My biggest and most important piece of advice:
Start off small, and be ruthless about it.
I’ll say it again:
Start off small, and be ruthless about it.
Every person I’ve helped start a project in their town has agreed that starting small is a good idea – and most of them have then wound up running their first year of the project at two or three times the size they had originally planned. That’s awesome for the kids – but can be extremely stressful for you. If you’ve never had a thousand people all trying to get information from you at the same time, and tried to coordinate logistics for that thousand people, a thousand kids, and a couple dozen schools, figuring it out first with two or three hundred kids is a really, really good idea. I said be ruthless about it, because it will grow as big as you let it in the first year. People want to help. Having a stampede of people wanting to help is a beautiful thing. But only if you’ve got the time, infrastructure and resources in place to let them. In the third year of running the project I tracked the time it took just for the allocating kids to people, adjusting, and following up; that piece of the project alone equated to three weeks of 8 hour shifts. If you’re working full-time and that’s before and after you’ve clocked in, that’s a lot of time. And that’s just one tiny piece of the process before the physical stuff starts. You might be better at estimating time requirements than me, but it took more time than I expected.
If you don’t already have it, you need to build trust with the community before you can ask them to trust you with their details, not to mention the trust of the schools with children’s details. (You’ll also need to get a feel for how much work is actually involved, what kind of time commitment is needed, your weak points and strengths). Aaaaand, I’ll say it again:
Start off small, and be ruthless about it.
I started off with one school in Cannons Creek the first year I did the project – it was a school I already had a relationship with, I’d done a few projects and fundraisers to help out, so they knew me. I wasn’t some random guy asking for the age and genders of all their kids.
The second year I added another school and Women’s Refuge centres – even scaling up from 80 kids to 350 was a big jump. But that taught me what I needed to know before scaling the project up further.
In year three when we grew to 20 schools and 3500 kids, it was only manageable because I had an idea of what things people were going to need from me, and what I could set up in advance, to minimise the time spent on the manual stuff.
This year it’s around 4500 kids so far. So another increase, and again I’ve learned a lot about how to manage the process across a few thousand people. Here’s a few of the things I think are important to know/remember.
Understand this: 5% won’t understand that.
No matter how you choose to write your communications, in any population there will be people who don’t understand it, misinterpret it, don’t read it – some will even not read it, then get angry because as far as they’re concerned you never told them.
Some people are just angry.
Yes, people will get angry, even though what you’re doing is a pretty good thing – some people are just angry. Or not good at communicating on the internet. Or both. Just know that and accept that you won’t make everybody happy.
Some presents will be no-shows.
Some people will sign up, and then for whatever reason won’t deliver the presents they signed up for. This happens every year. It’s about 3% in Wellington. Some let me know, some don’t. You need a system for backup presents (rapid response buyers works).
People need info and answers, not you.
Automate the information. Write good FAQs, make them easy to access and direct people to them. Encourage people to ask questions of each other on the Facebook page. Don’t try to be the source of all knowledge and answers. You can do that for 100 people, even 300. But don’t be that for 1000 people. It’s do-able of course, but it’s not a fun way to spend your weekends. In year three I made auto-replies to the common things people were emailing me about. In year four I’ve made a Facebook Chatbot that does the same, and a friend helped out by building an automated allocating application where people can sign up and be auto-allocated their children (this is the Shoebox System I talk about in a couple of paragraphs below). As long as the community can still connect with each other, and me when needed, it works, and it’s more manageable.
The Shoebox System
We’re just finishing up an online database system (the Shoebox System) which automates people signing up and being allocated their kid. It basically works like this:
You load a spreadsheet with the kid’s details into the website.
- A gifter signs up
- They’re automatically allocated a kid and all the details they need
- They can sign back in at any point and check those details
- They buy the present and click ‘I’ve dropped off’
- You can check the status of all presents, export a list of any that haven’t been dropped off yet to send reminder emails to etc.
You’re welcome to use that if you want, just let me know.
Some of the things you need:
- Schools that want to take part.
- List of the kids from the school. If you can get them to include an interest for the kid, it makes things much easier for the giver. If you want to use the database/system we’ve built, there’s a Google Sheets template that you can ask the schools to fill out, then you just upload that as a CSV file.
- People to volunteer and donate presents
- A Facebook page to spread the word
- Storage space for the presents (they take up more room than you’d think).
- Drop off points for givers to drop the presents off to.
- Transport to get the presents from the drop-off points to your storage space.
- Time and helpers to sort the presents into the schools and check that all have been delivered. There’s a lot of different ways to do this – I’ve done a few, numbered each kid with a letter and number, the letter corresponding to a school, the number corresponding to the kid on the school’s roll – they can then check off who has been delivered and who hasn’t. Use what works for you.
- Transport to get the presents from the storage space to the school.
- A team of last-minute present buyers – like I said above, some of the people that sign up will fall through and for whatever reason, won’t be able to get the present they’ve committed to. Don’t try and do these yourself – people will want to help. If you’re using the Shoebox System, when someone pulls out of the project, their kid will be unallocated, and the next person to sign up will receive that kid.
Other things to be aware of.
- If you use Mailchimp to do your emails, they often end up in Gmail’s Promo folder – so people will miss them. Let them know about that in advance and make sure they’re following your Facebook page too.
- The bigger the population of people involved in the project, the more chance of people that don’t agree with what you’re doing. Focus on the critical few, not the trivial many.
Things I used to help while I was starting off
- I used MailChimp to collect sign ups – they have easy to build forms, and sending mass emails is easy. Now I use a purpose-built app to capture and manage everything from sign up, allocation, and database management (you can check it out here)
- I set up a WordPress site – shoeboxchristmas.co.nz – the mail forms on there have repopulated subject options for the things that I know people are going to email about – that way I can automatically label them, put them straight into folders, and use IFTTT (below). If you want to use the Shoebox System you can use www.shoeboxchristmas.co.nz to host the sign-up area, we have Auckland, Taranaki, and Wellington using it at the moment, people just choose which city they’re signing up for.
- Pre-Facebook Chatbot I used Gmail and IFTTT.com to automate what I could, eg. If someone emails me from the website with the prepopulated subject heading “I want to sign up” or “I haven’t got my kids details yet” their email and message goes automatically into a spreadsheet I can go and action/work from all in one go over the weekend.
Some of that stuff you won’t need to worry about when you’re starting out – there’s five thousand and something people on the Facebook Page for Wellington Shoebox Christmas today – so getting the balance right of handling the simple things through automation, without losing the human side of things can be tricky!
If you’ve got any questions or just want to talk about your plans etc. just give me a call, 021 836 286.
Otherwise, let me know how the planning goes!