The secret to sign-ups: nail your open house

Last week’s post focused on troubleshooting program attendance. This week, I’m taking a step back on our program timeline to address the challenge of pre-program sign-ups. HCA does not require advance sign-ups for every activity or class that we coordinate, but we are heavily reliant upon them for our more specialized 10-week programs. In our experience, the quickest way to a saturated sign-up sheet is a stand-alone open house wherein both the program and the instructor(s) are introduced to the community. Hosting an open house is an art however, and one that may not result in committed sign-ups without the following three considerations:

1. Tasty morsels

Free food and drink has great appeal to busy, working parents and their hungry children, not to mention seniors with limited mobility. Free nibbles also have a way of putting people at ease in the midst of a new opportunity; forking grapes can help them overcome the intimidation of trying something new. That said, free food can quickly get out of hand when “prospective participants” sneak home with a Cookie Monster-sized plate before you’ve even whipped out a sign-up sheet. To remedy this disappearing act, make a point to serve food after your program pitch. Disinterested attendees will head home, leaving you with a more serious group of prospective program sign-ups.

2. Sample examples

In addition to tasty morsels, examples of work relating to the proposed class are also great icebreakers for an open house event. They help demystify the subject matter, spur conversation and give prospective participants a vote of confidence — “Hey, I can do that!” Extra juicy tip: If possible, bring samples of student work from previous classes. Your own (more advanced) work might be a touch intimidating for newbies.

3. Mingle

You finish your awe-inspiring earth-crushing program schpeal and let loose the refreshments. What now? Get out there and talk it up some more! Go around the room and introduce yourself, one-on-one and one-by-one. Shakes residents’ hands, get their names, ask about their families, how they like the neighborhood, where they work, etc. Remember: positive relationships are the foundation for successful resident services. Practices that build trust and familiarity between you and the community you work with will invariably generate more signs-ups, and later, higher attendance. A beloved instructor makes for a beloved program; residents participate not only to learn a skill, but also to share in your enviable company.
What tips do you recommend for a sign-ups frenzy at a program’s open house?


Party of none? 5 tips to get butts in the seats on a budget

Interest surveys are a powerful tool for nonprofit social service providers in predicting the success of potential resident programs. But what do you do in that rare case when you provide a highly sought after program with a great instructor and attendance doesn’t measure up? Here are 5 low cost tips to help instructors get butts in the seats!

1. Dorm storm

The term “dorm storming” is a throwback to the college days when residence hall advisors would systematically knock on advisees’ doors to share information, announcements and reminders. While affordable apartment units are a far cry from student dormitories, the importance of introductions and (continued) face time – and we mean that in the pre-iPhone sense of the phrase — is paramount to sustainable program attendance. Spend 10–15 minutes prior to your next class to knock on a few resident doors and say hello. See for yourself how impactful this can be.

2. Post and host

Highly recommended for senior programs in particular, this idea came from one of our very own, Arbor Gardens volunteer April Joy. Mail out handwritten postcards to your regular attendees to remind them of your upcoming class or class series. Include the date(s) and time(s) along with some well wishing. Residents will be tickled to receive fun, personalized mail and more likely to remember your class schedule given this added gentle re- minder.

3. Give the lawn some company

Food isn’t the only thing that gets stale! So can your program promotion. While fresh new full color designs are a surefire way to attract more attention to your flyers, they are not always the most affordable. If your community has a high-traffic grassy area, a mobile lawn sign is a great way to combat tired promotion without breaking the bank. It goes up on days that you teach and stays in storage for those that you don’t. Skeptics delight! Vistaprint sells 18” x 12” lawn signs starting at just $12 and 27” x 18” lawn signs at $20.

4. Bring Batman to the party

What do the phrases “murder mystery birthday party,” “Batman birthday party” and “laser tag birthday party” all have in common? They all sound far more enticing than plain ole “birthday party.” Try applying this principle to your program to entice more participation. If you teach art, perhaps one month can focus on recycled art and the next on edible art. If you teach computer literacy, perhaps you can teach a “Photo Frenzy February” where all your lessons revolve around ways to take, share or edit photos. Brainstorm subjects that interest participants, then shape and promote your programming around them.

5. Hit the hiatus

Like many nonprofits, we are proud to be able to provide our services at no cost to residents. But like many of the free things in life, it’s often harder for people to value them in the same way that they might a paid service. Who can blame them? When changes in schedule, theme and promotion fail to improve attendance at your resident program, try taking a couple weeks o”. Give participants a chance to miss you and give yourself an opportunity to recharge and re-energize. After all, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

What tips do you recommend for improving resident services attendance?