Thursday, December 7

#h#Perfect Volunteer Assignments For Retirees#/h#

Marge Smith is in a unique position to give advice to retirees who want to become volunteers. She knows both volunteers and nonprofit organizations — and she knows them well.

On the nonprofit side, Smith chairs Community Works, which brings together all the nonprofit boards and staff in the area (this year on Monday, January 29), and she runs two to three retreats a month for nonprofit boards and staff. She also teaches nonprofit management at Mercer County Community College, is chair of Childcare Connection’s board of trustees, and is chair of Princeton’s human services commission.

Her work for these organizations exposes her to many volunteers, but she is also vice chair of Hands On Helpers (www.handsonhelpers.org), which lists 500 to 600 specific jobs available to volunteers in area agencies.

“I see a lot of nonprofits,” Smith says, “and I think the nonprofits’ greatest resources are the people — the staff and the volunteers.” She adds that agencies couldn’t afford to pay what this human resource is worth: “The talent of the volunteer force is unbelievable.”

That said, the question remains: How to find the best match between a volunteer’s personality and abilities and the needs of an agency looking for help.

One population segment with time on its hands is retirees, many of whom look forward to volunteering after a successful career. Smith addresses this group when she leads a class on “Volunteering: Giving Back after a Fulfilling Career,” on Thursday, December 7, at 6 p.m. at Mercer County Community College. Cost: $28. For information, call 609-570-3311.

Volunteering, says Smith, is an opportunity “to add interest or learning or meaning to life.” For retirees, it can be a chance to do something they really enjoy. Some people are trying to make up for time in the workforce, sometimes in jobs they hated. In a sense, says Smith, “volunteering gives people the chance to create some part of their ideal job.” Other people want to try new things and, ideally, make a difference in the world.

Smith takes potential volunteers through a series of steps with the goal of finding meaningful volunteer work that matches their skills and interests with what the community and its agencies need:

Analyze skills. First she provides a list of about 150 skills, and asks potential volunteers to check off their predominant ones, and then asks them to think about the ones they never had an opportunity to develop as much as they would have liked. For example, people who have always enjoyed writing, but did not use it much in their job, could help volunteer agencies with newsletters or could interview people who have benefited from the agency’s services, write their stories, and put them on the agency’s website.

Decide how you want to make a difference. To get people to focus on what kind of work they might find meaningful, Smith asks: If someone gave you $2 million, what would you do with what remained after taking care of your family? In responding to this question, observes Smith, “you usually choose something related to your value system. And she adds, “what you answer is how you would spend the money — but you can also make things happen by spending time on a cause.”

Clarify what energizes you and what drains you. First Smith asks people to list three jobs they liked in the left column of a sheet of paper and then to describe what aspects of those jobs they enjoyed on the right. Some possibilities might include: working with people, having a chance to begin and end a project, developing a new skill, working on something whose mission they cared about.

“If you volunteer,” says Smith, “you need to avoid what you don’t like.” She says she hates keeping lists, but points out that some people enjoy having total order, keeping track of things, and doing finances. “There’s not a right or wrong,” she says, “but you will get a sense of components that you like or don’t like.”

Analyze your time availability. Ask yourself a series of questions: When during the week do you have time available — weekends or weekdays, days or nights? Do you envision yourself traveling extensively? If so, you might not want to get involved in a year-round volunteer job. Then think about what kinds of things you can do in a time frame that suits your schedule.

Consider the obligations involved in being on a board. Boards are looking for people with particular skill sets. They usually have nine monthly meetings and have responsibility for ensuring that the organization’s mission is carried out, for making policy decisions, and for hiring and firing the executive director. A board position is for someone with substantial time to devote to the non-profit. It is also right for someone who is interested in oversight. There may also be a financial commitment involved, and there is almost always a mandate to help with fundraising.

Start out with done-in-a-day projects. These include helping at one-day events, like the Race for the Cure or the Special Olympics, or playing piano for senior citizens at a retirement village, a nursing home, or a rehab facility. This can be a good way to sample a number of non-profits and to evaluate the work they do and the staff that directs their efforts.

Help out on special projects. These might include the planning of a fundraising event or of a mission-related conference and would require a four-to-five month commitment.

Sign on for the long haul. Although these commitments may not be year round, the volunteer is expected to show up once a week. Examples include mentoring or tutoring a child. These opportunities sometimes require volunteer training.

Smith plans to end her class by having participants brainstorm matches for each other. Each participant will take his partner’s interests and abilities and time constraints into consideration.

There is no dearth of options. Smith points out that there are 500 to 600 opportunities listed on Hands On Helpers. People can also create their own opportunities. For example, people who like to garden might put in a garden in senior citizen housing, or an artist might paint a mural for a nursery school.

Grill the non-profit. After deciding on a non-profit sector, and analyzing what kind of work is most appealing, potential volunteers would do well to sit down with non-profits on their list and ask some questions.

Smith suggests a number of good ones: Who do I report to? Is there an orientation or training involved? If I have a problem, who do I go to? Will there be someone on site to help out with any issues? What do you expect of your volunteers? Who do I turn to if I run into a problem?

The worst experience for a volunteer is never being used — and Smith says that this is not an uncommon problem. You show up, and the person in charge says, “I didn’t know you were coming in today.” Smith is trying to train agencies to use their volunteers so that this doesn’t happen. “We all know people who have volunteered and then their good will is destroyed. A human being is a gift and to not treat that gift with respect and validation kills the spirit necessary in a good nonprofit.”

— Michele Alperin

Friday, December 8

#h#Playing With the Pros#/h#

Launching one business is a terrifying challenge. Launching another 6 to 10 competitors simultaneously to make the first business work is somewhere between overwhelming and impossible. Yet this is just what happened in 2001 when the country’s first professional lacrosse league was formed.

In the spring of 1999 Jake Steinfeld sat in an airplane thumbing through an in-flight magazine. Suddenly, Steinfeld — a famed personal training pioneer, inventor of the Thighmaster, and trainer to the likes of Harrison Ford and Priscilla Presley — sat up. He read with increasing interest a tale of David Morrow. The article told how, as a Princeton University lacrosse star in the early l990s, Morrow had decided his already blisteringly-fast sport could become even faster with the use of titanium sticks. Morrow had outfitted the Princeton Tigers and they all loved it. Upon graduation, Morrow and his wife, Christine, created Warrior Lacrosse. Today, the article went on, with masterful salesmanship, Warrior Lacrosse (www.lacrosse.com) has grabbed the lion’s share of this burgeoning new sport.

Steinfeld was so excited that he phoned Morrow right from the airport. At their initial lunch, after pleasantries and marketing ploys were swapped, Steinfeld asked Morrow, “Is there any professional lacrosse league?”

“No sir, not as yet,” answered Morrow.

“Well, there is now,” responded Steinfeld. By the end of their conversation, Major League Lacrosse was on its way.

This story, and many others, along with advice on sports management on the collegiate and professional levels, is on tap at the Princeton University Sports Symposium on Friday, December 8, at 1 p.m. at Robertson Hall. For more information E-mail Chris Chaney, the event’s organizer, at cchaney@princeton.edu. Former NBA star Charles Barkley gives the keynote at 1:15 p.m. Other speakers include David Gross, commissioner of Major League Lacrosse and Steve Hellmuth, senior vice president of NBA Entertainment.

Commissioner Gross’s own career in lacrosse has reflected the sport’s popular explosion over the last 20 years. Growing up in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Gross played lacrosse on the high school team and then for Connecticut University. Graduating in l988 with a bachelor’s degree in history, Gross returned to the Boston area and played club lacrosse. Off the field, he was part-owner and manager of Petfield Inc., a clothing manufacturer in Boston.

Two years later, with the altruistic urge to give something back to his sport, Gross started a Boston-area youth league, with the promise that parents would take it over in a shortly. Ten years later, in 2000, Gross was still running his greatly expanded league. Then, fellow lacrosse booster Matt Dwyer asked Gross to join him in running a lacrosse jamboree, and later, stepping in as general manager for the Boston Cannons club team.

When the call for professional teams for the MLL came from Steinfeld and Morrow, the Cannons geared up. Dwyer and Gross developed a business plan and wooed investors. Later in 2000 Morris and Steinfeld tested a six-game series, which proved wildly popular and profitable. With his combined business, marketing, and lacrosse experience, Gross became the ideal choice to head the new, six-team Major League Lacrosse.

Professional lacrosse’s entrance onto the spectator sports scene coincided with an national amateur groundswell. In l990 approximately 50,000 United States students in middle and high schools played lacrosse. Now it’s 400,000, and lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Participation by boys is growing by 10 percent a year, while participation by girls is rising by 16 percent a year.

Despite the sport’s growing roster of amateur players, professional lacrosse teeters precariously at about the stage as pro football in the l940s. But the tools for getting the sport closer to the mainstream of big time entertainment have improved substantially in the intervening decades.

Pro sports ante. The comparatively cheap initial buy-in figure and annual operating costs have proved a lure to potential investors. Typically, a mere $1.5 million can purchase a lacrosse team. Operating expenses, including stadium leasing, front office costs, and local marketing usually run only another $750,000 annually. Player salaries are also remarkably low for sports professionals. For this and other reasons, investors have been ringing the commissioner’s phone off the hook.

“I have found myself pitching the anti-sell to the countless callers who seriously can and want to purchase a team in the MLL,” says Gross.

Viable investors wander in all starry eyed with romantic notions about owning a professional sports team. They envision weekends filled with thrills while an army of minions promote both the team and its owner. Gross quickly disabuses potential owners of that vision.

“This sport can’t afford the broad mass media advertising of the more established NBA or NFL,” says Gross. “Lacrosse must be marketed grassroots.” This is an arena for guerilla marketing rather than splashy prime time advertisements. Experience has shown the correlation: those who market hardest, reap the greatest profits. This means that the owner himself must spearhead the establishment of youth camps and the events that touch the fans. He must sell the sport to high profile sponsors.

The young sport does have one advantage in this selling job — it is inherently fast-paced and exciting. In fact, it makes one wonder, had professional baseball started out on equal footing with the high contact, action-slamming game of lacrosse, how many paying fans would be opting for nine sedate innings behind the plate?

As is the case with any other pro sport, profits come from the gate sales, in-park concessions, and merchandising. Sponsors also add a vital share. Television is typically a break-even proposition. Set-up for locally televised home games costs about $13,000, with the primary benefit being promotion. Teams fortunate enough to be chosen for ESPN’s Lacrosse Game of the Week, however, can net some substantial cash.

Market grooming. At age six Gross found himself awestruck, standing by the players entryway as the Boston Bruins filed by onto the ice. All the other players stared straight ahead, focusing on the second half. “But I will never forget Phil Esposito coming by, stopping, looking at me, and as he rubbed my head, saying, ‘Let’s play a good game for one of our greatest fans,’” recalls Gross.

This treasured memory has formed the basis for Gross’ marketing theory. So today, when you visit a professional lacrosse game, watch the players from both teams as the game ends. Each chooses a spot, chats with the fans, and signs every autograph handed him — by order of the commissioner.

“We’ve got to market this sport one fan at a time,” says Gross. Currently, lacrosse has the kind of gate that allows for this more intimate approach. On average, 4,000 spectators are attending professional lacrosse games, with Denver topping the list with an average 11,000 draw. Although some say that that team’s owner — the Denver Broncos — gives the Denver franchise an unfair competitive edge.

The Boston Cannons (number two draw) and the Long Island Lizards far outshine the New Jersey Pride. Gross reasons that the Pride’s sluggish attendance is due simply to fans traditionally identifying with cities rather than states. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, probably inspires more passion than a team named the “Pennsylvania Steelers” would.

Following the one-fan-at-a-time sales approach requires great and energetic creativity of all of a team’s members. Marketed as an inexpensive, fun, safe, exciting family night out, lacrosse is making strides. Tickets are being kept at $15. Much like Trenton Thunder and other minor league baseball teams, lacrosse teams hold endless contests, shoot off fireworks, keep the videoboard lively, and offer all manner of in-park activities.

One team sent an E-mail to all its season ticket holders soliciting their advice about how their game experience could be improved. The mailing received an unheard of 80 percent response, and more importantly, a 70 percent increase in season ticket sales.

Last year the MLL itself, now expanded to 10 teams, sent all of its fans a questionnaire, asking their opinions on various lacrosse rules. The fans, not able to imagine having any effect on NFL or MLB rules, were stunned. Over 70 percent returned the survey.

Players go pro. With an average salary of $13,000 a season, don’t look to see lacrosse professionals living like NBA players — at least not on their lacrosse pay checks. Gross notes that a surprising number of lacrosse players maintain white collar jobs, both during the season and after the season. A high percentage of them are in the financial field.

Yet, increasingly, players are finding ways to make lacrosse a full-time profession. Many coach teams or run camps. Private sessions for up to four adults or children typically can bring a pro player $1,000 for a few hours’ work. Players who used to hire onto camps as coaches are now starting their own camps, and taking home bigger slices of the pie. For the top player/entrepreneurs such ventures can net as much as $250,000 a year. “No one is getting really rich here, and it makes the players people with whom the fans can identify,” says Gross.

In a nation that is already chock-a-block with professional sports viewing opportunities, the challenge facing lacrosse is enormous. But after seven seasons, Major League Lacrosse is in the black. Expanded to 10 teams, it is now selecting the applicants for still more. Grassroots marketing, like those titanium sticks, is proving to be a winner.

— Bart Jackson

Tuesday, December 12

#h#Law & Environment: The Final Tally#/h#

If environmentalists appear disorganized, it’s probably because they are waging war on so many fronts. Like a thousand-headed hydra, every planet-saving victory breeds two more urgent issues.

Fortunately for New Jersey, both the legislature and the voting public are at last expressing strong concerns for the state’s earth, air, and water. The state’s last three governors have proved themselves as ardent environmentalists as funds allow.

As a result, whole new blocks of environmental legislation have been enacted. The effectiveness of these safeguards — and their side effects — is the subject of the New Jersey Institute of Continuing Legal Education’s “2007 Review of New Jersey’s Environmental Laws” on Tuesday, December 12, at 4 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. Cost: $189. Call 732-214-8500.

Speakers include moderator Lewis Goldshore, partner in Lawrenceville law firm Goldshore, Cash & Kalac; state senator Bob Smith (D-17th), chair of the senate’s environmental committee; Lisa P. Jackson, commissioner of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; John Tassini, assignment judge in New Jersey’s office of administrative law; and John Slimm, attorney with Cherry Hill-based law firm Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin.

Son of a New York City attorney, Goldshore states, “I knew I was going to be lawyer from age five. The only question ever was what kind.” After earning a bachelor’s degree from the City University of New York, Goldshore went directly to St. John’s University Law School, graduating two years later. He then went to Los Angeles to study the adverse effects of air pollution. While there, he earned a graduate degree in urban planning from the University of Southern California.

Goldshore has earned his reputation as an expert on environmental legislation. In his 40 years of practice, he has served as special assistant to the commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection and currently serves as special counsel to the New Jersey League of Municipalities. Along with co-author Marsha Wolf, he is the author of “New Jersey Environmental Law.”

There are always a host of proposed environmental laws before the New Jersey legislature. Aside from “several geeky lawyer issues,” as he terms it, Goldshore lists five major environmental laws of this past year that will affect life and trade in the state:

Brownfields cautioned. For the past 15 years the purifying and redevelopment of formerly polluted brownfields has been something of a land boom in New Jersey. Both buyers and developers assumed that the DEP’s seal of approval meant that they were completely safe. But two recent incidents, and resulting legislation, will surely temper brownfield building.

This past July 28, the Kiddie College Daycare Center in Franklin Township blew up due to excessively high mercury vapors in the air. The center had been built atop a formerly-closed thermometer factory, and it still used some of the plant’s structures. One-third of the 69 children and 9 adults in the center initially tested above the safe level of mercury. With this, public and legislative opinion also exploded. Additional inspection and cleanups were mandated for brownfields.

For the more than 8,000 known contaminated sites in New Jersey, the DEP has set very strict surface water and ground water quality standards. These came in with the l997 Brownfields and Contamination Sites Recovery Act, and have not wavered. From the outset, developers have pushed for “more flexible cleanup standards based on specific risk.”

In 2003 revisions in the l997 Brownfields Act were published, and the looked-for flexibility was not among them. So developers headed for court. In August, having run full course, the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled on the case in favor of the DEP, and upheld the original, non-variable ground and surface water quality standards.

“While I think the law will not eliminate any specific brownfield from consideration, it will temper the building enthusiasm and act as a yellow light to the entire industry,” says Goldshore.

Flood area regs. “The problem of flood plain development, extant and future, is not quite as simple as saying don’t build on low areas,” says Goldshore. First, it is easy to tell the flooded resident just to sell and move on, but what fairy godfather buyer will wade in and offer to purchase the homes?

Besides, rivers are a dynamic force of nature. Courses change and today’s high ground is tomorrow’s swamp. Virtually four-fifths of New Jersey cannot count itself totally immune. Additionally, Goldshore points out, the reservoirs in this state are not coordinated. They must discharge into streams according to the need of immediate locales.

Caught between the rising tide of waters, public protest, and fiscal reconstruction costs, the state government has severely tightened all flood plain development regulations. While this move is generally applauded, Goldshore offers an alternative take. “I fear it may be too little, too late,” he says. “There is so much building on flood plains already. But even worse, I fear these new regulations will give a sense of false security. Just because the state permits it, does not mean God will not flood you out.”

Reaching the beach. New Jersey residents spend half the year fleeing the waters coming after them, and the other half adamantly chasing the waters as they recede. Long before the Colonies united, New Jersey residents argued over who had right of access to what waterways.

Charles II settled the argument in 1660 with his Neap High Tide edict, stating that shorefront property limits ended at the highest tide watermark. This meant that at a lower tide any citizen of the Crown could presumably walk the entire coast and not trespass. This precedent has basically remained intact until today.

On November 6 the DEP issued its new Public Access Proposal for waterways. It restates the fact that all tidal waterways and their shores are held in trust, but it enhances their usability. It requires municipalities to provide parking, restrooms, and other facilities for the public. (Previously, some communities, while legally bound to allow day visitors, tried to discourage them by having not one toilet or parking space available in town.)

Further, the proposal suggests repeal of the old Public Access to the Waterfront Rule with the new Public Trust Rights Rule. The difference between these two legal mouthfuls is one of scope. The former primarily mandated perpendicular access to tidal waters. The new Trust Rights Rule would limit shoreside, riverfront, and streamside development and aid communities that partnered with the Green Acres and Shore Protection programs.

Highlands in stone. The new master plan for the New Jersey Highlands, similar to the Adirondacks Forest Preserve in New York, fairly well halts development within its bounds. Originally passed in August, 2004, the Highlands Preservation Act set aside 400,000 acres in the northwest corner of New Jersey, including parts of seven counties and 52 municipalities.

Within its preserved areas no major development is allowed, and in adjacent areas development must work within a transfer credit system. The only waivers are for health and safety reasons, such as an expanded fire or police station.

This nixing of development brings a natural conflict. Half of the law contends that an individual should be able to do what he wants with his land. The other half insists that freedom ends where environmental (and thus public) safety begins. Goldshore notes that most of New Jersey is lauding this because most residents are not affected. As he puts it, “we think it’s all right for the state to take another man’s land without compensation to make us a preserve. But it would be a horrible injustice to take our land.”

And so the battles continue, and the legislature labors to forge uneasy compromises, knowing that they will soon grow brittle and demand replacements. One ray of hope comes in form of a bridge over the traditional chasm between developers and environmentalists.

Developers are less and less referring to environmentalists as delusional tree-huggers. Meanwhile, in environmental circles, it is now considered not judicious to refer to everyone who erects a structure as a rapist. The fights continue, but the willingness to negotiate grows.

— Bart Jackson

#h#PR’s Bright Future#/h#

There is no doubt that marketing and public relations are big business and getting bigger. With everything from spandex bicycling suits to the “War Against Terror” being hyped to the hilt by public relations specialists whose sole goal is to make us all into ardent believers, it’s not surprising that this is a popular career for many enterprising young people. With ever-increasing opportunities for public edification in the hundreds of new TV networks stretching across the dial and the still-blooming Internet, as well as subtle practices such as silent publicity, the future is so bright that — well — PR specialists might as well wear shades.

While some may simply say that selling is its focus, the truth is that the profession is more complex than most people think. In fact, according to one longtime practitioner, there is a noble side to modern-day PR.

“We are there to help corporations or organizations craft their message,” says Larry Litwin, professor of communications at Rowan University. “Truth is an important part of good public relations. I don’t like to use the word, ‘spin,’ because it has bad associations for some people. But there certainly are people who use that word when describing what public relations practitioners do for a living. But there really is a lot more to it than that.”

Litwin stresses that modern public relations is not just publicity, but a management and counseling function that now, more than ever, plays a major role in a corporation or organization’s marketing and branding efforts.

“Public relations embodies things like trust, loyalty, judgment, ethics, and integrity,” he says. “I see public relations as a leadership role. It’s like marketing in some ways. You don’t develop a product until there is a need.”

Litwin is the keynote speaker at NJ CAMA (New Jersey Communications and Marketing Association) on Tuesday, December 12, at 11:30 a.m. at the New Jersey Hospital Association at 760 Alexander Road. He speaks on “The Changing Role of the PR Practitioner and Its Impact on Marketing and Branding.” This is the organization’s holiday gala, and also features a silent auction with a chance to win products and services. For more information or to register, visit www.NJCama.org, call 609-799-6000, ext. 25, or E-mail to JWitte@cmasolutions.com

According to Litwin, the key to successful public relations is building and maintaining credibility. Organizations, corporations, and manufacturers have to become credible. “When I work with my students,” he says, “I prepare them to be ready for the not-too-distant future when they are sitting at the corporate table and advising their superiors on the role that public relations plays on integrated marketing communications.”

There was a day when public relations was a service that many considered somewhat nefarious. This is no longer the case. “In the past people or companies would hire a public relations company to clean up a mess that they got themselves into,” says Litwin. “But we are now way beyond that. Sure it’s brand building and image building and we are there when there is a crisis, but we believe in the importance of ethics. We aren’t there to spray perfume around. We tell the truth, although I’m not saying we don’t stretch the truth sometimes. But we have never lied.”

Credibility is gained, he says, by being honest and open regarding opposing points of view. “It is in our interest for the media to write objective articles on the organization or business we are working for,” he says. “So when we distribute information to the media, we always try to add an editor’s note that directs them to other points of view. This adds to credibility, and I believe that as we move into the future, public relations will become more accepted, and will lead the charge of advertising.”

According to Litwin, good public relations creates a synergistic environment, not unlike a winning sports teams or a successful global corporation. But the business of creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts is easier said than done. First, everything and everybody must work together in order to achieve a common goal and this is true whether it is the Pentagon, the Green Bay Packers, or a mom and pop dry cleaning business.

With the development of technology, public relations has needed to adapt with the times. “Product placement is very important these days because of the popularity of TiVo,” says Litwin. “So there is a move now to put advertising right into the programming. When Seinfeld sits in his living room sipping a Pepsi, that works as advertising. And with modern techniques, that Pepsi can be changed in the future into a Coke can, a Fresca, or whatever they want.”

Another technique in modern PR is silent publicity. “When Bill Cosby walks out on stage wearing a sweatshirt with ‘Temple’ printed across it, that certainly helps the university. You couldn’t buy that kind of publicity. It’s the same with Rutgers and the success of the football team this season. Everyone in New Jersey has Scarlet Fever, and consequently applications at the university are up this year.”

Raised in South Jersey, Litwin is a graduate of Glassboro State College and Parsons College in Iowa, with a B.A. in business administration. He has worked in the communication professions for over 40 years, including serving as a public relations director for various school districts and working as a radio and TV reporter and anchor for ABC in New York and KYW in Philadelphia. He also spent two years in the U.S. Department of Labor during Elizabeth Dole’s tenure as Secretary of Labor. He is the author of two books, “The ABCs of Strategic Communication: Thousands of Terms, Tips, and Techniques that Define the Professions” and “The Public Relations Practitioner’s Playbook” (both from Kendall/Hunt).

For Litwin public relations is a service that serves both organizations and corporations as well as the public. As the world becomes ever more complicated, Litwin says that PR will play a role that is doubly important in the future. “When I sign off on my E-mails, I always have trust, loyalty, judgment, ethics, and integrity,” he says. “Those aren’t just words. I use them to guide what I do in public relations, and what I teach my students who are coming up in the profession.”

— Jack Florek

Wednesday, December 13

#h#The ABCs of RFPs#/h#

Using RFPs (request for proposal and RFQs (request for quotation) can be a great way to grow a business, but how can you keep them from “disappearing down a black hole” and never reappearing with the promised business?

Three members of the Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce will conduct a seminar to help business owners better handle this frustrating and time-consuming chore. “Growing Your Business Through the RFQ and RFP Process,” a presentation sponsored by the chamber’s technology committee, takes place on Wednesday, December 13, at 8 a.m, at the Conference Center at Mercer. Cost: $30. For reservations call 609-689-9960.

Mike Miller, head of the technology committee, and a co-owner of SetNow, a web development company based in Ewing, says the seminar will help business owners learn to create compelling, competitive proposals that will win business.

The process can be time consuming, but “it is a great way for a business to grow to the next level,” says Miller. “Many government agencies and corporations follow these formal processes. They need to find out the capabilities, references, and track record of the companies they do business with. RFPs can give you exposure to a larger company that you have never dealt with before.”

The panel of experts speaking at the seminar include David S. McCann of the Wivenhoe Management Group in Westfield; Ed Wiegner, a sales, business development, and business communications expert; and Jeff Callahan, a sales force development expert.

Callahan has experience in RFPs from both sides. Working in sales management for several years with Bausch and Lomb, he received and reviewed RFPs for a variety of projects.

Callahan didn’t start his career in the business world. He received a B.S. in speech and hearing science from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in audiology from Vanderbilt University. He then got a job at Hackensack Medical Center “sitting in the basement twisting dials.” When Bausch and Lomb approached him to join the company’s hearing aid division, he decided to try getting involved in the business world.

In nine years at Bausch and Lomb he moved from an entry level sales position to sales training manager and regional manager. But he was on the road all the time. “I have a wife and kids. I like to actually see them,” he says. “I had a platinum card with Marriott. It takes 75 nights in a year to get a platinum card — and that was just one of my platinum cards.”

Callahan left Bausch and Lomb to start his own company, Sales Strategies and Solutions, which has offices at 116 Village Drive. He owns Sandler Sales Institute Training Centers in Princeton, Freehold, and Morristown. He not only responds to RFPs but teaches other business people how to better handle the process.

“Many businesses get a fairly high number of these requests,” he says. Putting them together requires time, resources, research, and manpower. And then, too often, nothing happens. “Many businesspeople become discouraged when they’ve spent hours faithfully filling out dozens of forms, only to receive nothing from them,” he says. There are ways to streamline the process — and to up the odds of getting business from an RFP. Callahan recommends five steps to accomplish these goals:

Create a template. There are standard items that have to be in every proposal a company sends out. Callahan suggests creating a template with this information so that you don’t have to start from scratch each time. There is no boilerplate proposal. Some things must be customized for each proposal, but each industry also has certain standard items that have to be in every RFP. Take some time analyzing the RFP requirements for each industry you want to target and create a computerized template that you can then “personalize and make specific and meaningful to each situation,” he says.

Qualify the client. “Just because an RFP arrives on your computer doesn’t mean you have to jump through hoops to fill it out,” says Callahan. The qualification process can be slightly different for different industries. It’s always a good idea to find out as much as you can about exactly what a potential client is looking for.

Ideally, that conversation takes place in a face-to-face meeting. “I ask questions about what they are looking for, their budget, how they will make the decision on who gets the business,” he says. “I get a sense of their urgency about the project.”

This is the best approach. It gives the bidder a feel for his chances, and helps him decide whether the business is worth going after. But sometimes, especially in technology-related industries, face-to-face meetings are difficult to arrange. But there are still ways to gather information. Callahan suggests using E-mail or phone calls, “whatever is appropriate,” to learn more about the company and its needs before deciding to respond to the RFP.

“Some people think that if they fill out X number of proposals, they’ll get X amount of business,” he says. “I worked with one company where the philosophy was that the sales people had to respond to 10 proposals every week.”

After talking with the sales people he discovered that what was really happening was that the sales people averaged two “real proposals” each week, then found eight more to make their quota. “Most of the proposals were found after lunchtime on Thursday,” he says.

These quota-filling proposals had little chance of actually producing real business, but the sales people spent as much time filling out each of them as they spent filling out proposals with a better chance of success. “This is not an efficient use of time,” says Callahan. Qualifying which proposals are worth the time means that a company can send out fewer proposals and see a much higher rate of return. “I’ve seen companies go from a 10 to 20 percent return rate to a 50 to 80 percent return rate,” he says.

Deliver the proposal. Callahan recommends delivering the proposal in person if that is at all possible. This gives the bidder an opportunity to discuss what he is offering and he is offering it.

“It depends on the nature of the business,” says Callahan. “Some industries just want to deal with E-mail.” But even through E-mail, take the time to explain the proposal. At the end of the discussion learn about the next steps. Ask about the timeline. When will a decision on this proposal be made? Who will make the decision? And make sure that you ask when you can call back to find out about the results.

Follow-up on the results. Following up after you have submitted the proposal is important whether or not you get the bid, says Callahan. In fact, learning why you didn’t get a particular bid can help you gain more business in the future. He recommends scheduling a follow-up meeting.

“Explain that is a no pressure, information-only conversation,” he says. Ask why you didn’t get the bid. Was something left out of your proposal? Was there something you could have done that would have swung decision your way?

Stay motivated. It can be difficult to stay motivated when filling out dozens of RFPs that “fall into a black hole,” says Callahan. “Before you filled out the proposal everyone at the other company wanted to talk to you. Now that your proposal is in play you get voice mail, or you’re told, “She can’t take your call right now. We’ll call you.”

Many people who are new to the proposal process “have an initial negative experience and just stop doing it. But they are missing a huge business opportunity,” says Callahan. His advice: Don’t take it personally if you get a rejection.

“There is no silver bullet for winning every proposal,” says Callahan. “You can’t get discouraged.”

— Karen Hodges Miller

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