With the launch of its latest project, “The Spyurk Report,” the nonprofit organization ONEArmenia, 1A for short, makes its debut in the world of television—er, social media video series—er, whatever it is exactly the kids are watching these days.
The new show features stars Sergey Sargsyan and Narek Margaryan, two comedians who have become local celebrities in recent years for their poignant take on Armenia’s often-cartoonish politics through their popular YouTube-turned-television show ArmComedy (often referenced as the Armenian equivalent of “The Daily Show”).
“The Spyurk Report” will be featured monthly in English and will air exclusively on social media channels. Its purpose, according to 1A representatives, is to offer the spyurk (dispersion)—the term for the millions of ethnic Armenians situated across the globe who make up the country’s widespread diaspora—a monthly dose of local politics in a way that’s both accessible and humorous. The first episode launched last Friday on a new YouTube channel, and the nonprofit’s ad-savvy founder, Patrick Sarkissian, is its executive producer.
It was about five years ago that Sarkissian pitched the idea for 1A in his talk at TEDxYerevan. Its goal at the outset was to disrupt the traditional model of philanthropy in Armenia through six small-scale crowdfunding campaigns per year, promising transparency in a country where charity dollars tend to dissipate into thin air.
Today, 1A limits itself to only two campaigns per year, as opposed to six (“Deep versus wide,” explains Sarkissian), but the scale of its initiatives, which started in Oct. 2012 with a $20,000 campaign to build a kindergarten for the village of Moshatagh, continues to grow. Its most recent campaign, to build winetasting capsules all over the country where tourists can purchase wines from small growers, just finished raising over $60,000. To date, the nonprofit has raised over half a million dollars.
In addition to crowdfunding, the organization has allocated a great deal of time and energy in initiatives that have a much more unconventional impact—and this is the angle from which we can view “The Spyurk Report.” These projects are uniquely curated, out-of-the box, and internally funded through the organization’s annual board dues and a percentage of the operational fees generated from their campaigns. They range from simple gestures, like placing a chalkboard in one of Yerevan’s parks where residents can document their mood, to elaborately orchestrated affairs requiring film crews and international travel, like the collaboration between ONEArmenia, Tumo Center for Creative Technologies and Brett Novak that resulted in “Kyanq: A Short Skate Film.”
These initiatives, which sometimes seem far-removed from the organization’s goal of providing relief to the country’s poorest, are best understood through the paradigm of brand-building.
Sarkissian, a digital advertising expert who founded his own award-winning ad agency nearly 20 years ago, has worked on campaigns for brands like Ford, Mazda, and CNN. The willingness to take chances and invest in ventures like these (which require a great deal of resources that are precious for an organization with no more than a handful of employees on the ground in Armenia at any given time, and lack a strict expectation for the kind of return they’ll yield) characterizes the ad industry. (The most extreme example of this is Red Bull with its exorbitant adventure-related marketing campaigns, which led an article in Mashable to remark that the beverage company has become “a publishing empire that also happens to sell a beverage.”)
This businesslike approach to branding is new in the nonprofit world, where the insistence on quantifying “impact” and a dependence on strict outside funding usually limits creative exploration—particularly when it requires a financial investment. But nonprofits led by organizations like Charity Water and Pencils of Promise, whose New York City founders’ backgrounds in business and advertising, have paved the way in recent years. And with Sarkissian and 1A, it comes to Armenia.
As a former employee, I’ve thought quite a bit about this. I joined the team in its third year of operation, back when it was still carving a niche for itself in the infuriatingly bureaucratic world of NGOs in the former Soviet bloc. I’m well-versed in touting its virtues, but I’m also well-acquainted with the challenges of being a part of such a disruptive force in Armenia’s NGO sector.
My experience working there was unlike any other not-for-profit outfit I’ve since been involved with—in Armenia or elsewhere. It ran more like a business: the stressful and impulsive environment of a startup and the high turnover rate, all combined with the pressures of humanitarian work. I left at the end of 2015 to pursue my own projects, but before I did I participated in one of these brand building ventures: a local map we called “Inside Yerevan,” which the organization continues to update each year.
It didn’t provide drinking water to those in need or healthcare to remote communities. In fact, all it really did was help well-to-do tourists get around Armenia’s capital. But its strategic value was profound. No such guide existed in the city up to that point. It filled a very real need in the country’s tourism landscape, and while doing so it tapped into a Western, English-speaking audience primed to care about Armenia and with the financial resources to make a difference (i.e., fund our campaigns). In the case of “Inside Yerevan,” those who have visited the country and had a good time there will be more likely to stay involved after the fact.
This is important because brands like 1A operate on the principle that participation—in any form—is a virtue. A share on social media. A like. A view. Even telling a good story from your recent trip to Armenia to your American friends.
But more importantly, the beauty—and also the pain—of a nonprofit that is tied to a specific place as opposed to a more universal cause (like ending poverty worldwide), is that the line between the organization and the place itself becomes increasingly blurred. When Armenia thrives, you thrive. It can thrive in so many ways. And so the resulting possibilities are literally endless—which has its perks. Hence, the freedom to make a mood board, or a map, or a comedy show. But it also has the capacity to spread you pretty thin.
Tapping into the success of ArmComedy, “The Spurk Report” presents a unique opportunity to foster a more empathetic and aware diaspora. Its first episode gives a run down on some of the country’s most outlandish recent political events (like the fistfighting in Armenia’s parliament) against a Western cultural backdrop, with cheeky references to American corporatism (“You can’t say ‘Just Do It’—it’s a trademark thing, and you never know in the U.S…”) and current events (“Armenia—AKA, the only place where no woman filed a complaint against Harvey Weinstein…”).
The show is also a reminder that Armenians across the globe and those involved in the country’s development should try not to take things so seriously all the time. Yes, there are many obstacles ahead. But Diasporans, who are often removed from the day-to-day goings on of Armenia proper, have a tendency of filling the void with negativity.
Branding 101 will tell you that a brand built on crisis can only go so far. For too long, charities have operated on that premise alone, and the time seems ripe for Armenia, especially, to take a comedic intermission. And who better than 1A to pave the way?