Thinking of boosting your educational programming? You’re not alone. Many associations have been bulking up their course schedules in response to surging membership, the increasing complexity of the transaction, and increases in state continuing education requirements.
Associations add courses with an eye toward meeting member needs and generating important nondues revenue along the way. Maybe it’s time to ask, do your educational offerings make the grade?
Education Can Mean Revenue
Build a dependable educational program today, and you put your association in line for growth tomorrow. “Every association needs income-producing projects, whether those projects are schools or publications,” says Deborah Lopes, director of education for the Chicago Association of Realtors®.
Although the Chicago association has nearly 17,000 members, its Realtor® school counts more than 28,000 students. Five satellite schools allow the city-based association to reach more potential members and benefit from a wider pool of tuition-paying nonmembers. The school has been an integral part of the association for more than 40 years. Is it lucrative? “Absolutely,” says Lopes. “The school pays for itself and makes a significant financial contribution to our association operations and our membership recruitment efforts.”
As the director of member services for the Realtor® Association of Pioneer Valley Inc. in Springfield, Mass., Ben Scranton knows a little something about recruiting members. He says marketing your education program to members and nonmembers can provide a solid source of nondues revenue. Currently, 70 percent of his association’s budget comes from nondues revenue, including funds from a store, renting space, ads, sponsorships, member meetings, and, of course, education. “Last year, our education offerings brought in $330,000 in a budget of $1.1 million.”
Scranton markets the education program primarily through the new-member section of the association’s Web site. Members can register and pay online for courses. In addition, he sends news releases and prints upcoming educational offerings in a course catalog.
Last year, the board of directors for the Idaho Association of Realtors® Inc. voted to establish a full-fledged real estate school and enter the pre-license market. Jill Randall was hired to direct the project.
Establishing Randall’s position was a long-term investment, as was the construction of new classrooms. To offset expenses, Randall rents out the classroom space when school isn’t in session. “We’ve made the program self-sufficient,” she says.
Nationwide, education directors have discovered other creative sources of revenue. For example, Randall’s association sells advertising in course catalogs to local moving and inspection companies, which helps offset mailing costs. Her association also offers discounted multi-course packages to students, which encourages them to purchase more classes earlier in the year.
To those considering a similar step, Randall offers this advice: Develop a business plan that defines your business, identifies your customer, and establishes the framework for marketing, financing, and operating the business. “Developing a business plan gave me the direction I needed to build the program,” she says, “especially since committee members change from year to year. Having a plan gave the program continuity.”
Resorts to Rookies, and Everything in Between
A good business plan is just a start. You still need to have the right courses and the right instructors.
AEs say the best way to serve your membership is with a wide range of courses. Randall works with 22 local associations around Idaho to determine what topics they want to see covered. “A lot of boards have an established schedule and want to be able to offer their members so many hours in a specific price range,” she says. For example, in Ketchum she offers a $50, four-hour course exploring groundwater and wells, while in Sun Valley, she offers a $300 weekend course highlighting recreation and resort sales.
Although the popularity of courses can vary by region, risk management and ethics courses have a broad appeal. So do commercial investment courses that explain tax laws specific to commercial properties. In rural areas, classes that discuss fair representation of historic and agricultural properties are popular.
As the number of licensees has grown, so has the need for basic training, Randall says. A course for rookies is currently her most popular class. The two-day course is “real world,” she says. “It helps associates learn street smarts—what they didn’t learn in their licensing class. We’ve had great success with this program, and other states are interested in it.”
To determine what courses to offer, AEs say they hold focus groups with brokers and sales associates, conduct member surveys, and network with other education providers. “The programs you deliver aren’t about what the education director or the leadership wants,” says Lopes. “They’re about what the members want and need.”
Scranton agrees. “The number one piece of advice I’d give to other associations is to determine member needs and wants,” says Scranton, who recently conducted a member-needs survey. The survey had a 23-percent response rate, with members asking for education on technology, safety, agency, and ethics.
In response to members’ concern for personal safety, Scranton began offering a self-defense class for women. Participants wear casual clothes and face off against a heavily padded male instructor.
In Search of Good Teachers
A good instructor can make all the difference in the popularity of your course offerings. Scranton looks for instructors who can offer either a local perspective or a particular expertise. “If we’re covering a specific topic, such as lead-based paint,” he says, “the instructor may not have the teaching experience per se but may be well qualified in the subject.”
Instructor fees will vary depending on whether you use local instructors or bring in national instructors from other areas. Using local talent generally lessens your cost, says Randall.
“There are also many state or local government agencies that are available to provide training at little or no cost,” she says. “For example, I’ve worked with Idaho’s Bureau of Community and Environmental Health to create an environmental course for Realtors® in Idaho. The Bureau provides materials, the speaker, and most of the travel costs to provide education all around the state. It’s a partnership that meets all our needs.”
Scranton says he typically pays instructors $200–$250 for a two-hour class, although payment varies depending on the length of the class. He also spends $3,500 to $4,000 once a year for a national speaker, which can be a great draw. With an out-of-town speaker, don’t forget to factor in travel expenses.
In Illinois, instructors must be licensed brokers with documented adult teaching experience—ideally in real estate–related topics. For Lopes, prospective faculty must also be proficient in current classroom technology, such as the use of Microsoft PowerPoint and the Internet. Almost 90 percent of Lopes’s teachers work part-time, and they all work as independent contractors. Their fees run from $30 to $125 per hour, depending on the course.
How easy it is to draw instructors may depend on the size of your market. Randall says finding successful brokers who are willing to take time from their weekends to teach is her toughest challenge. For Lopes, in Chicago, there’s a large instructor base to draw from. “They come to us. They want to teach,” she says.
Stay Ahead of the Curve
As the real estate industry evolves, education programs need to keep up. “Associations need to stay ahead of the curve with new courses and be innovative in the way those courses are delivered,” says Scranton.
Strengthening your association’s educational program now will help you lay the foundation for future growth. “Give students what they want,” Lopes says, “and they will come back time and time again.”