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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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What’s in a name?

The mention of a name brings a mental picture. It can be good or it can be bad. It communicates identity. A name reflects reputation. A person with a “good name” is known and admired. He/she inspires trust and confidence. Others want to be associated with him/her. We are willing to advocate for such a person.

The same is true for your organization. When your agency’s name is mentioned in the local community, what do people think? What is the picture that is drawn in the collective public’s mind? How good is your name among the persons that you serve, or want to serve? Do people proudly share your name with others? Do people associated with your organization extend themselves to support you, give time and resources and do they gladly tell the organizational story?

A “good name” is a valuable asset—literally. In the for-profit world marketers call it brand equity and that is how it appears on a firm’s balance sheet.

In the nonprofit world, a name is often not seen as important and is sometimes even a liability. In some cases, the name is a relic of the past and describes associations that are no longer active. Other times, the name does not create meaning or confuses constituencies who do not understand its historical context. There are also times when people associate the name with unfortunate events that undermine positive feelings.

In rare cases, the name may need to be changed. For example, changing service models in senior care have prompted many continuing care retirement communities to dissociate from the perceptions attached to the term, “old people’s home.” One AAI client formerly known as “Mennonite Home for the Aged,” for example, became “Mennonite Village” in 2002 to more accurately reflect the range of services it had come to provide in the previous 55 years.

Another example of a successful name change is found in a church-related organization that provides pension and financial services for ministers. While this organization was known for excellence and integrity, its historical name (“Board of Church Extension”) did not generate excitement among the key constituency. It sounded outdated and institutional, and made it difficult to extend its mission to church groups beyond the founding movement. Recognizing the need, the organization established a new name (“Servant Solutions”), and then implemented a brand repositioning strategy. The result has been greater constituency emotional connection to its mission and an expansion of its opportunities beyond its founding church.

So, what image and feelings does your organization’s name conjure in the minds of your constituents? A name audit is a research project designed to determine whether your name is an asset or a liability.

Here is how you can conduct your own name audit:

1. Identify one or more constituencies that you want to study. A good place to start is with a group of persons that you currently serve, and those on a prospect list that you hope to serve in the future.

2. Get a contact list of persons in the group(s) you want to study. Number the list and then use a random number generator to select 10-20 persons from each group. If you want to study both your current and your hopeful clients, select ten per list.

3. Send each person a mail invitation to complete a short questionnaire. Explain the study in a simple cover letter and then provide an attractive form with a few questions. Keep the responses anonymous to add credibility. Provide a stamped return envelope for the questionnaire to be returned.

4. In the questionnaire, ask a few simple questions.

a. What words come to mind when you hear the name……?

b. On a scale from 1-10 (1 being less appealing and 10 more appealing), how appealing is the name ….. to you?

c. Does the name make it more or less attractive for people to want to be affiliated with …….?

d. Comments about the name and the impression it gives are welcome. Thanks for sharing.

5. Expect 3-10 responses. Look for patterns that may cause concern. Is there a difference in opinion between those persons in relationship with your organization and those not?

While not scientific, this study will give you a good enough snap shot of your brand equity to determine whether or not there is an issue. If there is evidence that your name is a liability, you may wish to engage professional counsel to conduct formal research.

When evaluating what your organization needs to be successful, a name may seem too obvious to even consider. But do not overlook the importance of keeping your name a “good name.”


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The Marsh Foundation case study

AAI’s work with The Marsh Foundation, a child and family services agency in Van Wert, OH, may be understood best as a three-step process. The original contract called for AAI to conduct an organizational audit with surveillance of internal processes and relationships, the internal communication system, institutional morale, external communication, public relations and marketing.

AAI Principal Becky Drumm became acquainted with Kim Mullins, an executive director at The Marsh Foundation, through her work with the nationally regarded Teaching-Family Association (TFA). This association has provided a widely used model for the care and treatment of emotionally disturbed adolescents.

Becky collaborated with Associate Dan Hess; the pair first conducted the audit through questionnaires, interviews, study of all publications and website, and first-hand observation.

Communication audits are one of Dan’s specialties. He says, “The audit provides a most useful management tool for the executive who depends not only on her own eyes and ears, but also on outside, objective perspectives.”

While AAI found extremely high regard for The Marsh Foundation and noted the effectiveness of its program, it made two major suggestions — to create a new staff position in public relations and marketing and to update the organization’s website and literature.

Step two began, then, when Marsh’s trustees and executives accepted both recommendations. Becky began to guide the agency in setting up an office in public relations and marketing. Because the Foundation was established by an estate fund in 1922, it does not engage in systematic fundraising. Further, because it was a local agency, communication with the public has been largely personal. However, the systems for child and family services today reach county and statewide, requiring a variety of means for keeping in contact.

Becky helped the agency as it prepared a job description for a public relations and marketing specialist, released the call for applications, reviewed about 50 applications, and interviewed applicants. Eventually The Marsh Foundation hired Dawn Berryman whose personality, training and previous experience in public communication commended her.

Meanwhile, step three was taken by Dan. His task was to help Marsh update its print and electronic materials. He called together the executives and key staff members and showed them the complete package of communication products that an agency such as Marsh could reasonably use in its external communication. The group determined which items from that larger package suited Marsh’s mission, strategies and budget.

Their response:

a. create a new logo

b. review the foundation’s slogan

c. update the stationery

d. update the business cards

e. create a 12-page viewbook

f. create a brochure template

g. create a reports template

h. update the portable exhibit

i. create notecards

j. update the website

k. write a manual of usage

Dan then gathered a team of independent contractors with proven success in their specialties. Justin Wiard, an Indiana photographer, spent a day on the Marsh campus taking individual, group, activities and campus shots, all of which became an immediate resource in the making of the new products. Alison Sties (Sties Design) was brought in for graphic design. Dawn selected Matthew Sawmiller (MS Design) for web design. Dan and Dawn collaborated in the writing.

Alison, upon asking many questions about the foundation’s mission, history, program, culture, strategies and sense of itself, created three tentative logo styles. After learning which of the three the Marsh executives and staff preferred, she made versions of that selected design which Marsh again studied. By the fourth exchange, the shape and colors were finalized. A similar process of creation / response led to the selection of a slogan: “Serving children and families since 1922.”

AAI created and Marsh responded until each final product pleased Marsh. All of the print projects were completed in about nine months. The finished website can be viewed at

Kim Mullins later wrote to Dan, “The Marsh Foundation has learned so much about the field of communications from you, Becky and Dawn. It was a neglected area at Marsh until we got involved with you and Becky. We are very pleased with outcome our work together. Thanks so much.”

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Mennonite Manor case study

Over the last few years a number of our clients have engaged in market research. Among them are schools working to improve their image and/or increase their enrollment; retirement centers considering a new approach to long-term care; and a church conference wanting to better support its pastors. In each case, these organizations were motivated by a genuine desire to provide their clients with service that was more accessible, more comprehensive and more relevant. All concluded that conducting market research would be an important step to this end.

In 2008 AAI had the opportunity to conduct substantial qualitative market research for Mennonite Manor, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in South Hutchinson, KS. (As opposed to quantitative research, which deals with random samples, percentages, figures and probabilities, qualitative research uses such tools as interviews, open-ended response analysis, focus groups and observation research; for more information, see “Two kinds of research.”)

After a difficult period in its history Mennonite Manor was looking to regain the positive reputation it had enjoyed for years in the greater Hutchinson community. The Manor was also considering an innovative approach to long-term care. Competition in the local service area is intense and a comprehensive marketing strategy was needed.

Mennonite Manor CEO Lowell Peachey explains it this way: “My experience is that most organizations promote their superior customer service as a distinguishing feature. Obviously not everyone can be superior – if all are superior all are average.”

AAI conducted 40 in-depth interviews to unearth the deep sentiments related to life transitions that lead older persons and their families to consider a continuing care living arrangement. Associate Michael Wiese prepared the interview instrument, designing it around five specific objectives:

1. To define a clear strategic vision, consistent with its mission and values, which would differentiate Mennonite Manor from other retirement communities in its service area.

2. To understand the living experience that makes a retirement community preferable and desirable.

3. To gain insights that would further align the Mennonite Manor experience with the organization’s strategic vision.

4. To determine the messages for creating a unique integrated marketing communication approach that would effectively brand Mennonite Manor.

5. To discover how constituency members view Mennonite Manor relative to other senior living centers in the area.

The three-person research group, which also included Principal Becky Drumm and Associate Dan Hess, met for a day of training. It became clear during this process that the nature of the interviews would require a high level of adaptability and together, the three revised the instrument accordingly.

Becky and Dan each conducted 20 interviews with a cross-section of participants representing five constituency groups. These conversations allowed the researchers to independently draw conclusions about what they heard. The nature of the interviews often evoked heart-felt conversations through which respondents discovered and expressed inner emotions related to their childhood homes, describing their current homes and anticipating their future homes. The conversations also allowed people to share their perceptions of the various senior living facilities available in the area, including Mennonite Manor.

Sessions were recorded, allowing Mike to replay the conversations and record notes for each interview. After completing an analysis of each interview, Becky and Dan also independently provided Mike with an analysis of overall findings, reflecting the interviews each conducted. Mike then read the summaries for each conversation and conducted a “compare and contrast” review of the two interviewers’ reports.

These findings have led to important insights that can effectively guide strategy for Mennonite Manor. “What we’re trying to do in this process,” says Peachey, “is determine the core differences between the Manor and competitor organizations and actually build our programs and services around these distinguishing hallmarks. We are also developing internal standards that can be measured in terms of behaviors and using these standards to create a unique experience that will attract both residents and staff to our community.”

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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.”