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Activating the network

By Sherilyn Ortman, communications associate

My son attends a local Christian school, which this year added a multi-aged elementary classroom to its existing 5-12th grade program. Just a few years ago, my husband and I were “on the fence” about whether or not to send him when he came of age.

But our decision to enroll him as a first grader has been affirmed in countless ways, and any questions we had going into the year have been replaced with this question: “How can we get more parents to send their students here?!”

Obviously, we have friends. It stands to reason that at least some of them are at a similar stage of life and hold similar values as we do. It also stands to reason that in our other associations (business, recreation, etc.), we cross paths with persons who have no other point of connection to the school. Finally, it stands to reason that every last parent at the school belongs to a similar network.

The AAI team has, on occasion, surmised about the potential power available to the nonprofit that can effectively activate these networks. In other words, assume each stakeholder in an organization knows five people who fit the organization’s preferred client profile. These “top five” each know five more people, who each . . . you see where I’m going.

Within this “friendship marketing” model, satisfied parents like ourselves are among our school’s most effective recruiters. Here are a few ways that I have tried to use friendship marketing in the last year:

1. Engage socially

Early in the school year, my husband and I invited about 30 peers to a progressive supper. The group was a mix of people new to the community (including our son’s teacher), long-time friends, casual acquaintances and complete strangers. We structured the evening carefully to maximize the number of people/households each participant mingled with. We provided conversation starters to each carpool to put guests at ease. We made sure that each prospective parent in the group had a chance to ride with the teacher at some point in the evening!

We also keep a running list of persons with whom we want to socialize, giving priority as appropriate to our “top five.”

2. Pay attention

I can recall several memorable conversations I’ve had in the last year. Memorable because, in each, a comment was made that I translated as, “Here is a relationship that needs nurturing!” Let me give some examples:

• At a scrapbooking retreat, a woman talking about the frustrations her family has had from a nearby school district unwilling to accommodate the needs of her 11-year-old daughter with Crohn’s disease.

• At a Christmas party, a man talking about the local business his wife has just purchased: “She always wanted to be a business owner. We didn’t know what direction it would take but we knew we wanted a Christian angle.”

• At a community theater rehearsal, an out-of-town choreographer: “[The multi-age classroom] is exactly the kind of program we’d be interested in if we lived any closer.”

• On the phone with a friend from church, discussing how she suspects public school staff members discriminated against her daughter: “My mom tells me she wouldn’t be treated like this at [my own son’s] school.”

Three of these people are in our top five; I have passed three of their names on to the school’s enrollment director; and the remaining name occupies the top spot on our social engagement checklist.

3. Promote without proselytizing

Recently I blogged about our son’s first year in his new school. I posted a link to the entry on Facebook, knowing full well that four of our top five are Facebook friends of mine. Moreover, they’re the sort of friends that would actually take time to read the blog. Rather than trying to best them in a face-to-face comparison of our children’s classroom experiences, or raising their defenses by saying derogatory things about our previous school, I let my entry speak for itself. And by posting it in a forum like Facebook, where people of all opinions have access to it, I avoid the appearance of challenging any one individual or mindset.

I would offer two additional ideas that I haven’t yet had a chance to use:

4. Strategically enlist expertise

My son’s classroom uses project-based learning, which presents a lot of opportunities for parent and community involvement. Remember the choreographer I mentioned earlier? What if I asked her to lead the class sometime in a movement-based activity? Another member of my top five is an outstanding visual artist. Inviting these people to share their expertise would also permit them to experience the classroom environment and the teacher, hopefully stimulating their interest.

5. Act as an intermediary

Our school recently hosted an open house for prospective elementary families. I desperately hoped my aforementioned church friend might attend, but felt I had already pushed her enough in our previous conversation. The enrollment director also felt awkward mailing an invitation to the family, since my friend had specifically said she was not yet ready to talk to anyone from the school. I suggested that in future years, the enrollment director provide each family in the classroom one or two invitations to personally give to someone in their top five. I would have felt differently approaching my friend if I could have said, “Each of us was given one of these to hand out. In light of our recent conversation, I thought of you.” Utilizing personal networks in this way allows an organization to maximize contact with prospective friends with whom it may have no other logical point of entry.

Hopefully, this article has sparked some ideas your nonprofit can use in your own setting. One thing is sure: be they satisfied clients, volunteers, donors, advocates or other friends, helping your stakeholders identify ways to activate their network is time well spent.


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Pennsylvania school re-shapes enrollment effort

Imagine yourself in this scenario: You are the new administrator of a small private Christian school. For a number of years now, your school has enjoyed steady enrollment growth. Families are attracted to its diverse student body; highly qualified teachers and caring staff; Biblically-based curriculum; and abundant co-curricular opportunities. Students come to you, prompted mostly by the word-of-mouth testimonies of loyal constituents. As enrollment continues to climb, your stakeholders see the need for increased student capacity. Leaders conduct a successful capital campaign for major improvement and expansion of your facilities.

But after completing the project, enrollment levels off. Then, it begins to slowly decline. In fact, just four years after building, your student body has room to grow by roughly 40%! Internally, your program is as robust as ever. Your patrons are committed and your constituents are generous. The future may still be bright, but may require your enrollment efforts to shift from “relatively minimal and passive” to “intentional and sophisticated.”

And with limited experience and no enrollment person currently on staff, perhaps your biggest question becomes, “How?”

For Keith Garner, this scenario requires no imagination. He has witnessed it unfold for Lititz Area Mennonite School (LAMS), where he is currently in his second year as head administrator.

Located in southeastern Pennsylvania, LAMS serves grades pre-K-8 and is one of eight such Mennonite schools in the greater Lancaster area. In addition to this high level of competition, several other external factors have, in recent years, influenced enrollment. Among them:

• an increasing number of potential patrons are considering home schooling.

• the nationwide recession has created financial hardship for many families, including their ability to pay for private education.

• Christian education is a waning priority for some parents.

Recognizing these realities, and anticipating that these circumstances may be unlikely to change anytime soon, the school decided to be proactive in addressing its challenges.

Primed to be proactive

A few things were working in LAMS’ favor. First, it already had an active enrollment committee, formed several years ago upon a staff vacancy. The group includes Garner and representatives from the board, staff and patron body. Second, Garner, who has worked at the school a total of 23 years, had noticed enrollment numbers dwindling and so entered his new position eager to try some new ideas.

In the summer of 2012, LAMS also contracted with Advancement Associates (AAI). Principal Rich Gerig first conducted an enrollment audit. Based on the audit, AAI recommended the school take the following steps, and offered suggestions for how to achieve each one:

1. Build the enrollment database.

2. Review retention patterns.

3. Identify distinctives of LAMS.

4. Identify ‘desirable outcomes’ of a LAMS education.

5. Strengthen visitation activities.

6. Identify and mobilize networks of current patrons.

7. Prepare formal enrollment and communication plans.

8. Consider hiring an enrollment director.

Tough questions, concrete steps

Gerig asked—and continues to ask—tough questions, Garner says. “He forced us to really look at what we were doing in the area of enrollment. And what has come to light is what we really were not doing.”

Systematically tracking queries was one thing LAMS began working on right away. They created a tool that each secretary uses to gather information from every prospective patron phone call or drop-in. This information goes immediately into a prospective student database, which will be used when organizing a February open house.

Other immediate steps have also been taken:

1. Garner has begun conducting informal exit interviews with each patron family who leaves LAMS, and plans to develop a more formal exit survey.

2. The school made enrollment growth a part of its strategic plan in its recent re-accreditation process.

3. The board has approved a part-time enrollment coordinator staff position, whom Garner hopes to have in place in early 2013. Gerig is helping to shape the job description for this position, based on his own list of 10 desirable qualities for an enrollment officer.

4. Finishing touches are being put on a written enrollment plan, a collaborative effort between Garner, Gerig and members of the enrollment committee. Having a written plan is helpful, Garner says, because it forces the team to put things in writing “for the world to see.”

LAMS continues to work on some of Gerig’s “tough” questions. “Every school needs a selling point,” Garner acknowledges. “We feel that we do many things very well, so one of the important things we continue to wrestle with is what ‘our thing’ is. What makes LAMS truly distinctive?”

Articulating desirable outcomes of a LAMS education has also proven challenging. “We know what they are,” says Garner, “but putting them into a format that can be communicated through the written and spoken word is important.”

An on-going process

This administrator knows that enrollment in small private schools such as LAMS is likely to be an ongoing concern, and is responding accordingly. While he still believes that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, he is also aware that for many schools, “that just isn’t doing it anymore,” and that such schools will need to be more proactive in order to maintain or grow enrollment. That is one reason Garner expects the enrollment coordinator position to become a permanent fixture among LAMS staff, and one whose time will likely increase as enrollment grows.

But Garner is also realistic that it will likely be some time until the school reaches its total capacity. Based on an intensive self-study completed last year as part of their re-accreditation process, LAMS has set an enrollment goal of at least 288 students (300 preferred) by 2016, approximately a 10% increase from the current student body.

When asked what stands to limit their success, Garner replies without anxiety. “Enrollment in a Christian school is truly a matter of the heart. No matter what we do, the Lord will bless and send the families He wants here. We need to do our part, and then allow the Lord to bless those steps that we take.”

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Wichita Friends School case study

A few years have passed since AAI Principal Rich Gerig last visited Wichita (KS) Friends School (WFS), having concluded a contract that included creating an enrollment plan, reviewing communications materials and more.

Originally interested in development, school officials soon became aware of the enrollment services that AAI offered. The fact that Gerig had extensive knowledge of Mennonites and some experience with Quakers (he was working with another Friends school at the time) made him a natural fit for the Kansas institution.

Gerig made his first visit during the 2005-06 school year. WFS Principal Shelli Kadel describes the situation in which the school found itself at the time: “Despite a very strong program and teachers that were doing a great job, we were seeing enrollment decline. Our school was located in a kind of rural area west of Wichita; even people across the street didn’t know we were here and certainly didn’t know what we did.”

Kadel’s primary concern was learning how to more effectively market WFS. “We were pretty experienced with Quaker education but found it easier to describe who we were not than who we were.” With no one on staff with marketing expertise WFS wanted to develop some useful, positive language it could use to better market.

Gerig set to work on an enrollment plan for the 2006-07 school year, one of the activities specified in the original proposal, and one that integrated the marketing emphasis Kadel was seeking.

Extremely limited resources—by fall of 2007 WFS had only 20 students—have prevented WFS from fully implementing some of AAI’s suggestions, but even today school officials continue to apply principles learned from Gerig. Below is a list of other elements from AAI’s proposal (in bold) along with updates on the progress WFS has made since then:

1. Gather ideas and perceptions among stakeholders.
Update: In March 2007 Gerig met with a group of representative parents of current students to discuss their respective experiences with WFS. Several themes emerged: strong affirmation for the quality of education WFS offered; positive impressions left by staff at campus visits; confusion about available financial aid; impressions of how the school accommodated both students who learn differently and gifted students; and the potential role parents could play in promoting the school. Each of these represented challenges or opportunities that informed WFS’ marketing strategy.

2. Train and mentor enrollment staff.
Update: As of January 2010, WFS has not hired an enrollment staff person and has no immediate plans to do so.

3. Form an enrollment steering committee.
Update: Despite trying various models Kadel has not been able to form an enrollment steering committee per se. Instead she meets regularly with a small group of stakeholders that serve as a think tank for marketing, using several principles learned from AAI.

4. Expand and update the enrollment database.
Update: The enrollment process can be described as a “funnel.” At the top of the funnel is a large pool of prospective students and at the bottom are the select students who actually enroll. Along the way, each student’s ultimate enrollment outcome is influenced by a number of factors including previous connections to existing staff or students, family circumstances and personal experiences of getting to know the school. Kadel says that WFS targets its marketing strategies toward each segment of that funnel. For instance, when new inquiries don’t come, they increase what she calls “blanket” marketing–newspaper ads, flyers posted in stores, etc. As more names enter the database, personal approaches become the focus—hosting teas or other social events where prospective families can interact with current students/parents, setting appointments for personal tours, etc. The school has also purchased a software program that helps staff enter information and track prospective parent contacts so that efforts can be targeted at successfully moving students down the enrollment funnel.

5. Identify prospective students with most interest.
Update: Kadel explains how WFS goes about this process: “As we receive inquiries, those names are placed in our database. We send appropriate information to them. About a week later, we place a follow-up call to see if they have received our info. At that time, we try to invite them to a tour or to visit our classrooms. Often they have more questions and the appropriate teacher will contact them. The more interest they show, the stronger our response. All of this is tracked in our database. Once they have toured/talked with a teacher, we schedule them for testing and enroll them.”

WFS has also become extremely intentional about gaining referrals. As incentive, it instituted a policy of awarding one a free morning or afternoon of Latchkey services to any family that refers a prospective student; if that family ends up enrolling, the referring party receives a $100 tuition discount at the end of the school year. WFS is making use of Facebook, asking parents to use the tool to invite friends to school events. And plans are to incorporate a referral piece into the school website.

6. Review communication materials, including website.
Update: The school website has become a “show-and-tell” tool for students’ relatives and friends, featuring pictures of events, newsletters and more. Several forms and enrollment information are available online and more improvements are planned.

7. Review financial aid program.
Update: According to Kadel the financial aid program has not changed much since 2006. What has changed is her approach to sharing this information with prospective parents. “We’re repackaging how we talk about our classrooms. For example, instead of saying ‘Preschool is $5,000 per year,’ we tell families ‘The cost to you is $125 per week,’ which is comparable to other area preschools. We emphasize that, because financial aid is available, our education is affordable.”

8. Review campus visitation programs.
Update: WFS has worked hard to enhance campus visits by offering “a warm personal touch.” Current students and parents typically give tours during school open houses. In addition, the school tries to host a tea or similar event where prospective parents hear positive experiences from current parents. Whenever possible, WFS utilizes personal endorsements of its program instead of, for example, sending out a flyer.

Here Kadel cites a specific activity that the school has found successful as a follow-up to an open house. On “Freaky Friday” children visit the next grade level classroom for about an hour, to see what they’ll have a chance to do and learn the following year. The hour always includes a hands-on activity so students have a product to take home. “The parents meet the teacher [at open house] and then one or two weeks later their child has a positive experience in that teacher’s classroom,” Kadel explains. “Once we get them in the door our chances are pretty high for getting them enrolled. We just want to get more in the door.”

9. Analyze retention patterns.
Update: “Rich helped me really focus on ways to retain,” says Kadel. WFS has typically seen the most growth at the Pre-K level and Kadel recognizes the importance of retaining those students to improve the outlook for the upper grades. “In our weekly newsletters we try to include something that each grade is achieving or doing. We try to do the same on our website. There are usually two or three audiences we’re trying to reach with each [marketing] piece.” The result? Retention has increased from 58% to 88% over the last three years, a development Financial Manager Sabrina Duckett credits AAI with, at least in part.

While WFS has made great strides in marketing itself, Kadel expresses appreciation for Gerig’s holistic approach to addressing its challenges. “Rich addressed the whole school in general. Besides getting the word out [about ourselves], there was an internal [personnel] issue that was also affecting enrollment. Addressing that helped turn our enrollment around. This year we started with 42 students and now have 45. Truly outstanding teachers are the ticket for our future success. The growth of the community has also caught up with us and people are becoming more aware of quality we offer.”

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An enrollment checklist

Is your school meeting its enrollment goals? Are you using strategies that can make the most difference? When AAI Principal Rich Gerig assesses an enrollment program, he looks for these 15 key indicators. How does your school measure up?

1. A quality, distinctive program – Are mission and vision consistent? Understood? Appealing? Being achieved? This is crucial.

2. Retention and recruitment – Enrollment includes keeping current students as well as recruiting new students. Are you attentive to both?

3. Enrollment goals – Who sets them? Are they realistic? Are they being reached?

4. Enrollment plan – Do you have a written enrollment plan that includes measurable goals, objectives and activities?

5. Understanding and applying marketing principles – The goal is finding, attracting and keeping families your school best serves. Can you identify your primary and secondary markets?

6. Prospect segmentation – Among your prospective students, which are the most likely to enroll? Are you giving them greatest attention?

7. Visitation program – Do you have enough visit events? Are they of high quality? Do they include parents as well as students? Are they offered at the right time of year?

8. Recruiting parents – Realizing that parents make most of the final enrollment decisions, how do you recruit parents?

9. Communication plan – Do your newsletters, website and news releases complement the enrollment program?

10. Pro-active retention – What is your retention rate and patterns overall and among grade levels? What kinds of students are most likely to struggle and leave your school?

11. Application process – Is it smooth, clear, timely, prompt, friendly?

12. Financial assistance – Do policies reflect your mission? Is application process simple and understandable? Are awards made promptly?

13. Data collection, reporting – What enrollment information do you collect? When do you prepare reports? Who receives them?

14. Involving others in enrollment – Staff, students, parents, alumni, pastors, donors, board members—are these groups involved in enrollment at your school?

15. Professional development – Are those with enrollment responsibilities given a chance to learn and grow in their work?

Use these indicators as a mirror for your enrollment program and a template for improvement. It will make a difference!