Case Study: Connecting for Kids

Membership November 03, 2015

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

Organization Grows Over 300% in 3 years

Membership growth as stagnant as a pond?
This case study will show you how one organization achieved a near-impossible level of growth in only 3 short years.

Terry Ibele

Terry Ibele
WildApricot Staff


At WildApricot, our purpose is to help organizations grow. That’s why we’re learning HOW organizations grow and sharing that information with you.

If you’re a new organization, or an organization of a few hundred members experiencing slow growth, this case study is perfect for you!

Before you begin, grab a pen and paper. This is an interactive case study!

Why? By writing things down, you’ve taken the first step necessary to grow your organization – action! Each step in this case study has an exercise that will give you actionable insight into growing your own organization.
Download the worksheet for this case study.When completed, it will be your customized checklist to super-charge member growth for your organization.


When you see this icon, refer to your worksheet

pen and paper

Achieving the Impossible!

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Beginning Exercise

Write down how many members your organization currently has. Okay, now triple that number. Imagine you experienced over 300% growth in the last 3 years, wouldn’t that be amazing?

Do you think this growth is possible for your organization? It totally is! This is exactly what Connecting for Kids, an organization based out of Westlake, Ohio, has done. Founded in the fall of 2011, they ended their first year with 300 members. Since then, they’ve grown to over 1,000.

While conducting some analysis on our client database, I noticed one of our clients, Connecting for Kids, stood out far from the rest. If the data was correct, this organization grew over 300% in the last three years. Not only this, but their revenue was up over 700% and to top it all off, their event registration was showing over 6,000% growth! I could hardly believe what I was seeing.
  Connecting for Kids Growth 1
I immediately got in touch with Sarah Rintamaki, Founder and Executive Director of Connecting for Kids, to understand how they’d grown so much in so little time. 

In this case study, you’ll not only learn how Connecting for Kids achieved such phenomenal growth, but also how you can apply their strategies to your own organization.

Plus, at the end of this case study, Sarah shares her top 3 tips for any organization looking to grow as much as hers. 
  Don’t be tempted to scroll to the bottom now. You’ll learn much more by going through each of the steps!

Sarah’s Story

Rintamaki_SarahSarah Rintamaki is the Founder and Executive Director of Connecting for Kids. She started Connecting for Kids as a way to connect parents who found themselves in a similar situation as hers. 

“I had a business degree, an MBA, was an international business consultant, and then went to work for an insurance company in Cleveland. I met my husband, got married, had two boys and everything was going great, but then our oldest wasn’t hitting his milestones.” 

Sarah learned that her oldest son had a rare genetic disorder, and because of the specificity of his needs, she had a tough time getting the help she needed to take care of him. 

“When I tried to get support and education from the various communities, most of the groups were diagnosis specific, so a rare diagnosis didn’t really fit. But, most of the content they were sharing was applicable to my child.”

Sarah quickly realized that many other parents were in the same boat as her and she determined to create an organization that would help this group, thus Connecting for Kids was conceived in the fall of 2011. 

“We launched with the idea that we would not be diagnosis specific, that we would help any family with any concern about their child. 

Sarah’s original goal was to gain 50 members, but she exceeded this goal and brought in 300 members in her first year.

“We’ve had more than 4,000 participants in our first four years, it’s been a phenomenal success. It’s hard to believe we’ve touched so many people and grown so quickly.” 

Information About Connecting for Kids     

CFK_LogoConnecting for Kids is a nonprofit with a mission of providing education and support for families with questions or concerns about their child. They serve families on Cleveland's west side with children under the age of 13 by providing programs and support for families as well as through educational campaigns.

Connecting for Kids is more than just "a group for special needs families."They welcome any family with a concern about their child - whether the child has a formal diagnosis or has  been described as shy, anxious, impulsive or quick to anger.

All of their programming is provided at no cost to the families through fundraising, grants, and through generous donations from  their community.          

Here are the steps to how Sarah achieved such phenomenal growth

1. Pick a Purpose

What is your raison d’etre? What do you tell someone when they ask what your organization does? This is very important, because your purpose will govern all your activities. When people think of your organization, they should be able to tell you exactly what they do.

“You need to meet an unmet need,” says Sarah. “You need to be providing something in your service that isn’t in the marketplace today and that people value. I truly believe that it doesn’t matter how you market it, if your underlying business model is sound, it doesn’t really matter. The two things that we provide are parent education and parent support.”

If you’re a new organization just starting out, like Sarah was, or even if you’ve been around for a decade, your purpose should dictate everything your organization does. If you don’t have a clear purpose and a supporting structure, it will be difficult to grow. 

Finding your purpose is the first step to ensuring growth for your organization, but it’s far from the last. Next, you need to create a strategy for how your organization will fill its purpose and grow.

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Exercise 1

Write down the need you are filling, or the need you want to fill. Think this through very clearly. Is your need currently unmet AND is there a market for it? 

PS: here's the link to download the worksheet if you haven't yet.

2. Create a Business Plan

business plan
A business plan will outline how you will fulfill your purpose, the growth you want to achieve and your path to obtaining it. This is important because a business plan will keep all your activities on track! Once created, it will be easy to follow (and adjust) the steps in achieving your goal. 

A business plan also adds a layer of credibility to your organization. It will enable you to show potential sponsors your clear plan on how you will grow and why they should partner with you.

Sarah’s MBA background taught her that a business plan is key to becoming success. When originally drafting hers, she found the Foundation Center a massively helpful resource in creating her business plan and learning how best to apply for grants.

“The more you can present a business plan to a foundation, the more they’re going to respect what they’re doing. Pulling together a good business plan is really important.”

The Foundation Center is an excellent tool which gives you free access to: 
  • Tools on creating a business plan
  • Information on applying for grants
  • Non-profit seminars 
  • Holding events
  • Running a campaign
  • A database of foundations that you can contact for support
Creating a business plan is a key step in priming your organization for phenomenal growth. It will take a lot of work, but you can do it! The next step will show you how to gain tons of traction for your organization!
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Exercise 2

Write down, “Draft a business plan” and “” You can even go so far as to set a date to have your draft finished. Make it two weeks from now. 

3. Smart Marketing

smart marketing
This may be self-explanatory, but no one is going to know about how amazing your organization is if you don’t get the word out there! Radio, social media, brochures, emails – the ways to advertise your organization are near limitless, but which is the most effective? Regardless of what your organization does, you need to approach your marketing in a smart way.

Most nonprofits don’t invest in marketing. You need to look at it as a business and heavily invest in marketing at the beginning.”

Sarah executed a smart marketing strategy. She knew Connecting for Kids would fill an unmet need; she just needed members. Here’s what she did to spread the word and grow far beyond her expectations in year one.

Connecting for Kids’ target market is quite obvious – parents who have children with special needs. Sarah realized that the best way to reach these parents was not to advertise directly to them, but through their children.

“We met with each of the 10 schools that surround the library that we do most of our programming out of. The principals really saw the need for special needs education. We pitched it to them as a partnership that when a parent comes, we help educate them.”

After building these partnerships, Sarah printed 20,000 flyers and had the schools send them home in their kids’ backpacks. Parents, when sorting through their children’s homework and school messages would find her flyer.

What happened? 195 families became members by the end of her first year!

Let’s uncover the steps that Sarah went through:
  1. Sarah identified her target market as parents with children who had special needs.
  2. Sarah understood the best way to grab parents’ attention was through their children. 
  3. Sarah put in a lot of hard work in establishing initial connections with each of the schools in her region. She then scaled up the ability to reach her target in a fairly inexpensive way with flyers.
As Connecting for Kids grows and word of mouth spreads, new partnerships are made, and more families become members. Sarah also advertises in social media, PR, radio, television appearances and more, but her flyer strategy is still by far the most effective way she’s found in gaining new members. Why? Because it is smart. It directly reaches the people she wants to talk to.

Sarah’s flyer tactic may not apply to your organization, but her strategy does. Smart marketing gained Connecting for Kids its initial traction and still proves largely successful, but marketing can only go so far. It’s the next step that entices new members once they hear about you.

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Exercise 3

Fill in the blanks:
  • My Target Market is:________________
  • The best way to grab my Target Market’s attention is:______________
  • The best way to communicate my message to my Target Market is:___________
Sarah’s Smart Marketing Strategy looks like this:
  • My Target Market is: Parents with children who have special needs
  • The best way to grab my Target Market’s attention is: To reach them through their children 
  • The best way to communicate my message to my Target Market is: An informational flyer distributed en-masse
It’s okay if you don’t fill this all out right now, you may need some time and research to figure out the best way to market to your target. 

4. Entice 

People have heard about your organization through your smart marketing, but why should they join? Simple, because you offer value. You’re filling their unmet need by having something that they can’t get elsewhere (this relates back to picking a purpose). Now you need to entice them with that value.

Many companies entice people to buy products with free trials, discounted prices, or samples (like chocolate!). They do this because they know that once you taste a chocolate sample, you’ll like it so much that you’ll buy the whole bar. You can treat your organization in the same way--offer something for free as a taste of your organization’s value. You can offer a free first-time event registration, a free guide, or a free education session. 

Sarah took a unique approach to enticing members to join.

“What we did was an experiment which actually turned out to be very successful. We dropped the membership fee for families and made it free and sent out a donation campaign which said, ‘We are asking everyone to donate $25, but for $50 you can not only pay for yourself, but offer for someone else to pay for your services.’

“With all the ones that we waived, we actually made more money in the donation round. ‘Hey, it’s a free membership, please join us and we’ll ask those who can give to give.’ That worked really well for us and we’re raising $25,000 just from that campaign. Many people are giving $100, $200, $500.” 

Sarah’s strategy here was two-fold – entice members to join through free membership, and change the member dues model to a donation base. Besides raising more funding this way, Connecting for Kids experienced a 126% annual growth in membership over the previous year, whereas before this strategy, they only achieved 30% annual growth.

Sarah plans to further entice people to join by offering free content aside from becoming a member. 

“The way it works right now is that in order to access any of our content, you have to be a member.”

Members of Connecting for Kids gain access to: 
  • A directory of professionals
  • podcasts
  • monthly newsletter
  • a parent match program
  • an exclusive Facebook group
  • articles
  • educational and social skills programs
  • resource and how-to guides
  • parent mentor blogs
“Going forward, we want to make all of our content free to the public, but they will join for two reasons, our newsletter and event notices, and the ability to connect with someone locally. Our goal is information is open for all, but connect locally is where we require a membership.”

Sarah has realized the core reasons to what entices someone to join (access to news and events, and member connections) and so by offering all other content for free, it will help build more awareness for Connecting for Kids.

Sarah has created her own unique formula for enticing members to join by offering membership on a donation basis. What sort of strategy will you employ to entice new members? Once you’ve figured this out, you’re done, right? Not quite yet, there’s another strategy to gaining even more members.
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Exercise 4

List out the top 10 ways your members receive value, then discover which are the top reasons people join. Validate this by running a test like Sarah, or by surveying your members – call them up, email out a survey, or ask them at your next event.

Once you know the top 3 (maybe there are only 1 or 2) highlight them in your list. Consider reallocating your time to the more important activities, and offering the bottom ones for free.

Your list might look like this:
  • Facebook group 
  • Online education programs
  • Events
  • Newsletter
  • Members/Professional contact directory
  • Connections with other members
  • Social media updates
  • Training sessions
  • Informational blog posts
  • Useful tools and resources

5. Add a Personal Touch

add a personal touch
No matter how good technology gets, nothing will replace the personal touch of another human. Calling someone up on the phone or meeting them in person can really convince them to become a member.

“Personal contacts are invaluable. Nobody joins our organization without getting a personal phone call from me, and I don’t think that will ever change. Whether it’s business, or nonprofit, or whatever, everything truly is a personal relationship. Whether its a donor, or a family, or a professional, they need to have a conversation with somebody.”

One of Sarah’s main competencies is that she is able to personally connect with each new member either in person, or on the phone.

“When somebody signs up on our website for our event, either at that event or afterwards, I will follow up with each one of them personally and ask them if they want to join. We get very, very few people who don’t want to join, especially now that it’s free. Probably about 95% want to join after that.”

Imagine 95% of people interested in your organization actually became members. That’s huge! Think about how you can implement a personal connection to every inquiry. When speaking with someone personally, you can address any concerns they have and tailor your pitch to their specific needs. If someone is inquiring, they’ve already shown interest by taking the initial step in contacting you. Take the initiative to contact them back personally!

You now know Sarah’s best tactics for gaining new members. Next, you need to think about how you will continue to fund your organization.

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Exercise 5

Write this down: “I will personally connect with each new member”. Now write one way you will do this. 

6. Raise Funds

raise funds
Funding enables you to run your organization. This seems obvious, but which funding activities should you focus your time on?

For Sarah, she has a very clear split between where her funds are coming from, and so she knows exactly where to allocate her time and resources.

When Sarah first founded Connecting for Kids, she relied on start-up grants as her main source of funding. As she grew, sponsorships from foundations and corporations became only 25% of her funds. You might also think that member dues play a large part, and it’s true, another 25% comes from her membership donation program. However, you might be surprised to know that HALF of her funds come from fundraising.

Here’s quick snapshot on her funding:
  • Sponsorships from Foundations and Corporations - $25,000
  • Membership Donations - $25,000
  • Fundraising - $50,000
  • Gala Dinner - a dinner for professional partners and community supporters
  • Bar Night: beer, pizza, and games. “We had a million ways to get $20 out of your pocket”
While sponsorships and member dues can be a large part of your funding, don’t discount fundraising activities. Not only can fundraisers bring in additional funds, but they can also raise awareness about your organization. The best part is that you can be as creative as you like!

Funds enable you to scale up your programs and marketing and also expand your team, which is the next section.
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Exercise 6

Divide up where your funding comes from into groups like Sarah (sponsorships, member fees, fundraising, other (e.g. store, training, etc.). 

Which activities gain you the most amount of funds? Where is the most opportunity? For Sarah, another reason she is able to offer free membership is because half of her funds came from fundraising. This in turn gained her more members which appeared more attractive for sponsorships and grew her connections when she coordinated fundraising activities.

Now highlight which areas of funding you will focus on and which you will spend less time on. 

7. Get help

get help
You can try to do everything by yourself, but more can be done with a team. 

When your organization grows, you’ll find that you need to grow as well. Suddenly you’ll be bogged down with administrative tasks, unable to focus on the core value offerings of your organization – the very thing that made you grow in the first place. At this point, you’ve reached your growth limit. The only way to keep growing is by expanding your team and dividing up the tasks.

Sarah found that she couldn’t keep up with the demands of her organization as it grew, so she split her role into tasks and hired people to help her out.

“We have myself, and three part time people and two consultants. I’m the only full time staff and I have a treasurer who works part time and I have a newspaper editor and a program assistant. By taking time off my plate, I’m able to focus applying for grants, fundraising, all the things we need in order to grow, and even just taking time to think about how to grow.

“It used to be that I did everything, so now Laurie [the program director] can do the programs, so I can focus on fundraising events, so that we can grow further. As we get more dollars in, they get more hours.”

By hiring both part-time and on a volunteer basis, Sarah has expanded Connecting for Kids’ capabilities. She’s also established a board of consultants who advise her on how best to manage her organization and continue to grow.

At this point you’ve established an organization poised for phenomenal growth. There’s still one more thing you need to grow 300% and beyond...
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Exercise 7

Similar to the previous exercise, list out the top 10 activities that take up your work week. Below, write down the top 3 most important activities you need to work on to grow. If your lists don’t match, think about which activities take the most of your time and could be completed by someone else. How much time would you spare up if you eliminated administrative tasks from your workload?

Your list might look like this
  1. Planning events
  2. Responding to emails
  3. Personally connecting with members
  4. Administrative tasks
  5. Applying for grants
  6. Writing social media posts
  7. Meeting with sponsors
  8. Creating marketing materials
  9. Creating educational content
  10. Billing
  1. Strategizing growth
  2. Meeting with sponsors
  3. Establishing personal connections with everyone interested in my organization

8. Plan Ahead

plan ahead
It’s easy to get caught up in the present, but have you thought about where your organization will be 1 year from now? How about in 5 years? Here’s a challenge: say these words aloud, “I will double my membership in the next 5 years.” Seem audacious? This is exactly what Sarah’s goal is.

“We are forming a 5-year strategic plan at our board meeting and we are meeting at the end of the month. We have clearly demonstrated this is an unmet need in our community. It is my belief that this is an unmet need in almost any community.”

As soon as you’ve obtained the growth goal of your business plan, immediately set another. Consider making it twice as large as your previous goal. It has to be challenging enough that you take it seriously, but also not too challenging that you get discouraged and give up. 

And that’s it! You now know all the steps to create and sustain growth. As promised, scroll down to read about Sarah’s personal top 3 tips for creating an organization poised for phenomenal growth.

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Exercise 8

Write down, “PLAN AHEAD! Once I’ve met my current membership goal, make a new one :)” (yes, add a smiley face to the end, because you can do it!) 

By now your worksheet is all filled out.

It isn't just any piece of paper anymore. It's a list of the proven strategies from an organization that obtained 300% growth in only 3 years. This list is now your plan to evaluate your organization and poise it for phenomenal growth! Pin it up somewhere you can see it every day and commit to using it.

As promised, here are Sarah’s top 3 tips:
  • Meet an Unmet Need

As discussed, this is the purpose of your organization. What can you provide that sets you apart from everyone else? Is it something that people actually need? 
  • Invest in Marketing

Your should treat your organization as a business and every business needs marketing. Sarah strongly recommends going hard at the beginning to get the word out. This step is crucial to your growth
  • Personal Contacts are Invaluable

Nobody joins Sarah’s organization without a personal contact from Sarah herself. This is something that Sarah will never change as it’s been a large part of her success. It’s helped build memberships, donations, support, and loyalty to her organization.
Here’s a quick recap of all the steps we’ve covered:
  1. Pick a Purpose – an unmet need
  2. Create a Business Plan – plan the strategy of how you will fill it
  3. Smart Marketing – get the word out to your target market
  4. Entice – offer a sample of what it’s like to join your organization
  5. Add a Personal Touch – nothing beats personal connections
  6. Raise Funds – no organization can thrive without financial support
  7. Get Help – you can’t do everything alone, so hire part time, recruit volunteers, etc.
  8. Plan Ahead – when you achieve your goal, set a new one.

You’ve now learned how Sarah built Connecting For Kids into a successful organization from the ground up. It’s up to you to really think about how each step applies to your organization. 300% growth is totally achievable. One thing that was a big help to Sarah when she was first starting out, was the simplicity of WildApricot’s membership management platform.

“It was so simple and easy to update and modify a base template. In the beginning, it was just me. I was the only paid staff member. I was the website consultant, I was the program manager, I was everybody. Your website was simple enough that someone with no computer background at all could learn very easily and update their website.”

To learn more about how WildApricot can help you kick start your growth by taking care of all your membership management needs, try out our 30-day free trial: 

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!

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