Since its inception in 2011, First Tee – West Michigan has focused on impacting students who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to golf and the values it can teach because of income, communication, culture, and transportation barriers. For as long as the game of golf has been played, race and income have been huge barriers to access. Caddie programs used to be one avenue for people of color and those with lower incomes to gain access. Caddie programs still exist today, but at a much smaller scale (only five caddie programs remain in West Michigan). So how does a student TODAY who doesn’t know any golfers and has never golfed themselves learn about the game and what it can teach? That’s where First Tee comes in.
First Tee seeks to remove the barriers of entry to golf and what it can teach. One of the major barriers is communication. COVID-19 exacerbated the communication and technology barriers for many families First Tee serves. 2021 marks a new year for First Tee, and with it will come new initiatives to improve, increase, and individualize the communication with our most vulnerable students.
How does First Tee find its participants?
In 2019, 48% of First Tee’s 1,241 participants received a scholarship to participate because of their family income. Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at school receive First Tee’s programs for $5.00 or free, depending on how they participate. In 2019, 50% of students in Kent County (more than 50,000) were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, while in Muskegon (61%, more than 16,000), and Ottawa Counties (32%, more than 14,000) the need was great as well.
First Tee works to provide access to students on scholarship through two different ways: partnerships with schools and other youth-serving organizations, and through open-enrollment sessions. Students receive the same curriculum and programming, but how they get to the golf course is different. In 2020, many of First Tee’s partnerships with schools and youth-serving organizations were put on hold due to COVID-19, which in turn, dropped our scholarship rate from 48% to 32% in 2020. Our 2021 communications plan will help increase the number of students on scholarship we serve. In order to do that, First Tee needs to:
- Improve retention among its existing participants on scholarship
- Be more strategic in recruiting new participants on scholarship.
Improved, Increased, Individuals Communication to our existing low-income students
With a Marketing & Communications Coordinator joining our staff in 2021, First Tee families will receive improved, increased, and individualized communications. Here are a few new tools and initiatives First Tee will use in 2021:
- Hubspot – our new customer resource management platform easily segments participants so they receive emails about program opportunities specific to their community. This way, families in Muskegon receive program info about Muskegon – not Grand Rapids. Likewise, as a donor or volunteer, you can choose to receive information that is applicable to you.
- TextMagic Over time, First Tee has relied more on texting its families rather than emailing them. The reason? Every guardian and parent use texting regardless of their income or background – not all of our families use email frequently.
- Example of how First Tee will use TextMagic to improve communication: When a participant comes to First Tee through a partnership with an organization like the Boys & Girls Club, the only thing required from a guardian or parent before the student participates is filling out a simple application. Some parents do not know that their child is participating in First Tee. But, now through TextMagic, partnership parents and guardians will receive a weekly text sharing what their child learned that day at First Tee, and also be given a question to ask their child about their experience. In the final weeks of the session, parents and guardians will be sent a link to register for the next session available.
- Case Workers – To foster more mentor-mentee relationships in 2021, First Tee asked their Lead Coaches in November to sign up for a new program. Six Lead Coaches opted in, saying they wanted to identify 3-6 participants on scholarship that they’d like to build a deeper relationship with. As a ‘Case Worker,’ our coaches will reach out individually 6-8 times per year to each of their students, sharing upcoming opportunities for six-class sessions, leagues, Saturday tee times, and other program opportunities. We expect the Case Worker initiative to increase retention and progression in the program, and foster more mentor-mentee relationships. Already, more than 75% of students who have participated in more than one session say they view someone at First Tee as a mentor.
- Improved First Tee Store Items with First Tee’s logo – At each session, students earn First Tee bucks (our in-house currency) for good attendance and exhibiting positive behaviors and our Nine Core Values. In the final week of class, students can use First Tee bucks to purchase equipment, apparel, and other goodies. With First Tee’s new brand rollout in September 2020, we will be investing in hundreds of youth-sized First Tee t-shirts and polos to increase awareness, particularly with our partnership and low-income students. T-shirts and polos will be ‘sold’ at the First Tee store to incentivize students to wear them at school, at home, and in their neighborhood.
A strategic approach to finding new participants eligible for First Tee’s scholarship rate
First Tee has relied heavily on partnerships and word of mouth to recruit new participants on scholarship. With COVID-19 temporarily putting our partnerships on hold, First Tee will add new strategic approaches to recruit new students on scholarship in 2021. With a new Marketing & Communications Coordinator in charge, here are two initiatives that will begin in 2021:
- Facebook Advertising: Next spring, First Tee will offer programs at 19 area golf courses. By identifying lower-income neighborhoods nearby to those golf courses and advertising to ages 25-45, First Tee can offer personalized program offerings to families in their neighborhood.
- Door to Door Mailers: With the help of First Tee’s 16 teenage junior coaches, First Tee will distribute simple program advertisements door to door in specific neighborhoods near its golf course locations. This will provide information to new potential participants, while also providing more hours (and earned income) to First Tee’s teenage participants.
Each and every one of these new initiatives will require strategic thought, time, energy, and creativity. Your support at year-end helps First Tee pay for the new Marketing & Communications Coordinator, and also for the increased marketing, mailers, and strategic communication to our families. Thank you for considering First Tee’s year-end campaign, and for supporting deeper relationships with the students that need us the most.