This is another in our series of FIRST How-Tos, this one focused on building strong community networking skills for teams. Community networking serves multiple purposes, from helping make FIRST robotics a community priority through increased visibility, to nurturing the development of supportive team resources, to helping build a vital academic and corporate skill in team members. This Instructable is useful for all four program levels, and can be a good training tool for coaches, mentors and students at the beginning of each season. You can find more FIRST Instructables in our FIRST Robotics Collection.
FIRST is a STEM education program that uses robot challenges to build science and technology skills and interests for youth ages 6 to 18, in a character driven program designed to inspire self-confidence, leadership, and life skills . With support from a bunch of generous Fortune 500 corporations, educational and professional institutions, foundations, and individuals, FIRST provides more than $22 million in college scholarships to high school kids in the program, and serves over 400,000 students in 80 countries. The suite of programs includes FIRST® Robotics Competition (FRC® ) for students in Grades 9-12; FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC® ) for Grades 7-12; FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL® ) for Grades 4-8; and Junior FIRST® LEGO®League (Jr.FLL®) for Grades K-3. Visit USFIRST.org for more information nationally.
- How to Start a FIRST Team
- FIRST Teams Guide to Effective Outreach
- FIRST Mentoring
- Competition Readiness for FIRST Teams
You can also join the FIRST Group on Instructables!
Step 1: FIRST Things FIRST: FIRST Vision & Mission
In order for teams to perform the best and most effective community networking, they have to understand the program they're involved in, especially the Mission and Vision of FIRST. The most important rule in sales, whether you're selling a product, service or idea, is to believe in the value of what you're selling. Lots of times we involve youth in things because we believe these things are good for them. With FIRST, youth pretty quickly come to see why it's fun and useful, but we may not spend enough time on the sharing with them the underlying social value of the program.
Take some time to familiarize yourself and your team with the history and goals of FIRST as an organization, before you take your call for support into the community.
“To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.” Dean Kamen, Founder
To inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentorbased programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.
Step 2: Take Stock: Look Inside Your Team and Outside Your Neighborhood
Start by getting a sense of the lay of the land around where your team meets. Whether you meet at a school, church, community center or in member's garage or living room, do a Google Maps search on your area. A few companies and organizations will show up naturally in this initial search, probably a few you didn't about.
Browse around a bit, and start taking note of potential resources. Don't discount anything - a local restaurant is potentially as useful as a local paint shop or electronics store.
And don't overlook the potential support base related to your team. Find out what family and friends do for a living, and learn about special skills or resources they might have and could potentially share. You might find out a team member's relative works in an automotive shop, or for a company that provides grants to employees working with FIRST or other youth programs.
Step 3: Get Specific
- Universities, colleges and technical or vocational schools that might have an engineering component.
- Nearby businesses that might be able to provide funding or sponsorship, even if they aren’t engineering or robotics related. T-shirt companies and printers can make very helpful friends and supporters.
- Local chapters of professional groups like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Manufacturing Engineers, retired engineers groups or software user groups.
- Materials suppliers
Step 4: Google Your Town
When you've got a pretty good list of potential companies and resources in your immediate area, repeat your search looking in the bigger neighborhood of your city or town. Look for some bigger scale companies and organizations, including corporate chains and big box stores.
Step 5: Market Your Team
After creating a list of potential supporters (or while doing so... some of your team members may be more interested in the marketing part of community networking than the research part), market your team via:
- A website – Blogspot or Wordpress both offer free and easy to maintain website development resources
- Social Networking resources – Twitter, Facebook, etc. - make sure you have a Social Media Policy in place first! It doesn't have to be anything complicated: FIRST Focused and Graciously Professional pretty much says it all. But do be clear on expectations if your team has social media accounts.
- Information sheets that are visually attractive and easy to read, about:
– Your team
– Your needs
– FIRST robotics (visit USFIRST.orgfor printable marketing resources for all programs - scroll down near the bottom to "Marketing Tools")
- Press releases announcing events and competition appearances.
Step 6: Be Clear About Needs
Be clear about needs, but be open to all types of help! Money is great, but so are in-kind donations of materials, workshop use, printing, and more. Some examples of other useful contributions include:
- Opening businesses or research facilities up to team field trips
- Tutoring or mentoring help in any of a number of fields, ranging from computer programming, to building and design, general robotics instruction, team presentations
- Coaching support
- Team sponsorship
- Donations for registration, kit or competition fees
- Materials support
The more open your team is to a variety of support, the more your community can support you!
Step 7: Make Introductions
Send a note of introduction to potential sponsors and supporters that includes:
- Photo of team
- Exactly what you’re looking for: mentors, money, space, materials
- Your team packet with info about the team
- FIRST robotics information
You don't need to send all of that in your first note, of course. Start with a greeting and the team info sheet, and go from there.
Step 8: Follow Up!
Wait a couple of weeks after reaching out to companies and individuals, and then follow up with those you haven't heard from with a second letter, email or phone call.
Rinse and Repeat as needed.
It can take two, three, four or a half dozen or more times to connect. That's just the reality of both fundraising and modern communications. Follow up politely, but repeatedly, until you get a yay or a nay, and then move on accordingly.
Step 9: Be Gracious!
Be gracious in both rejection and success. To those who say they can't help, thank them for their time, and tell them the team would still be happy to share their program at some later date. Consider issuing invitations to upcoming events even to those who say they can't help at the moment.
For those who do come through:
- Be prompt, polite and profuse in your gratitude for any and all support you receive. This is especially critical for grants received from FIRST donors and other large grantors, from whom you would like to continue receiving grant support. Grantors need to know their funds are received, appreciated and put to good use.
- Have students write or sign thank you notes with a team photo on them. One of the first meetings of the season, when everyone is together, is an excellent time to do this! Then all the team has to do is mail thank yous as needed.
- Thank sponsors, donors and mentors on your team website,list supporters on team shirts, in team literature and on your robot, if possible.
- Update sponsors, mentors and supporters regularly and mention them regularly to others.
- Invite them to events and tournaments, outreach programs, and meetings.
- Visit your supporters & stay in touch!
Gratitude goes a long way towards encouraging others to support you, too – and it's a great message to get across to youth, that being nice, polite, kind, gracious and grateful – in short, exhibiting Gracious Professionalism nets you more -- and more enduring --support.
Step 10: Networking Resources
Some additional resources:
Non-Engineering Mentor Organization (NEMO) - Finding Mentors
4H Social Media Toolkit - nicely adaptable for FIRST teams
Now go out there and build your FIRST support network! Share back some of your own marketing and networking best practices, and resources, too!