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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.