Community outreach programs range in size and scope but almost always produce the same results: spreading good throughout a community. Fitness facilities that offer community outreach programs and events not only build goodwill but also gain a chance to promote the benefits of physical activity. “We like to make a difference in the community and we like [our efforts] to have a fitness focus,” explains Pat Weir, senior program director for The Atlantic Club in Manasquan, New Jersey. And outreach programs also benefit your members. Gina Rossie, special events coordinator at East Bank Club in Chicago, says, “Members like knowing they belong to an organization that helps the community.”
Types of Outreach. The ways in which your facility can participate in community outreach vary greatly. At the East Bank Club, Rossie offers a variety of events throughout the year. They include a major golf outing to raise scholarship money and a holiday gift-giving program for foster children. Sometimes, instructors simply ask members for donations at the beginning of a group exercise class. Such programs make it easy for members to participate. In addition to heading up several 5K walks and marathons, Weir organizes free seminars for the community on health topics like breast cancer and nutrition. To establish credibility with members, she makes sure guest speakers do not have a product to sell or promote. “The members see the facility as a reliable source for health and wellness information,” explains Weir.
Oftentimes, community outreach programs fulfill more than one need. At the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Sharon Goldman, director of the center’s teen program, manages and coordinates a volunteer program for teenagers who are required to perform community service for school. Teens complete an application and are interviewed to determine what their interests are and when they can volunteer their time. They can choose from reading to children, being a mentor for younger kids, organizing sports activities, visiting hospital patients and nursing home residents, and other options. Goldman finds teens very receptive to volunteering. “The kids come in because they have to, and often, they end up staying because they enjoy [doing community service],” says Goldman. “Volunteering is empowering and builds their self-esteem.”
Resources. The types of community programs are endless, with some requiring more time and resources than others. Goldman manages the teen program with the help of two other employees. At the East Bank Club, staff and members volunteer to help with certain events. Weir either spearheads an event herself or delegates the responsibility to interested staff members. Like Rossie, she often pulls from all departments to help with the planning and promotion of an event; she then makes it a point to return the favor. “All it takes is one person who is committed, resourceful and dedicated,” says Goldman. Community service doesn’t have to cost a facility any money; for example, asking members to donate clothing for a holiday clothing drive is pretty simple. Another option is to urge members to sign up for a 5K walk as the facility’s team; Weir notes that once members send in their application, they’re more committed to the event. Hopefully, management will encourage and support employees in their outreach efforts.
Getting Started. “Start out small and pick one or two events to do a season,” offers Weir. Goldman suggests using a holiday as a springboard if you’re just getting started. Partnering with a local charity has several benefits. “A relationship with a nonprofit often leads to other outreach opportunities,” says Rossie. Plus, the nonprofit staff members, who are used to planning events, may do most of the planning or provide you with tips and suggestions, notes Weir. Don’t forget to promote your event! Weir and Rossie use posters and newsletters. Goldman sends out a mass e-mail to the teens in her program. Weir also recommends sending out press releases and calling local newspapers to get additional coverage for the event and the facility.
Other Considerations. “Sometimes, planning an event takes more time than you realize,” cautions Rossie. She recommends working out the details before you start planning an event. If you’re partnering with an outside organization, Goldman says, it’s important to establish and develop a relationship with a key contact person at that organization. Be open and flexible, says Weir, but be sure to clearly communicate what you can offer a nonprofit. And don’t forget to thank the people who volunteered. “Show gratitude to those who volunteered by sending a thank-you [note],” Goldman says. “The response may be small at first, but don’t give up!” says Weir. In the end, community outreach is a win-win situation. “People feel good about exercising, and they feel good about helping others,” says Weir.