Building support and funding for a FIRST team requires a concentrated PR/Marketing effort. This effort is all too often seen as "not possible" in rural areas without a corporate presence. However, there are strategies and plans that can be employed to not only start and survive in a rural location, but to actually thrive and grow.
There is also a great deal of support across the FIRST community. Team 103 exists today, in part, because of help from other teams and "mentoring" help is essential to the progress of all FIRST programs.
The key to starting, financing, and strengthening a team lies in building strong relationships. While rural areas have little or no corporate presence, they usually contain a strong sense of community. Thus, the first relationships that need to be developed are with the school district, parents, and local community. There are many ways to "hook" the locals on FIRST Robotics. The best way is by showing them the benefits for students. There are many FIRST teams across the country, including the Cybersonics, that are prepared to deliver or assist in presentations to schools, parents, communities, or potential corporate sponsors. Also, getting these folks to a local competition seems to be a key element in gaining support. Make every effort to show them what FIRST is.
Once the school district and parents are on board, there are several avenues to pursue for funding. The school district, parents, and students themselves can help lead to them. First, local businesses, of all kinds, seem very willing to help provide assistance in the form of small and medium size contributions as well as donating materials when asked. Having students and mentors visit their establishments with a one page brochure or flyer (with donation information and mailing address) has proven to be very successful for our team. Personal visits are far more productive than "cold" mailings although no possibilities should be ignored. Second, hosting local fundraising events is a way to bring the community together, raise funds, and further educate the local population about FIRST Robotics. Third, there always needs to be an ongoing effort to gain larger corporate sponsorship and engineering mentors. Hopefully, the network you create inside of your community leads to these contacts and connections. Having a "sponsorship package" available to deliver to potential sponsors is a great tool. Also, preparing students to do the bulk of the actual presenting whenever possible very often proves to be productive. In addition to these sources of funding, see what the school district itself can provide and always keep an eye out for state and local grant money.
Above all else, Team 103 has learned to be polite, persistent, responsive, and thankful. It is very easy for a new or struggling FIRST team to verbalize its frustration in public. While understandable, this is counterproductive. Always be thankful for those who support you. Whether it be the school principal, a parent who makes dinner, an engineering mentor, a local business who donated a door prize, or a corporate sponsor 50 miles away, it is important to recognize these efforts by publicly thanking those who support your efforts. Utilizing thank you letters, email, certificates of appreciation, newsletter articles and web site recognition are just a few ways that appreciation is shared. These efforts must also take place in a timely fashion. The Cybersonics policy is to have a certificate of appreciation in the hands of the supporter within one week of receiving their help whenever possible. It's amazing how this positive energy adds to team growth and community support when the effort becomes part of daily routine.
These thoughts and ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. We encourage you to contact us, other teams that are part of the FIRST Interactive Rural SupporT program, or FIRST for more information.