About six years ago, we conducted some informal research in our local town and surrounding villages and it turned out that of the people interviewed who were all of approximate retirement age, only about half had even heard of U3A and less than 10% were members.
This is the story of how we went about greatly improving this. We do not claim any particular expertise or knowledge and certainly do not pretend we have everything right.
We had not been particularly good at promoting ourselves, and this was the place to start. A series of short articles for the local newspaper were sent off to the editor – it always pays to be on good terms with him or her. Some were printed and some were not, but it helped to increase the profile of our U3A. We also made sure the town council were kept up to date with our news and developments. In that first year, the town Mayor confided that he had never heard of U3A. Nowadays the Town Mayor is invited to become an Honorary Member and is always invited to major functions and we are always represented at Civic functions.
The next step was to have an honest look at our groups and to ensure we had a broad range of subjects to attract members of all sorts. At that time, we had a pretty good choice of languages and more academic subjects, but were perhaps slightly low on general interest, hobbies and sporty groups. We quickly appreciated that it was no use bringing in lots of new members unless there were groups for them to join. Appeals to the membership together with a bit of arm twisting managed to improve this a bit. We used a combination of suggesting groups we felt would work and asking for ideas from the membership.
Later, we started suggesting that existing group leaders might be able to run an extra class. A few agreed to do so which helped with waiting lists.
We then got into the recruitment part of the exercise. We bought some standard blue felt covered boards and got a stock of literature which is freely available from the Third Age Trust and some sticky backed velcro. We cut up a couple of the excellent brochures then photocopied and enlarged them, laminated them to make them weather and wear resistant and put them on our boards with the velcro. We bought a few laminated U3A posters from the Trust, added a few of our own posters and a large list of our groups. Hey Presto, we had a good looking display at minimal cost. Perhaps the Third Age Trust could be persuaded to make promotional kits available to U3As.
We always involve our current membership in recruitment initiatives, suggesting that they introduce friends, and neighbours. We found a local retirement fair where we took a stand, approached supermarkets and our local arts centre for permission to put up and man the display and advertised to invite people along to find out more. They have come, and over the last few years, we have increased our membership by nearly two thirds. There is plenty more we could do, but this is a good start.
Following two successful recruitment days and the annual registration morning, Farnham U3A registered 112 new members in a week, taking our total membership edging closer to 1,500.
We have learned a few things along the way:
1. We know we need to have very professional looking displays, and most of our posters are now A3 size. We also have to keep the list of groups up to date and to keep looking for new ideas for groups as there is nothing more off putting than joining U3A and being told the groups are all full. We also discovered that it is essential that prospective new members can pay and join there and then, get a membership card and programme and know how to join groups. One of our retirement fairs locally is held in February, so at that one, we offer a discounted rate for the remainder of the academic year, on the basis that most will stay once they join.
2. The main thrust of recruitment happens in late August and September though, which makes it a busy time for the team manning the stand, but it is important to get people in just before our academic year starts.
3. Finally, it is something which has to be done by all the committee together, the groups coordinator, treasurer, membership officer, PR and Recruitment Officers as well as the team manning the display. It certainly needs someone on or very close to the committee to head up recruitment and if it is a different person looking after PR, they need to be able to work very closely together.
We do not pretend we are in any way experts at recruitment, but if our ideas help anyone else, we are very happy to have done so. There are still lots of ways we could improve our recruitment and we intend to try to find some of them.
But it is all worth it, because many more people in our town now enjoy the pleasures of U3A lifelong learning model and it seems to be conquering loneliness in many instances. There are still people who do not yet know about U3A, but the numbers are reducing.
You can see more on Farnham U3A at http://farnhamu3a.org.uk/
If you want to find and join your local U3A please go to https://u3a.org.uk/