1-On-1 With Claire Kerr Zlobin: From Grassroots To Mainstream

Membership November 25, 2014

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

The 1-On-1 Advisory Series is a special feature on the WildApricot blog in which we interview stand-out members of our Small Membership Advisory Community.

In the fourth of our advisory series 1-On-1 sessions, we interviewed Claire Kerr Zlobin, Founder and Executive Director of Life With a Baby, a peer support system which is a project of the not for profit Healthy Start, Healthy Future.  The organization provides ongoing practical and emotional peer based support for new and expecting parents of children up to the age of six.

This is Part 1 of a two-part blog series offering highlights of our one-hour interview with Claire. This post focuses on the origins and structure of this not for profit that Claire founded and helped to grow from a small grassroots peer support group to a multi-regional organization serving 8000 parents and caregivers and 12,000 children.

WildApricot: Claire, could you give us a brief description of what your organization does, who it supports and your role?

Claire Kerr Zlobin: I started the organization in 2007 after I had my daughter. I had moved from downtown Toronto to York Region and just found myself really isolated and not having the parental support that I used to have. So, I got together with a few other moms and began the program. We started out as just mom-to-mom support for parents of new babies. Now we've grown and we provide support groups for new parents who may be having challenges adjusting to parenting.

We also run seminars and conferences. This November, we’ll have our annual fall conference which is geared to professionals who work with parents to try to help them to understand some of the challenges that parents are facing today.

“As our babies were growing, the program grew with us.”

We’re interested in how the organization has grown from just a small support community to a more intricate organization with support groups, seminars and conferences. Why don't you tell us a little about the evolution of your organization?

Well, the program actually started out as a grassroots organization. As our babies were growing, the program grew with us. Initially we just wanted to connect people – stroller walks, play dates, just getting out of the house.  Even though our babies were getting older, I decided that I would stay home permanently, because in less than a year we had almost 200 members in the program. I had seen programs that started out with many members but then ended abruptly. I wanted to find a way to continue to support the organization. I didn’t want to say “okay I’m going back to work, so see you guys later”.

So we set up a not for profit in 2009. Initially, it was Life With a Baby and then we set up the not for profit Healthy Start, Healthy Future.  Also in 2008 we had set up a pilot with WildApricot, and it worked really well. We were happy with the membership management portion and the ability to have information about members that could be shared with just administrators. That was really important and something that was lacking when we were just using Meetup.

Structure as a registered charity

Can you tell us how the structure is now?  We know you’re a not for profit, but do you have paid staff? Are you run by a volunteer board? 

We’re a registered charity and we do have a volunteer board that meets monthly. The volunteer board is in place to ensure that the goals and objectives of the organization are followed. We also have a strategic plan and strategic guidelines. I work very, very closely with the volunteer board to manage the growth and follow the strategic plan we have for the organization.

Below the board, there would be me – I’m the Executive Director – and we also have some paid staff: a special events coordinator, a multi-lingual program manager and a marketing and business development coordinator. That’s basically our core staff.  Within the lower core staffing, we have community managers. Each community can have between 500 and 4,000 members. So the community manager is charged with ensuring that that program is consistent in the community and that quality social events, support groups, seminars and parenting education sessions are taking place.

Divide and conquer through community managers

You've grown from around 200 members to over 8000 in 3-4 years using a decentralized structure with community managers handling their regions. Could you elaborate more on that?

The way our program is developed, it’s easy to duplicate and do the same thing in another community.  We have program guidelines and we have developed a Life With a Baby community document that is shared when someone comes on board. We send it to them and they just really have to follow the procedures that are already laid out. The WildApricot system makes everything else really easy to use. Only the community managers and upwards have access to the site. So in terms of events, we just train them on how to post events online. The community manager is responsible for taking care of their chapter on the Life With a Baby website.

“Our members’ needs first”

You obviously did some initial work developing a program and a structure, but how do you decide which programs to develop? Does the board determine changes or new programs?

Basically, we go for our members’ needs first. We survey our members and gather information from a group portal that’s just for community managers and volunteers. So our members may say that they would prefer more events regarding education and fewer events that revolve around social activities. We always go through what our members want first and then we’ll add it to the list of potential things to do for the year.

The members tell the community managers what they want, and if enough members want a particular workshop or event, the community manager will take it to their manager and then it comes to me. I will then meet with the board (I meet with the board monthly) and we’ll discuss it. If there’s a cost involved, it needs to be voted on and then a budget has to be put in place. But before I take it to the board, I have to figure out whether or not it’s viable.  We’re a charity so we can’t ever make a loss. I take it to the board as a fully developed idea and present it and then they’ll vote whether it’s a go or not.

Insisting on consistency and quality is the key to growth

You have almost a franchise model with local community managers handling their own areas.  How do you ensure that the quality of the programs sync up with what you’re used to?

Generally only long standing volunteers become community managers.  A lot of the community managers are moms that decided that they didn’t want to go back to work or they’ve chosen to homeschool their children.  But in order to become a community manager, you really have to know how we work, and have a close connection with Life With a Baby, so you’re really careful and concerned with maintaining the integrity of the program.

We also have a three month waiting period. We don’t officially list [them] as the community manager until [they’ve] been doing it for about three months. This gives us the chance to see whether or not it’s a good fit and whether or not [they’re] able to follow the guidelines of the program.

After that, I touch base with the community managers every month. We also have a portal where we talk to each other every day. It’s almost like an internal office. Since we’re all over the country now and our events manager is in New Brunswick, this gives us a way to communicate.

Know your audience and reach out

How do you promote your organization in the community?  Obviously some people might find you online, but how else do you promote to new moms?

We work really closely with the public health units like York Region public health and Ontario Early Years Centres. There are centers where moms and their little ones can go to play and get some help. So we work with them to spread our message. We also work with hospitals and have our postcard and our information in the hospitals so that moms can find out about us that way.

But, most of our members join just based on word of mouth. Often another mom that they met or that they know, told them about us.

Closing advice for growing organizations: “having a plan in place”

What would your advice be to leaders of other small membership organizations that are seeing some growth?

In terms of growth, having a plan ahead of time is really important. One of the things we learned with having 200 volunteers is the amazing abundance of ideas that can come into the project.  Ideas are being tossed at you every day and it’s really just about putting a plan in place for that idea and making sure that it’s viable.  

Always having a plan in place so you know where you want to go and how you're going to get there is key. Don't just go after ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with your goals and objectives.  I’ve seen that before, where an organization will follow an idea that might seem cool or fun at the time and then use a lot of resources on something that doesn’t actually further the goals and objectives of the organization.

So I think having that plan is very important, whether it’s a formal strategic plan or just a plan that’s actually written out so other people in your organization can see it.  Even if you don't have a formal board but a steering committee of some sort, having a strategy helps keep everything in order.

Stay tuned for more from Claire Kerr Zlobin

Claire offered so much great advice for growing organizations that we’ve created a second blog post based on our interview. So stay tuned for the next installment, which deals specifically with tips on funding your nonprofit’s growth.

Listen to the interview

You can also listen to the entire interview with Claire here:

Image source: 
 Business-man-brainstorming - courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

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