Building Bridges with your Local Community:

The Business Breakfast

 

Linda Vining

 

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In a market driven climate, entrepreneurial administrators who demonstrate their quality service to the community can reap many benefits. For the school looking for a way to build bridges with its external community, an early morning start can be a perfect time to capture the attention of community leaders.

When Alfords Point Public School in Sydney's southern suburbs wanted the world to see the exciting work it was doing in creative information technology the school invited influential members of the local community to a Business Breakfast.

In the cool of a summer morning over a glass of fruit juice and croissants, and under a marquee supplied by the local real estate office, Principal Lindsay Freeman shared his vision with an attentive audience.

It was obvious from the first word that the staff had prepared this function thoughtfully. They knew the interests of their audience and they chose their words carefully to impress business people. The focus was, "What's in this for you". When computer teacher Mimi van den Berg. delivered her introduction she quickly captured the VIP's attention by saying, "We know you want to employ people in your business who are thinkers. Well, here they are. We are teaching them to be thinkers. Even now, any one of these primary school students could come into your business and produce a multi-media production for you".

This was impressive marketing, and it worked. The offers of support poured in. Some were tangible benefits such as computers donated by a firm that was upgrading it technology. Other benefits came in the form of goodwill, such as a spot on a radio program and a mention in Parliament by the local MP.

However, the aim of the Business Breakfast was much broader than sponsorship or donations. Principal Lindsay Freeman said, "By bringing the community into the school in this personalised way we are putting the school on the mental map of community leaders. When an opportunity comes to mind we want people to think of us".

The guestlist

A long lead time and good planning are key elements to a successful Business Breakfast. Invitations need to go out about three weeks prior to the event, then be followed up a week later with a personal phone call. Make sure the following community members are on your mailing list:

´ Editor of the local paper/s

´ Managers of the big stores (eg the supermarket)

´ Federal and State Members of Parliament

´ President of the Chamber of Commerce

´ Presidents of local service clubs (eg Rotary, Lions)

´ Mayor and local members of Council

´ Real estate agents

´ Suppliers of goods and services

´ University or TAFE administrators in your area

´ Education consultants

Include the President of the School Council on your invitation list as this school advocate can act as a roving ambassador for the school.

The staff co-ordinator of the Business Breakfast in the case study, Sue McAuliffe, knew that attracting busy people to the school would be a challenge, especially with so much other competition in the community for support. She understood that the school needed something original to catch the eye of its target audience, so the children hand wrote very neat personal invitations and attached them to the computer-generated invitations. This worked well.

In the planning stages, generate as much media interest as you can by name dropping. Tell the press who will be present at the function. In the case study above, it proved difficult to attract media interest before the event, however after the Business Breakfast the staff co-ordinator sent a press release to the local paper. It is interesting to note that from the range of photographs offered to the press, the one they selected was the local Member of Parliament talking to the children. Politicians are newsworthy. Always try to get a few to attend a school function.

Costs and hosts

Alfords Point Public School entertained 35 visitors at a total calculated cost of $400 for food and equipment. All costs were met by donations from the local community. The service club provided extra glasses; the real estate agent loaned their large marquee; school families prepared the breakfast; local shops donated food; and the school raised some cash donations to cover name tags and printing costs. Often, it's just a matter of asking. Each contributor was acknowledged in the Principal's opening comments and in the printed program distributed on the day. This further strengthened the image of a community working together. Building bridges is a two way process; there needs to be something in it for both parties.

Greetings set the tone for a function. Large-print name badges (containing the name of the visitor's organisation) should be handed out at the entrance, along with some printed material about the event for later reading. A school prospectus or promotional brochure completes the package.

Using your students as hosts is an excellent way to showcase your best features but the children must be well briefed and well presented and familiar with the duties and manners of a school ambassador. Moving visitors to other locations as the morning evolves, directing people to a classroom activity and serving food to those involved in conversation are skills that student-hosts must learn. Designate one child per visitor and have a practice run-through the day before the function.

A Business Breakfast calls for an early start so it's wise (and a nice idea) to feed your host children first so that their batteries are fully charged and they are ready to greet the visitors on arrival.

Follow-up

A Business Breakfast provides an excellent introduction to your school but don't be over eager to push the sponsorship/support line too early. Start by building a network of friends in the local community.

After the function, write a letter thanking each visitor for coming and say how much you appreciated their interest. You may be able to send them a photograph of themselves at the Business Breakfast or a taped copy of the radio program, as happened in the case study above. Tell your visitors the positive things that came out of the function but don't ask for anything at this point. Next time you have an appropriate school function send them a personal invitation. Keep in touch. You may find an opportunity to invite them to give a lesson to your students or address a parent's meeting (eg a local Council member could address a class on local government, or a solicitor could talk about laws that affect teenagers). When you become better acquainted with your community friends, and the bridge that links your school with them is made up of solid planks, you can confidently invite them to support your school in tangible ways.

Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools. She conducts a series of school seminars on Marketing The Modern School. Phone (02) 9683 6725.

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