By now, you’ve probably come to the realization that community support is essential for your school to move forward, but what if businesses in the community don’t seem to share your vision?  You may have approached them to take out an ad in a school event program, or asked them to be a “community contributor,” but they respond with a resounding, “NO.”

Remember Stephen Covey’s “Habit #5” – “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”(TM), and recall that St. Francis of Assisi said it a little differently.  In development, you must “Give them what they want to get what you want.” Businesses want more business, so unless they’re somehow emotionally tied to your school (by a child, grandchild, niece or nephew enrolled there), you have to show them how you can give them a helping hand, rather than approach them with your outstretched hand.

To do this, think about creating a Community Business Fair  (they used to be called “Vendor Fairs,” but the word “vendor” implies a one-way relationship, and to continue to call it that is totally  unproductive).  It’s event where area businesses can come to your school to present what they offer to the community. By doing this, you are showing that your school is a part of the community, interested in partnering with other community members to build the community.

But you can’t just invite businesses and expect people will come to it. Therefore, tie it into another school event that has a formidable attendance…a concert, a PTA/PTG/HSA meeting or picnic, perhaps. That will save you effort at trying to get people to yet another event at your school, and one that they may not want to attend.  For instance, my wife and I just volunteered last night to help staff a local parish’s bazaar’s refreshment booth.  At every food tent, game of chance or skill, as well as performance and ride venues, there were signs advertising the local businesses that supported the event!  How popular was the event?  After a year without the annual parish bazaar, people came in droves!  A number had masks, and a number had “vaxxed” t-shirts.  This year, the parish purchased 1000 pounds of potatoes for a fresh-cut fries offering, along with cheese, bacon, sour cream and chives as possible toppings.  The event was scheduled for 3 nights – and on the first night, 700 pounds of potatoes were sold!  Successful event?  Absolutely!

Also, create demand for the event. There are parents and other relatives of students in your school who own businesses and can participate, but consider “service exclusivity” to create demand…one nail care center, one beauty salon, one service station, etc. Build upon this relationship by reaching out to businesses where people “wait,” like the ones just mentioned. After the event, thank the business owners for coming, ask them to sign up for next year before another similar business takes their place, and include information about your school (brochure or advertisement) that can be left in their waiting area. A nice plaque or certificate of participation could be included to further solidify the relationship-building process.

After you hold a few of these events, re-examine your ability to involve them in your golf outing, or place an ad in a concert program.

Another bridge you can build is with your local media outlet.  Schools across the country wonder why their local news media doesn’t do a story on an event that the school is having, or an award that one of the students has won.  Seven years ago I answered that question a little differently that I’ll answer it today, since there’s two things that can be done.

1) Tell your own success stories.  That’s what your Web site is for.  If you think you can’t afford a really good Web site, let me tell you that today, you can’t afford NOT to have a really good Web site.  When prospective families are looking for information about your school, they’re not looking in the newspaper – they’re looking at your school’s Web site FIRST, and only THEN asking their friends about your school.  If your school doesn’t look great on a computer screen or a mobile device, it doesn’t matter what color ribbons you’ve won, nor what percentage of your graduates are accepted to a college or university.

2) It’s still a good idea to have local media coverage because it builds awareness for your school to encourage contributions from the local community.  Today, if you really want the local paper to print your articles, you’ll need to buy some ads for your school from them – perhaps even on their Web site, since Web sites can connect to Web sites (see above).  Promote the school play; advertise application deadlines; spotlight and congratulate a teacher or student.  The point is that putting an ad in the local paper elevates your school to the rank of “customer” – and customers have more sway than those entities that just keep asking for free publicity.

Remember that a donation request is a short-term solution; developing a relationship with a donor takes time, but has long-term benefits for your school’s continued presence as an important part of the community!

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2021 (Original publication date:  20060807)