Cultivating Community Relationships

by Cody Sipe, MS on Jul 01, 2006

Address the common barriers that keep fitness clubs from combining their resources to promote fitness in their communities.

I once joined a small group of community professionals for a tour of a local health club. Our goal was to visit every club that served older adults, to get a better sense of what options were available as we promoted physical activity to senior populations. I called the club the week before to set up the tour and, although I could never get a response from the club owner, I specifically requested that he give the tour so we could interact with him and invite his club to participate in our community-wide effort to encourage activity among seniors. However, when we showed up, it was obvious no one was expecting us; and when we explained why we were there, we were treated like spies—as if we were trying to steal some secret fitness formula or something! After some confusion, a young trainer unenthusiastically took us on a tour. He was unable to answer all our questions and had no authority to make decisions. It was then I realized that the toughest obstacles hindering the promotion of fitness in our community just might lie in the attitudes of local fitness clubs.

If you want to add an effective community outreach dimension to your club’s profile, you will probably need to overcome many barriers. Some hurdles might be easily surmounted, but you may have to slowly chip away at others over time. This article will address how to overcome some of the more common barriers you are likely to face.

Promote Win-Win Relationships

Your first potential obstacle may be one you unknowingly create yourself. Unfortunately, your attempts to interact with other community organizations may come across as “What’s in it for me?” While protecting your business interests is appropriate, your most effective approach in your community outreach efforts is to cultivate win-win relationships with other organizations. Let people know in no uncertain terms that you are seeking opportunities that are mutually beneficial.

The community activity coalition in my area openly acknowledges that both for-profit and not-for-profit businesses may have an interest in promoting good public relations, raising awareness of their programs and services, or benefiting in some other way from their association with the coalition—and that’s okay. But we also make it clear that no one will be able to use the group as a platform for shameless promotion or sales.

This open dialogue creates an immediate transparency that can ease tension between not-for-profit organizations and for-profit clubs, which may be used to seeing each other as “the competition.” Win-win partnerships are critical if you seek to impact sedentariness on a community-wide scale.

Match Your Image to Your Target

Let’s face it, the image of the fitness industry isn’t the greatest in some people’s eyes. While the chiseled body with bulging biceps and tanned skin has been the calling card of the industry for decades, many health promotion professionals are completely turned off by this image. They are more interested in making the health benefits of physical activity available to the masses than in helping individuals look like Grecian gods. If your club is a hard-core, youth-oriented facility, you may find it difficult to gain the trust and respect of individuals and organizations in the allied health fields. On the other hand, you might find a great fit with schools and other youth-related organizations, which may view medically based facilities and clubs with strong ties to the medical community as places for “old folks” or people with serious physical problems.

Expect Progress to Be Slow

Cultivating relationships takes time. “Expect rejection,” says Ken Baldwin, assistant director of the A.H. Ismail Center for Health, Exercise & Nutrition at Purdue University and the 1999 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. “When establishing relationships with community organizations, it may take a while before you connect with a group that understands what you are trying to do and is willing to get involved. In my Cambridge, Massachusetts–based personal training company, I must have called every healthcare provider in the phone book before someone finally caught my vision.” Baldwin’s persistence paid off when Harvard Pilgrim HMO partnered with his club to create a system of medical referrals.

Start Somewhere

If your club isn’t already actively involved with other organizations, where do you begin? IDEA Master Personal Fitness Trainer Nicki Anderson, president of Reality Fitness Inc. in Naperville, Illinois, and a strong advocate for community outreach, recommends tying into your local chamber of commerce. “If your facility shows a dedication to learning about the community and getting involved through the chamber, it leads to other relationships. There are hundreds of health and fitness facilities in my community, and very few tie into the chamber, which in my opinion is a missed opportunity.” This approach is definitely win-win. Not only will you learn more about the community by interacting with a wide variety of professionals but you will also raise awareness of your own business.

Choose a Representative

Anderson recommends designating one individual to be your community outreach person, since that is the best way to begin permeating the community with consistency. “If you have the same person out there in the community, then others begin to recognize [that person’s] dedication and know that [he or she is] the ‘go-to’ gal or guy,” Anderson explains. This consistency is important as you seek to develop relationships. People want to know whom to call about an idea. Using multiple people inhibits relationship development and can create confusion and frustration. Have you ever had to cold-call an organization and ask around—or work your way through a voice mail maze—in an attempt to reach the right person? You often have to repeat why you are calling over and over again when you are transferred to different departments. The whole process wastes time and can be very annoying.

How do you choose a community outreach representative? Selecting the best-looking or most muscular trainer may not be the wisest approach. Choosing someone who understands the mission of the club and the purpose for being out in the community is far more valuable. Look for

  • excellent communication skills;

  • an approachable demeanor;

  • a pleasant personality;

  • good organizational skills; and

  • fitness expertise.

Then give your representative enough authority to make decisions on your club’s behalf. People want to be able to speak directly with the decision maker rather than having to go through layers of bureaucracy to get an answer to every question.

Go Easy on Self-Promotion

Avoid heavily promoting your facility, programs and expertise, especially at first. If you ride into town like a sheriff in an old Western, telling people that you are the answer to all their problems, you will only exacerbate any negative preconceived ideas your potential partners may have. To paraphrase a directive from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Seek first to understand rather than to be understood. Spend time trying to find out what others’ needs and interests are. You will learn a lot about what is happening around you and be better equipped to come up with win-win solutions. You can’t fully understand the needs of parks and recreation departments, local school systems and service organizations for the aging—or how to best fulfill those needs—until you spend time listening.

Build Your Club’s Service Resumé

Telling others that you want to help your community will ring hollow after a while if you don’t actually get something done. What successes can you point to that demonstrate your club’s commitment? The easiest way to begin the resumé-building process is to join existing initiatives such as fitness councils, bike and pedestrian committees, activity-promoting coalitions or school health programs. You can provide assistance and have your name associated with these efforts without taking everything on yourself.

You may already have some good contacts among your members, who should be familiar with your programs, services, staff and philosophy. Members can be an excellent source of contacts and referrals to other organizations. For example, one of my members was active on a local bike and pedestrian committee. Because he knew my interest in the betterment of the community, he encouraged me to serve on the committee too. This involvement has led to many other opportunities. Some of your members may work for a community organization—or serve on the board of directors for one. If so, they will be able to cultivate meaningful opportunities on your behalf.

Start by “picking the low-hanging fruit.” Take on tasks that you can almost guarantee will be successful in a short period of time.

A Framework for Change

The ultimate goal is for clubs to serve as a catalyst for community change by providing time, energy, expertise, facilities, equipment and more to activity-promotion efforts. Although one club can make a difference, you can’t address all the barriers to physical activity in a community by yourself. In the next issue I will describe a framework for sustained and systematic change that can provide direction for a club wanting to become the champion for physical activity within its community.

Want more from Cody Sipe?

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© 2006 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Cody Sipe, MS

Cody Sipe, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Associate Professor and club owner with over 20 years of experience specializing in exercise for mature adults. Recipient of numerous industry awards including the IDEA Program Director of the Year. Co-Founder of the Functional Aging Institute ( Visit FAI's website for your free Functional Training Starter Kit and to learn more about the Functional Aging Specialist Certification. Creator of the Never Grow Old Fitness Program (, a follow-along video exercise program for mature adults. Frequent industry speaker and writer.