The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, September 23, 2005

Kit Cramer presents

Yesterday I attended an all-day session on the practice of PR in Raleigh, NC. The event was sponsored by several NC/SC PR and marketing organizations, and featured a range of speakers and subjects addressing techniques and best practices.

The speaker I came to see was Kit Cramer, VP of Education for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. Kit also serves as vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, and several years ago served as a public information officer for two different school districts. She’s seen all sides of education – as a business advocate, politician, school employee, and parent – and these many roles give her a rare and valuable perspective.

Kit was one of two presenters in the community relations slot, and her talk was titled “Harnessing the Power of the Business Community to Support Schools” – I couldn’t have asked for a better topic given my interests.

She approached the issue from a different perspective than I’m used to. Normally, I work with clients who want to initiate their own program, which they can direct and control. As head of education for the Chamber, Kit (in conjunction with her working committee) designs programs based on their understanding of the needs of the schools, and solicits resources from businesses in the community. She is, of course, supportive of any investment that businesses may want to make in education outside of her efforts; however, she focused on Chamber-led initiatives in her presentation.

She led by acknowledging that the Chamber did not get involved in local schools for purely altruistic reasons: it’s a top member issue based on annual surveys, and ties in to very real economic development issues, both for the future workforce (students graduating from the local system) and for businesses and/or workers considering moving to Charlotte and deciding whether the local schools are a place they’d be willing to send their kids.

In this day and age of strategic philanthropy, she also expects that most businesses participating in their education programs are also operating with some sort of personal gain in mind. That gain could be any of a number of things, from bragging rights (highlighting your support of education in company communications) to giving local businesspersons, the opportunity to be seen as community leaders. An interesting “personal win” I had not considered.

She walked through a laundry list of Chamber successes, which I won’t detail here. But I will distill several of her key points here for those interested (from a company or sponsor perspective) in education outreach:
  • If this is a community relations effort, start by defining your communities of interest. Identify the communities you care about and know how you want to serve them and communicate with them through your education outreach efforts.
  • Establish a giving policy. Decide what you will, and will not, contribute resources to. If you publicly state you’re only interested in high school science and math initiatives, you’ll save time on applications you would not otherwise consider (and save the applicants’ time) and also find it easier to sniff out the appropriate opportunities. To decide your giving policy, focus on self-interest and program “fit”.
  • Consult your employees – if your people write the program, they’ll write the checks to support the program (whether those “checks” are for money or for volunteer time or some other resource).
  • Look for the win-win. Find areas which provide a return to your organization and to the school you’re supporting.
  • Create multiple opportunities for involvement from your volunteer base. People have different skill sets and different interests; give everyone an opportunity to participate according to their capabilities and you’ll increase your base of support.
  • Determine desired outcomes and require reporting. You cannot know whether your program succeeded if you have not determined what success looks like and instituted a way to measure progress and results.
  • Understand from the outset that your school partners will not and cannot take the lead in promoting your efforts. This will be your responsibility, although if you’ve made it one of the requirements of the project, you can expect them to play a supporting role (providing media access to leadership, offering testimonials, and the like).

Companies interested in education outreach should take a careful look at the ongoing initiatives of their local chambers and education foundations – you might find people who have already made inroads into an issue you’re passionate about, and you’ll likely find lots of flexibility as to the ways in which you can participate. Even if you decide to ultimately build your own, you’ll benefit from the knowledge, support, and recognition that these community leadership organizations can provide.

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