How to succeed with community education

Well-crafted teaching events pay their own way

Which of your marketing tools takes a mere nibble out of your budget and creates a steady flow of new clients? If community education programs aren’t on that list, you’re missing a great opportunity.

Education events can showcase your center as a smart health care choice for women and raise your profile with leading businesses and service agencies. What’s more, they can even pay for themselves.

To stage a successful educational event, plan it as though your center’s public image rides on it — because it does. Adhere to a few proven essentials, and you can build a solid core of attendees and co-sponsors who will ante up their support year after year.

Learn what’s on women’s minds through focus groups or discussions at community health fairs. (For details on how to hold a focus group, see Women’s Health Center Management, June 1996, p. 63, and July 1996, p. 83.) Ashley E. Phillips, MA, CPhil, chief executive officer of WomanCare of San Diego, uses her community speaking engagements to discover what women want to know. Phillips finds that "women in their forties and fifties are dissatisfied with doctors who say, ‘Here, take these hormones,’ and they’re unhappy with doctors’ lack of time for their questions."

WomanCare fills the knowledge gap by presenting state-of-the-art information on hormone replacement therapy. "But on the same podium," Phillips adds, "we’ll have authorities on Chinese herbs and dietary supplements for hot flashes." More than 100 women attend WomanCare’s annual menopause seminar.

Seven years ago, Sharp Health Care Founda-tion in San Diego assembled focus groups and an advisory board of community leaders to sound out health information needs. Since then, Sharp’s full-day annual Women’s Health Symposium has drawn crowds averaging 1,100. They come to hear keynoters such as physician Deepak Chopra and actresses Naomi Judd and Ann Jillian. Breakout sessions teach topics such as money management, communication skills, and Internet use.

Exceed their expectations

Big names and hot topics with sexy titles such as "Midlife Power Surges" might draw women once. When you add creature comforts, you’ll keep them coming every year, says Beverly Weurding, MBA, Sharp’s manager of community education, special events, and corporate communications. "I believe in special touches" such as gourmet lunches, she says.

One lunch features grilled chicken breast, prawns, haricot vert salad, and chocolate mousse cups — all included in the cost of admission. Weurding pays anywhere from $19 to $25 a head for gourmet meals, noting, "Everything is negotiable, right down to the dessert. Never be shy about asking for adjustments. The worst they can say is no. But even five cents or twenty-five cents off each meal helps when you’re serving over a thousand people."

WomanCare offers seminar participants five-minute shoulder massages, compliments of a co-sponsor.

Weurding finds that women like a richer array of opportunities than they can possibly engage in. She likes to hear participants say, "All the workshops look so good, I don’t want to miss any of them." Though they choose two of the 12 workshops, they take home a workbook containing highlights, instructors’ names, and handouts from all 12. After the WomanCare programs, Phillips sends each attendee a short thank-you note with an additional resource, such as a book review of a recent title on women’s wellness. Weurding offers this guideline: Women want to have a good time while they learn. Remember that, and everything will work out well.

Sharing costs with sponsors links your facility to other agencies and businesses that want exposure to the women in your community. Ask them for cash sponsorships or in-kind services from printing to publicity. To identify potential sponsors, make a laundry list of the commercial products and services women use. Add women’s service agencies such as the Older Women’s League or the Junior League. Pharmaceutical companies are among Weurding’s core of sponsors.

She holds the symposia at the San Diego Convention Center, which offers exhibit space — another revenue source. The events are always scheduled on Saturdays, but the time of year varies. Exhibitors and sponsors receive write-ups in the symposium notebook and prominent exposure on all program literature. After the event, Weurding holds a sponsor appreciation reception and invites Sharp’s top management.

Top management support is crucial to a thriving educational program. Weurding considers the sponsors’ reception a key element in sustaining that support. "Our executives are happy when our sponsors say [the symposium] is a great event and they got this out of it or that out of it."

Use your PR department

Since your program’s success turns on publicity, "develop a very good relationship with your public relations department," Weurding advises. "They’ll be willing to support the program as long as they have enough information to do a good publicity campaign," she says.

Time a steady stream of press releases and public service announcements to hit newspapers, radio, and television stations for three weeks before the event, Weurding suggests. "Without publicity, you have no program," she emphasizes.

When you put on a classy event, count on registration fees to cover only a fraction of the cost. Here’s an example: Tickets to Sharp’s last symposium cost $55 (amounting to $60,500), while Weurding pegs the overall cost at $95,000. Though she does not disclose exact figures, she says proceeds from registrations, sponsorships, exhibitors’ fees, and a raffle exceeded expenses and even paid for part of her salary.

Identifying the numbers of new patients who come to Sharp through educational programs is more difficult than figuring program costs. Weurding can’t track them precisely since she’s the only full-time staff person assigned to educational programming. Still, she believes the numbers are substantial.

Attributing her success to determination, Weurding says, "Anybody can do it if you’re willing to work hard and share the excitement for your program ideas with your management and your sponsors." ß