A few years ago, Sarah Rintamaki noticed her two-year-old son struggling to speak. He couldn’t even say “mama.”
Sarah’s concern for her son launched her into a desperate search for answers on how to help him. After seeing numerous doctors and specialists, Sarah eventually discovered that her son had a rare genetic disorder. Determined to learn as much as she could about her son’s condition and to find the right therapies, Sarah scoured the Internet.
Unfortunately, most of the websites for the organizations and support groups she came upon provided information for other diagnoses, so she found it hard to get the answers she needed.
As Sarah continued to search for help, she met other mothers with the same challenge — mothers who couldn’t find the right support groups for the particular issue their child had. In some cases their child didn’t have a specific diagnosis, or if they did, their symptoms were either minor or more severe compared to others in the group.
The mothers all felt like outsiders.
Along with Sarah, a few of these other mothers started an informal support group. To them, it didn’t matter that they weren’t all struggling with the exact same issues. They wanted to support each other, and they shared therapies and programs they discovered, as well as emotional support.
The benefit that Sarah and her peers got from helping each other made Sarah think about starting a formal organization to help more parents struggling like they had.
The problem was, Sarah had no experience building a nonprofit. She did, however, have something in her background that she figured could help her found and grow her nonprofit — a background in business.
In this post, I’ll dig into Sarah’s story to see how she was able to apply four key business strategies to help her grow her nonprofit, called Connecting for Kids, from 300 to over 1,000, a change of over 300%, from 2012 to 2015. These are strategies that anyone can apply to their membership organization to drive growth.
Strategy 1: Meet A Unmet Need
As soon as the idea of founding a nonprofit occurred to Sarah, she began to approach it the way an experienced business person would tackle the founding of a new business. For Sarah, who had a business degree, an MBA, and experience as an international business consultant, the first critical step was to figure out exactly what need her nonprofit would meet that the marketplace didn’t already satisfy.
Sarah saw this as a critical step because she knew that when a business can’t clearly identify an unmet need — when it doesn’t offer anything new or different — it will struggle to distinguish itself from all the other organizations out there, never getting any traction.
As Sarah says, “You need to meet an unmet need. You need to be providing something in your service that isn’t in the marketplace today and that people value.”
From Sarah’s experience, there was a huge need for an organization that could help any family with any concern about their child, no matter if the child has a diagnosis. So Sarah’s first key decision was to create an organization that wasn’t diagnostic specific, and that would help parents by providing education and support through free community programs.
With this vision for her organization, Sarah founded Connecting For Kids in 2011. Despite believing she had identified a big unmet need, she knew that lots of worthy business ideas never get off the ground, because the founders can’t figure out how to market it. So cracking the marketing challenge became a key focus.
Strategy 2: Find The Best Route To Your Market
One of the first key steps in marketing is to identify your target market — the people you want as members. For Sarah, that part was easy: parents who have children with special needs.
But, reaching a target market is usually a big challenge for any organization.
A lot of people try to reach a target market through a direct approach. For example, if you’re trying to reach parents, you might start with parenting magazines or parenting websites, or parenting Facebook groups. But Sarah knew that the most effective marketing strategies often involve an indirect approach, ways that might not be obvious at first. And so Sarah came up with the idea to reach parents through their children.
The Backpack Strategy
To do this, Sarah involved local schools. She met with various school principals and pitched them on working together as partners. The principals saw the need for special needs education, and agreed to help. So, 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.
The result: 195 families became members by the end of her first year.
Sarah expanded the impact of her marketing strategy by also advertising in social media, PR, radio, and appearing on television. But her backpack flyers were the biggest contributor to membership growth.
As Sarah says, “Most nonprofits don’t invest in marketing. You need to look at it as a business and heavily invest in marketing at the beginning.”
Strategy 3: Make it Personal
Sarah’s business experience taught her that one of the best investments in a business is to build personal relationships with all your stakeholders.
For a business, stakeholders include your customers, your employees, your vendors, etc..
For a nonprofit, stakeholders include your members, your volunteers, your sponsors, your donors, etc.
As Sarah says, “Personal contacts are invaluable. Whether it’s business, or nonprofit, everything truly is a personal relationship.”
Everyone Gets A Call
To create the kind of personal relationships that would help grow Connecting for Kids, Sarah made it her mission to personally connect with every new members as well as prospective members. For example, if anyone signed up for an event on her website, she would either speak with them at the event or call them up afterward. During that conversation, she would ask them to join.
As Sarah told us, 95% of the people she talked to would join.
Strategy 4: Find the Money
The lifeblood of any business is money. It keeps the business alive, and provides the resources for it to scale and grow. Sarah knew the same would be true for her nonprofit, especially if she were to deliver on her vision of providing programming for free. So, from the very beginning, Sarah focused on financials, and generating money from multiple sources.
Here are some of the ways Sarah kept the money flowing:
When Sarah first founded Connecting for Kids, she relied on start-up grants as her main source of funding. She found the Foundation Center helpful in learning how best to apply for grants.
Once she had her nonprofit set up, there were three main ways that she continued to raise funds.
In order to offer free membership, Sarah ran a donation campaign, in which she asked everyone to donate to cover the cost of memberships. For $25 someone could cover the cost of their own membership; for $50, they could pay for themselves and someone else. Many people gave $100, $200, even $500. The campaign raised $25,000 and helped grow membership 126% over the previous year.
About 25% of Sarah’s funds came from her membership donation program.
Sarah’s business experience taught her that to attract funding, she would need a compelling business plan, one that outlined her organization’s purpose, the growth she wanted to achieve and her path to realizing that growth.
As Sarah says, “The more you can present a business plan to a foundation, the more they’re going to respect what you’re doing. Pulling together a good business plan is really important.”
To help her draft the original nonprofit business plan for Connecting For Kids, Sarah again drew on resources she found at the Foundation Center, which she recommends any nonprofit take advantage of.
Sponsorships from foundations and corporations accounted for 25% of her funds.
Sarah spent a large portion of her time running fundraising events, which made up the other 50% of funds. She ran gala dinners for professional partners and community supporters, and as well as bar nights with beer, pizza and games.
As Sarah says, “We had a million ways to get $20 out of your pocket.”
A Thousand Formulas For Success
In our ten years of working with membership organizations, we’ve seen thousands of different formulas for success. Like Sarah, many people who found a nonprofit don’t have experience building one before, but by drawing on their unique strengths — in Sarah’s case her business acumen — they’re able to build thriving organizations. Here are a few other inspiring stories.
How a Tech Solution Saved This Executive Director’s Membership Growth Strategy
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By the way, Connecting For Kids has continued to grow, and Sarah plans to keep drawing on her business experience so she can double her membership by 2020.
If you would like to know more about Sarah’s story and how you can develop similar business strategies for your organization, please see this interactive case study. Sarah has been a Wild Apricot customer since the early days of Connecting For Kids. We’ve been greatly impressed by her mission and the growth she has achieved, and we’d like to thank her sharing her experience with us.