds Smulyan, who considers Harris "one of my favorite people" and suggests that she "may run our company one day."

Heavy travel schedule

The growth process has required significant travel and time away from home for Harris. And taking the show on the road to very different places is complicated. But she has built teams in each Emmis outlet filled with people who share her "pioneer spirit" and love to turn a spark of creativity into a full-fledged success story for all three legs of the Community Outreach triangle.

"It's daunting to go to a large city and presume you know how to cause community change," she says. But "a model based on business principles works everywhere. Businesses want a return for their investment, community organizations need access to media, and media can play a role as a partner to both."

That business approach has been crucial, Harris believes. Though her model focuses on community projects, the effort has become a sustainable part of the Emmis business plan. A program that generated nearly $6 million last year, now projects to bring in $15 million annually within the next three years, giving Harris and her team (nine people total, throughout Emmis markets) opportunities to expand and make the resources go further.

"I knew that for our program to last, we had to have a level of profitability at some point," Harris says. "But I don't know that anyone — including me — expected it to be part of the revenue pie" for Emmis.

Successful campaigns that focused on such diverse topics as take-home books for IPS elementary and kindergarten students, smoking cessation, environmental awareness and neighborhood crime have exceeded expectations. "The pace of growth has been exciting," Harris says with a smile, noting that the collaborations are "a perfect storm of opportunity meeting community needs."

Job description is tough

Being a "social entrepreneur" has given Harris an interesting and unique career. But it can still be a challenge to describe what she does to others, even her family.

"My grandparents know I work for Emmis, and they still want to know when I'll be on the air doing my show," laughs the Walkerton, Ind., native, the daughter of a hospital accountant and an engineer technician.

Her upbeat personality manifested itself early; she was a cheerleader, "band geek and drum major" at John Glenn High School near South Bend. But so did her determination and grit; she was a distance runner on the Falcons' track team.

Besides her own background as an IUPUI graduate, Harris has other ties to the campus. Husband Earl, who works for IPS, earned a 1992 bachelor's degree in telecommunications and is now a graduate student in IU School of Informatics at IUPUI.

"We both have found so much at IUPUI that has helped us in our careers," Harris says. "The campus has so much to offer, no matter what path you want to follow."