5-Trending-Topics

Whether you’re in enrollment-building or fundraising mode (or both), make certain that you’ve factored these five topics into your brand strategy.

Impact StudentsDesignated Endowment“Secret Sauce”Signature ProgramsStrategic Priorities (not strategic plans)

From trustees to parents to alumni/ae, every member of the community contributes to awareness of and perceptions about your school. How fluent are they on the trend-making subjects?

Impact Students

Like colleges and universities before them, independent schools are coming to terms with the use of merit aid as a strategy to shore up enrollments in a challenging environment. Concurrently, they’re revisiting longstanding need-based policies and evaluating aid allocation among high- and moderate-need families.

Increasingly, the merit aid conversation includes the topic of “impact students” who bring to the community excellence in, for example, the arts or athletics—and whose achievements, whether reported on the sports pages or confirmed by their acceptance into an elite conservatory, have potential as recruitment drivers.

For heads, the challenge is a lack of transparency in the Wild West of Merit. Here’s hoping that increasing numbers of consortia will articulate expectations about reporting policies. For now, however, most of the news is being passed along as part of yield conversations between admissions offices and prospective families.

Strategy Insight

If you’ve adopted a net-tuition-revenue model for your school, and if merit aid is part of the equation, language about its availability—and the criteria for awards—should be integrated across your digital, print, and in-person recruitment communications.

Designated Endowment

Part 1. If there’s a lesson from the enrollment boom days of the 90s—when bulldozers, cranes, and classroom trailers were campus fixtures—it’s this: your fundraising target for bricks-and-mortar projects should be at least 125 percent of building costs so that facility maintenance does not strain operating or funded depreciation budgets.

Part 2. At colleges and universities, glorious food (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, Episode 5) and rock-climbing walls have been drawing fire as symbols of budget bloat and mission creep while tuition increases outpace inflation. All the while, there is growing pressure to raise endowment spend rates as a means of supplementing shrinking tuition revenue.

While sophisticated philanthropists may understand that endowments are critical to school vitality, there is an ongoing need to cultivate and educate first-generation independent school families—and, sometimes, trustees who disproportionately value “real-time impact” gifts as real-time admissions and fundraising drivers—on the topic.

Strategy Insight

If you are in campaign mode, revisit your integrated communications flow to identify ways to embed messages about the impact of endowment. If you’re in pre- or post-campaign mode—and, really, who isn’t in one of these three categories?—the head’s state-of-school letter, a glossary of giving in your annual giving appeal or donor recognition materials, and “paying it forward” examples posted to your social media channels represent excellent opportunities to tell the story of your endowment’s impact.

“Secret Sauce”

What makes us different? What do we want to be known for? What’s our one simple thing?

However the question is posed—and there is enough jargon on the topic to fill a stadium-sized condiment dispenser—school identity has become a preoccupation for trustees, heads, and campus communicators. In fact, it is difficult to find a newly hatched strategic plan that does not include a related branding “pillar”—a seismic change from even five years ago. (See Number 5 for more on strategic plans.)

The most challenging part of the equation for school leadership is how to create a cohesive and unified communications platform that serves admissions, advancement, and community needs.

Strategy Insight

Before you launch a branding effort, ask yourself what the scope of your external brand research will be. Is there a burning question to be answered? Do you have a hypothesis that you hope to test? (Spoiler alert: the nebulous “academic excellence” stands as the single most important school-choice factor in just about every piece of school-choice research ever produced.)

Most independent school markets are too small to provide statistically significant quantitative findings, so know going in that you are likely to rely upon qualitative evidence to provide general “directional” guidance. Often, the admissions office can lend valuable insight.

And, if your current families are expressing your differentiating feature by proclaiming how welcoming your community is, you have some work ahead of you.

Signature Programs

While signature programs are not entirely new, they are increasingly viewed as necessities of differentiation.

Whether it is location based, such as Episcopal High School’s (VA) Washington Program; a curricular philosophy, such as Indian Creek School’s (MD) neuroscience-based approach to teaching and learning; or experiential-learning opportunities, such as Hutchison School’s (TN) “Hutchison Leads,” a signature program can become a central part of a school’s narrative and a means to creating preference—not to mention the significant impact it can have on the student experience.

Strategy Insight

While signature programs are often formalizations or naming of an existing school strength, institutionalizing them costs money. A case for support must be developed for potential investors, and demonstrating the “return on the educational experience” for students should be item number one in the case.

Once in place, the program’s value proposition must be communicated to prospective families. It means confronting difficult choices: how to balance your enthusiasm and resources for these high-profile programs with other areas of the curriculum and cocurriculum. (On campuses all over the country, the humanists and artists are fighting for resources amidst the surge in interest in preprofessional programs.)

Strategic Priorities (not strategic plans)

Financial sustainability! Support for our teachers! A recommitment to our mission! The days of the five-year plan filled with the predictable—and therefore forgettable—objectives may be fading.

As trustee president, I asked our board to view the conclusion of our five-year strategic plan (adopted in 2012) as an opportunity to take a new approach to setting the vision for our school. By creating a standing board committee—charged with working closely with school leadership to take a more nimble and cross-committee approach to identifying and addressing strategic opportunities—we have been able to create policy and conduct on-the-fly case building that has helped keep all trustees engaged and informed about the school’s competitive landscape.

In the new school order, where transgender policy, master planning, and school identity can seem like whack-a-mole topics, it is clear that boards would do well to examine how a more dynamic approach to identifying and acting on strategic priorities can be shaped.

Strategy Insight

The caution here is to trustees, who might be forgiven for being too easily distracted. Conventional five-year plans of yore allowed trustees the escape hatch of adopting broad-brush, evergreen pillars that could be rolled over into the next strategic plan. Don’t do that.

The communications challenge may well be limited to trustees in the short term, but the community should be kept apprised of the vision and the goals that trustees put forth to their heads.

Clifford Lull is a longtime independent school trustee and president of NCSDO, a branding firm that works with some of the world’s best and most interesting schools, colleges, and universities.