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Public Relations Workers in the Nonprofit Sector

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There isn't a college or university in this country that doesn't maintain a full-time public relations staff. Like any other public relations effort, the size of the staff varies with the size of the institution. Large universities, for example, maintain multi-department public relations teams involved in wide-ranging activities from routine fundraising and preparing of promotional literature to conceiving and implementing special projects.

How important is public relations to a college or university? Ask a college administrator that question and he or she won't be able to find enough adjectives to accurately describe its importance. One college administrator we spoke with didn't mince words and said, "Public relations is a school's bread and butter. Typically, colleges that spend a lot on public relations attract more students." Each year millions of high school students write to colleges all over the country requesting information. They want to know everything there is to know about the school: tuition, curriculum, faculty, living arrangements and background information on the school.

Colleges are prepared to respond to these requests, and by the time winter and spring roll around, they're primed and ready to mail thousands of catalogues, brochures and applications to students requesting them. The admissions office mails the material to interested applicants, but it's the college's public relations department that collects the information, writes the copy and coordinates the graphics. That enticing college booklet or catalogue you receive in the mail is a basic PR tool used by a college or university. It is a direct, honest and straightforward promotional tool that tells a potential student at a glance whether the school is right for him or her.

But that's only one function of a college public relations department. Beyond preparing a variety of promotional literature, the school's PR department is the official information agency for the institution. Its responsibilities can be carved into the following important areas: recruitments, alumni work, special events and fund raising. Let's start with recruitment.

To lure new students to their schools, colleges send recruitment officers to selected high schools all over the country. You've probably listened to planned lectures or informal talks by college recruiters. Engineering schools, particularly, spend a great deal on recruitment since there seems to be a constant demand for engineers.

Don't be confused by the title "recruitment officer." Their job is to tell students about their school, discuss requirements, field questions and keep an eye out for potential candidates. In short, their job is 100 percent public relations. In the course of traveling about the country they meet with students, parents, and school administrators and advisors. Often students will get a better feeling for what a school is all about by talking to a recruiter than by reading the school catalogue.

Schools have discovered that a variety of promotional strategies is more effective than concentrating their efforts on a sole PR strategy.

Public relations efforts are aimed at graduates or alumni of the school as well as new students. Alumni are an excellent advertisement for the school and also a potential avenue for funds. Since it costs an enormous amount of money to run a college, a variety of fundraising efforts is essential. Most schools have alumni associations that collect membership fees as well as donations from its members. The difficult part is keeping in touch with each graduating class. It means keeping track of lists of hundreds of students and upgrading them regularly. You can see why college PR representatives working with alumni have their hands full.

Volunteer Agencies

Often referred to as nonprofit public relations, a host of agencies and organizations fall into this category. The Red Cross, Girl Scouts, Young Men's Christian Association, Cancer Society, League for the Hard of Hearing, Muscular Dystrophy, to name just a few, depend upon public contributions and grants for survival. Effective and continuous public relations are essential for these organizations if they hope to stay in business.

Nonprofit public relations concentrates most of its efforts around fundraising and enlisting public support for its cause. But like any other PR specialty, fundraising is a precise skill that re quires years of training. In fact, experienced fundraisers can just about name their price. Special-purpose volunteer organizations are prepared to pay experienced fundraisers high salaries because their successful fundraising strategies often produce millions of dollars. Statistics dramatically prove this. Americans contribute about a billion dollars a year to various worthy fundraising drives.

Merely asking for money is not the way fundraisers works. That kind of approach produces disappointing results. The challenge for the public relations staffs employed by these organizations is presenting the key issues to the public in the most appropriate and tasteful manner possible. Once the key issues are presented, whether it be by way of radio, television, or newspapers and magazines, a logical fundraising drive is organized to raise money.

For example, nonprofit organizations frequently rely on special events to amass large sums of money. One highly successful special yearly event is the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon hosted by comedian Jerry Lewis. Lewis has been donating his time to this worthy cause since 1966 and has risen over $245 million for muscular dystrophy. His telethons are an annual event and people willingly give as much as they can afford to this worthy cause.

Getting a big-name personality to back a nonprofit cause is an undeniably appealing public relations strategy. Many stars willingly give a certain amount of time to their favorite causes.

The March of Dimes stages yearly bike-a-thons and walk-a-thons to raise money. Young people, especially, are asked to enlist the support of neighbors, friends and relatives to sponsor them on their walk or biking effort.

Let's say it's an 18-mile bike-a-thon, for example, and you sponsor a biker for $2 for every mile covered. If the entire course is completed, your pledge will be $36. It's quite possible for one person to rise well over $100 from a single event. Multiply that by thousands and you have what amounts to a highly successful fundraising event.

There are also all manner of professional golf and tennis tournaments staged around the country to raise money for such charities as hospitals or medical research. These attract professional sports stars as well as show-business people and they account for millions every year. All of them require the services of PR people to meet their goals.

These are only a few public relations strategies that have been successful in raising money for nonprofit organizations. There are many others. Other than planning and executing a wide variety of special events, public relations workers spend the rest of their time keeping the public informed via brochures, articles and an ongoing barrage of press releases to the media.
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