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Local Classes, Global Impact

If you're like most group exercise instructors, you enjoy helping people live healthy, happy lives. It's likely that your influence extends beyond the group exercise studio and into the daily lives of participants and their families. What if your reach extended even further? You don't need a passport to make a global impact; all it takes is a little commitment, organization and drive to engage your students on a journey that touches people all over the world.

I've been leading group exercise for 22 years, and I've taught a wide range of classes to many different age groups and abilities. It's all been rewarding beyond belief. However, the most meaningful classes I've taught make a difference in the life of a stranger, either down the street or across the ocean. You too can extend your reach! The following practical ideas on how to give back have been field-tested and are ready for you to implement.

Simple Donation Ideas

If you want to start small and simple, donate your pay from one class to a charitable organization once a month. Involve participants by encouraging them to bring a friend (or a whole crew). Approach management and ask if they would consider accepting donations in lieu of charging for guest passes, and if they would possibly match the total. If you spread the word and are successful, you may end up with a huge class, which would enable you to make a sizable donation and welcome a few new faces (a win for everyone)! If a cash donation isn't an option, collect items for a local food bank or disaster relief center.

You might also teach a weekly or monthly class for your community where, instead of getting paid, you accept donations for a worthy cause. For example, I teach six classes per week and am paid as a contract worker for five of them. For the sixth one, I accept donations only, and 100% of that money goes to a specified charity. Attendance is not restricted, so I have people aged 6–75 working out together on a weekly basis. Participants are excited to invite their friends, family and neighbors. The last week of each month, I introduce the subsequent month's organization, share its mission statement and describe how our donations will be used. I provide postcard reminders about the time, location and purpose.

Insider Tips

  • Find a venue where the owners are passionate about making an impact and won't charge you to use their facility. Get an agreement in writing!
  • Prepare assumption-of-risk forms, and address other legal aspects (fitness insurance, music licensing, etc.).
  • Do your homework before you pick an organization.
  • Use social media to publicize the event! Update participants about how much money you raised, how it was used, and so on.
  • Provide information about the organization (brochures, websites, etc.).
  • Mention the opportunity to donate every week, but don't keep track of how much people give (or don't give). I have a miniature picnic basket at the entrance, and people simply drop in their donations.
  • Communicate clearly how the funds will be used and what forms of currency you accept (cash only, checks, etc.).
  • Keep records of the monthly totals.

Creating a sense of ownership among participants is key. Listen to their suggestions and input. For example, one month I decided to make microloans through Kiva (www.kiva.org), an international nonprofit that alleviates poverty through lending. By giving as little as $25, anyone can help a borrower start or grow a business, go to school, access clean energy or realize his or her potential. As the microloan is repaid, the lender then loans the money to someone else.

My regulars agreed to lend money to a woman in Colombia. I selected three single or widowed women and let the class decide which one to support. As the funds were repaid, we rolled the loan over to someone else. It's an amazing way to connect with other cultures!

Pick Your Passion

Host a master class for a specific cause you're passionate about. Worldwide, there are millions of victims of natural disasters, human trafficking, food shortages and medical crises. There are so many opportunities to help, and people will join you. You may find it hard to ask people for money, but asking people to work out with you and make a donation to a good cause is easier. I recently hosted a dance-fitness master class called Fitness for Freedom. I worked with three other faculty members to organize a benefit for International Justice Mission, a global organization that protects the poor from violence in the developing world. We selected IJM for several reasons: It is well-run and its impact is documented; it provided an online platform/website for our event and accepted online donations; the mission aligns with the goals of our university (preparing students for an interconnected world); and we're passionate about the organization's mission.

Insider Tips

  • Plan ahead and give yourself at least 6 months to prepare and publicize your benefit.
  • Identify a date, time, location and organization, and create a catchy name for the event.
  • Ask for marketing collateral, short video clips and maybe even a guest speaker from the organization.
  • Make the event an occasion to remember. Have banners, awesome lighting, matching shirts for instructors and a great sound system.
  • Educate people about the organization and encourage donations above the "recommended minimum" (we asked for a minimum of $10 per person).
  • Have an online donation station with tablets and laptops so people can use a credit or debit card.
  • Offer door prizes and a bag-check area.
  • Invite the local media. Document the event with photos and video.
  • Have a "selfie station" and encourage posting via social media with customized hashtags.
  • Don't go it alone! Form partnerships within the community for maximum impact.
  • Co-teach with another instructor.
  • Appoint a social media guru to handle publicity.
  • Find people who are willing to make face-to-face contact with other gyms, businesses, potential donors and attendees.
  • Involve local schools and universities.
  • Ask for help from volunteers to decorate, greet, educate, collect donations, hand out information, check bags, etc.
  • Seek donations from people who might not attend but may want to give anyway.

Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, is quoted as saying: "As a rock star, I have two instincts, I want to have fun, and I want to change the world. I have a chance to do both." Group fitness instructors are "rock stars" in their own right. Let's claim that status and do more to help others in the world at the same time.

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