Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): The Promise and Challenge of Using Volunteers to Provide Community-Based Marriage Education. Large-Scale Community Events to Raise Awareness and Promote Interest in Services


To increase public awareness and understanding of the OMI services, and to increase demand for community-based workshops, the OMI staff began to organize, offer, and publicize free large community events.  Since 2004, for example, the OMI has held Sweethearts Weekends, one- or two-day weekend events at which a substantial portion of the PREP curriculum was presented in a condensed format.[4] These events, targeted to the general public and typically held in the Oklahoma City or Tulsa metro areas around Valentines Day, attracted up to 600 participants each.

The main objectives of the Sweethearts Weekend events were to broaden visibility of the OMI, increase awareness of the availability of marriage education services, recruit participants into full-length community workshops, and provide novice volunteers with an opportunity to see and participate in a workshop.  The large-scale format of these events increased the OMIs visibility because of the publicity that accompanied them.  To meet recruitment targets, the OMI engaged in public relations campaigns involving some paid newspaper ads and radio commercials.  To further drive demand for the traditional 12-hour community-based workshops, the events included a substantial dose of the curriculum material, giving participants the opportunity to sample the content of the workshops available in their communities.  OMI staff also believed that the sheer size of the events could help normalize the experience of receiving marriage education and help for relationships, because participants see that many other people are seeking the same services.

The success of Sweethearts Weekends led to a broader effort:  The All About Us Statewide Tour.  Building on the Sweethearts Weekends, the OMI staff aimed to make the events more widely available and frequent.  In 2007, the Sweethearts Weekend was transformed into a series of highly promoted one-day events throughout the state, renamed All About Us (AAU).  Twenty All About Us events were held in 2007, and according to OMI staff, more than 6,200 Oklahomans have so far attended either the Sweethearts Weekend or an All About Us event.

Organizing and conducting these events throughout the state requires substantial involvement by the OMI.  Staff are assigned specific geographic regions of the state, in which they are responsible for identifying communities or organizations interested in an AAU tour stop in their area, and also for locating and recruiting partnership organizations, sponsors, and venues.  Interested participants register with the OMI online or by telephone.  The OMI also identifies workshop leaders, often selecting from among local leaders considered especially active or effective.  However, because staff have found that participants sometimes do not consider other locals to be experts, the OMI may bring in high quality leaders from other parts of the state or provide OMI staff to lead the events.

Publicity, incentives, and word of mouth stimulate interest in AAU events, though not all who register for free public events show up.  Although the OMI provides promotional materials for the events, including flyers and media announcements, both the local organizations and OMI staff recruit workshop participants.  The OMI staff strives to reach a recruitment target of 1,000 individuals registered for each event in the Oklahoma City or Tulsa metro areas, and 100 in smaller communities.  To encourage attendance, door prizes (like a free hotel stay) and other incentives are offered.  Those who attend can obtain a marriage license at the discounted price of five dollars, and this opportunity is advertised.  In interviews with past participants, many indicated that they had learned about the event through their employment at various agencies, including a military base, the juvenile court, and a social services agency.  Some saw flyers or received emails about the event.  Some came after hearing about the event from a relative who had attended a previous event.  Usually more people register than attend, even counting for people who show up without pre-registering.  The OMI notes that attrition is an evitable aspect of recruitment for any large-scale event, and so they over-recruit accordingly.  On average, OMI staff thinks that about 60 percent of those who registered actually show up, which may be typical for many types of public events.

People who attend the events often are looking to prevent future problems.  Interviews with past participants suggested that couples with varying levels of relationship issues attend, but many are looking to avoid or prevent future problems.  For example, one couple attended because they were newly married and thought it would be a nice way to spend Valentines Day.  Another indicated that they wanted to learn how to solve problems before they become problems, because many of the people they know are divorced.  One woman said she was looking for more effective ways to communicate with her spouse, and another couple attended because they heard great reviews from a relative who indicated it had helped him. 

Most who attend AAU events find them helpful, though they are not necessarily a substitute for the full-length community workshops.  Past event participants typically rate the experience highly and perceive some benefit to their relationships.  Participants were able to recall some of the basic concepts, which include the importance of communicating and listening, validation, and filters.  They indicated that interacting with other couples about relationship topics helped normalize their own issues.  Several participants reported that after attending, they had made some changes in their relationships, such as spending more time with their spouse or putting more effort into the relationship.

Nevertheless, there are trade-offs with this kind of approach.  Some participants questioned whether they really had absorbed the information and learned to apply the skills correctly.  Sweethearts Weekend and the All About Us events provide a shortened version of PREP.  Some material has been eliminated, with the remainder compressed into one day. Initially, the Sweethearts Weekend spanned two days (Friday and Saturday), but attrition on the second day prompted the OMI to condense the event, as part of a larger change in strategy.  Participants indicated that it was a lot of information to absorb in a short time, and suggested that the large-group format was not the best for digesting more than a few key points. These concerns were echoed by some AAU event leaders, who expressed concern that couples do not have enough time to process or practice the skills in a one-day format and suggested that OMI staff follow up with event participants.

Some participants did go on to take the full-length workshop after the event, however, and thought that the large-scale event was useful in providing an overview of the curriculum.  Further, the AAU events may attract people who would not attend the traditional workshops.  The events offer an alternative to couples who cannot attend the traditional workshops, either because of time constraints or if workshops are not offered in their community.  In addition, the relative anonymity of participation in the large events may be appealing for some.

The OMI experience suggests that practitioners wishing to engage the general public in learning, using, or teaching marriage and relationship skills may benefit from considering some key questions:

  • How will you mobilize and sustain a reliable network of productive volunteers?  By definition, there is no real leverage with volunteers.  Initiatives must find creative ways to encourage volunteers to continue conducting community workshops.  The OMI found that setting expectations for productivity prior to training and proactively following up with trained volunteers on a regular basis were necessary steps.  Ensuring that volunteers quickly become involved with assisting or leading workshops soon after training appeared helpful.  To maintain the network, the OMI staff found it necessary to conduct regular training to replace volunteers who are no longer producing and to refresh the skills of productive volunteers.
  • How will you address recruitment?  Although many individuals may accept the offer of free training, not all will have ready access to a source of potential workshop participants.  By asking prospective trainees prior to training to consider how they will find participants prior to training, the OMI has been able to be more strategic in selecting the individuals in whom they invest.  Including information and assistance on recruitment during curriculum training was also key.
  • How will you familiarize the public with what marriage education is?  Marriage education is not yet a household word, and there may be many misconceptions about it that have the effect of holding people back from participating in community workshops.  The OMI staff believe it is useful to put on large-scale fun events that, for participants, do not require a large investment of time or effort but help acquaint members of the public with the idea of marriage education.  Even if people do not come away from the events with deep knowledge of new concepts, they will have learned that help is easily available for them in their communities and offered by local workshop leaders.
  • Will you engage the faith community and how?  Even in a relatively religious state like Oklahoma, engaging the faith sector is not simple.  Some denominations are structured around a culture of local autonomy, so Oklahoma learned to work directly with specific churches, temples, and other religious institutions to implement workshops for their congregations.  They also found that the strategy of providing small-group training or retreats for faith leaders and their spouses was a well-received strategy.
Evaluation Methodology for the OMI Process Study
Information reported in the OMI research brief series is based on an analysis of data gathered during an ongoing multi-year study of the initiatives design, development, and implementation.  Study methodologies include semi-structured interviews with individuals and groups, direct observation of program operations, focus groups with staff and participants, and secondary analysis of data from existing reports and surveys.  The research team met directly with more than 160 individuals involved with the OMI in various ways, focusing on implementation in the education, social services, health, and community volunteer sectors, and including a special emphasis on OMI services within the states correctional system.  A full report on the findings of this study will be produced in December 2008.  Mathematicas research team is led by M. Robin Dion, and includes Alan M. Hershey, Debra A. Strong, Heather Zaveri, Sarah Avellar, Nikki Aikens, and Timothy Silman.

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