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Get Your Game On: Communications and the Art of Scaling

Guest Post: Susan Promislo and Eric Antebi

The year was 1995. Jill Vialet was sitting outside the principal’s office at Santa Fe Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. Vialet, then head of the local children’s museum, had come to talk about arts in school. The principal wanted to talk about something else.

Outside the door was a line of kids who had gotten in trouble on the playground at recess. “Can you help me with THAT?” the principal asked Vialet.

As a kid, Vialet’s passion for play had been nurtured by “Coach Clarence,” who worked for her local parks and recreation department. He made sure every kid got into the game. So when the principal made a desperate plea for help, Vialet knew the answer. She thought, “Those kids just need their own Coach Clarence.”

In the 18 years since, Vialet has managed to place Coach Clarences in hundreds of America’s neediest elementary schools through Playworks, the award-winning nonprofit she founded. There are Playworks affiliates in 23 major cities and counting. They extend their reach to nearly 275,000 more kids through training and technical assistance. They are reaching multitudes of others through partnerships with the likes of New Balance, Kaiser Permanente and Mattel. Her program has been studied by evaluators at Harvard and Stanford, who found that Playworks improves teaching and learning, reduces bullying, and boosts physical activity. By 2016, Playworks will help a million kids experience those benefits of play every day.

How Playworks grew from Vialet’s lightbulb moment to its current and rising reach reflects is innate quality and durability — and the value of its unique partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). It’s also a study in communications for scaling.

What’s the Big Idea?
Vialet plays—and thinks—big. She’s always said that her goal is make sure that every kid in America gets a chance to play every day. It’s an idea that can inspire and sustain a movement over decades. Without it, Playworks simply would not work.

Know Your Audience
Playworks’ customers have always been principals and superintendents. Playworks positioned its whole program as a solution to school recess woes. They enlisted principals and teachers who loved their program to be their biggest boosters. With the Foundation’s help, they teamed up with Gallup to survey and widely promote the concerns principals had about recess and the value they placed on play. They built and publicized a track record of reducing suspensions and increasing teaching time.

Know When You Need a Do Over
For the first decade, Playworks was actually called Sports4Kids. If you worked for Sports4Kids, you had a soft spot for the name. But it was confusing—it screamed “sports” not “play”. The “4” in the middle of the name made searching for them online unnecessarily hard. So, with support from RWJF and brand masters DeSantis Breindel, they changed it. And in doing so, they gave their whole brand room to grow, and embraced a powerful new visual identity.

Seeing Is Believing
Playworks has a rule of thumb. Get someone to a Playworks playground. They will be hooked. Playworks is really good at site visits. They constantly bring reporters, funders, educators, partners, board members and others to their schools. When they can’t get people to their school, they show a short, powerful “before and after” documentary, made with the help of a former 60 Minutes producer.

Change Things Up for Scale
As the organization has grown and new opportunities and challenges crop up, the audiences and strategy has shifted. They’ve refreshed their brand and message routinely as they have moved to new stages of the scaling process. When their technical assistance program became a bigger priority, they hired telemarketers. When they first decided to target parents to help advocate for training, RWJF commissioned a survey of parents to identify their would-be champions.

Scaling is a vehicle for change. And change is very much a part of the scaling process.

Susan Promislo is a senior communications officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Eric Antebi is a senior vice president at Fenton. They will be joined by Jill Vialet at this week’s Communications Network Conference in New Orleans to present Helping Great Ideas Go Big: The Role of Communications in Scaling What Works.



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