The pandemic wrought significant change in schools; I marveled at school staff members’ ability to move quickly and pivot to online learning and watched in awe as enrollment started to skyrocket for schools with space for additional students.
There is almost no aspect of school life it hasn’t changed. The same is true of school advancement. For the past year and a half, schools have seen significant growth in their annual funds. According to a recent CASE pulse survey, 60% of independent schools (primarily in the U.S.) experienced growth in annual giving in the 2020/21 school year. Among the 60%, CASE estimates that schools had an average 12% increase to the annual fund. That number increases depending on school type and size. These are truly staggering figures when we stop to consider that in March 2020, we anticipated a repeat of the global financial crisis of 2007–2009. We experienced the opposite phenomenon: Grateful parents and alumni generously supported their beloved schools in hopes of curbing the negative impacts of the pandemic.
It was this time last school year when I started getting calls from advancement directors. “My annual fund seems to be up,” they said. “Are you seeing that at other schools? My head of school, my chief financial officer, my board, they’re all excited and asking if we should increase annual fund goals for the future.” It’s a fair question, perhaps even more so now as we see just how much growth has been possible in the past two semesters.
It’s a question, however, that shouldn’t be asked in a vacuum, and one that leads me to a conclusion and a recommendation for schools in general. Rather than setting revenue goals this way, school revenue leaders—directors of advancement, enrollment, and finance—need to come together to have meaningful and long-term conversations that impact the school’s fiscal health. I advocate for this relationship that I call “The Golden Triangle” of school revenue management.
As the world around us continues to demand change from our educational institutions, the independent school of the future must rise to the challenge. Schools must think, act, and evolve strategically, and The Golden Triangle is a key collaboration that will help shift the thinking and ensure that schools thrive into the future.
The Key Relationship, and Where It Often Breaks Down
The importance of cordial relations between advancement and the business office is often discussed by advancement staff. Well-run schools enjoy regular collaboration between these high-profile offices, including board strategy work, campaign preparation and feasibility, and preparation for the audit.
The pitfall in many cases, and perhaps where this collaboration breaks down, is in terms of goal setting. Neither advancement nor the business office should set annual fund or other goals independently of one another, so when advancement leaders call me and ask about goals, I pose several questions to them first. How are you setting your goals? Who sets them? On what do you base your decisions? It’s in the answers to these questions that I often hear horror stories; advancement leaders say their business officer told them what their annual fund goal would be, or perhaps they were handed down an expectation of X% growth in the coming year.
I can already hear the collective gasp in the industry. How on earth is an advancement director supposed to reach a goal they had no hand in setting? How could a business office presume to know how donors are likely to respond to upcoming initiatives or trends? How will donors’ past behavior influence the future? How much might a reunion class or a group of parents give? This situation happens all the time, however, and the frequency with which I run into this issue suggests that schools need to reset their core leadership functions to reach a better outcome.
By that same token, I hear of advancement directors’ telling their business officers what the annual fund goal is and expecting that goal to be taken as gospel by other leaders at the school. How is a business officer to trust a number without sufficient data behind it? Shouldn’t advancement leaders—otherwise skilled analyzers of data—substantiate their suppositions to those who handle the budget? Whatever the situation—and many of us have been in these age-old discussions and power struggles—the way schools have operated in the past will not meet the needs of the future. We are traveling into uncharted territory, and the old ways of doing business will fail to meet the challenges ahead.
Past Meets Future: Enrollment and Giving Will Change, and Soon
If you have seen any recent CASE webinar for independent schools or if you’ve spent so much as five minutes with your own enrollment director, you know your school is likely full (if your physical plan allows it to be during a pandemic).
Many public school families were happy to find an alternate option at independent schools for their students during the pandemic. There’s early data from CASE’s fall pulse survey (with 134 schools responding, primarily in the U.S.) to suggest that those new parents have been generous donors. Gratitude has played a critical role in annual fund participation in the past year (according to 40% of schools that reported); new parents gave above what they might otherwise donate because they were thankful their children’s needs were being met in a safe and academically rigorous environment.
The idea of a full school with a strong annual fund feels incredible to many leaders, particularly when you think about the increasing difficulty in the past 10 years of convincing parents to spend upwards of $25,000 (or significantly more) on kindergarten. This is all to say that schools currently feel “fat and happy” (at least in terms of finances) after a decade or more of declining enrollment, increased discount rates, and static annual giving. There is a significant temptation to revel in this singular abundance granted to us by the pandemic, but it would be a mistake to do so.
The temptation—as is so often the case in schools —is to operate as we have done in the past. We are tempted to believe the pandemic saved many independent schools and we can return to a world where enrollment, advancement, and finance are largely siloed offices whose interaction is mostly limited to the minutia of board reports, reconciliations, and financial aid meetings.
It is my contention—and I hope I am proven wrong—that when the COVID-19 threat to students and education is diminished by a pediatric vaccine or herd immunity, the new families who have flooded independent school hallways will likely return to their public schools. With them will go their generous annual fund contributions. Within the next few years, I predict we will likely see a return to pre-pandemic budgets, and we need to be prepared for that possibility.
Having started off my career in schools in enrollment management, it’s my experience that enrollment generally moves in three-year cycles, especially when families had until recently been devoted to the public school system. A family enrolls for their first year, happy and optimistic. During year two, they start to doubt their choice for myriad reasons that underscore their original commitment to public education. They’re not ready to leave the school community, though, so they give it a third year. It’s during reenrollment time during the family’s third year in the community that they tell you they aren’t returning for year four. The exceptions to this often arise only when a child has a natural division break, which can either speed up or slow down the transition back to public school accordingly. If this cycle is true universally, then we are in year two of a three-year, pandemic-related cycle, and we need to be prepared for potential attrition beginning in February of 2023.
Now of course, any bubble can burst, but might there be a way to prolong this enrollment and annual giving trend? Might independent schools win over these former public school families to ensure they remain until graduation? Of course. To do so, however, takes significant strategy, time, and effort. It also demands an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensuring families understand what value they’re getting for the cost of tuition and why that value is more than a safe harbor in stormy, pandemic weather.
Enter the Golden Triangle
With change on the horizon, it’s imperative that we maximize our resources, set strategies, and lean on each other as leaders in collaboration. While we’ve talked often about how a close relationship with the business office is invaluable to the success of the advancement team, we don’t talk often enough about how all three revenue-producing and managing offices need to work in concert toward common goals.
As Andrew Weller, Dean of Enrollment and Strategic Marketing at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, Virginia, U.S., says, “It’s important for each office to understand the resources needed to both obtain and retain both new families and new donors. How can we partner to meet our goals? For example, our advancement office called all new families within the first few weeks of school starting. It yielded incredible philanthropic results and was the first step in student retention: All families felt cared for and welcomed to the community in an otherwise uncertain time.”
This type of collaboration is just scratching the surface of what’s possible when enrollment and advancement work together. But how does the business office come into play in this scenario?
First and foremost, the business office has to understand the key pain points facing revenue generators. Setting goals for revenue in a school is the perfect nexus of art and science. Yes, it’s data-driven and based on patterns and trends. Yes, there are ways of estimating repeatable and reliable numbers year to year.
The true art of both student and donor retention, however, rests in relationship building and estimating one or more populations’ responses to key school initiatives. It’s not easy to know whether a group of new families will be energized by the upcoming campaign or whether prospective pre-K families will be enthusiastic about the adjustments to the physical education program. It takes educated guesswork, emotional intelligence, and storytelling. It’s important for business officers to know which variables go into this relational calculus because they have more of a role to play than they think.
“Business officers are often undercover storytellers,” Jennifer Hillen, Chief Learning Officer at the National Business Officer’s Association, says. “They don’t always realize they are, but they have a lot to offer advancement and enrollment managers to help them achieve their goals.”
Her observation is poignant; business officers, in my experience, often think of themselves as behind-the-scenes number crunchers, as off-the-grid operations types who keep everything and everyone in check and out of trouble. To an extent, that’s true, and they can certainly be treated as such.
Risk management and clean audits are always the goals of a well-run operations team. But business officers and their teams—in their endless striving for those clean reports—hold the keys to countless data points and insights that can help donors and families understand the school and its value in ways not often considered. How many virtual reality headsets did the technology department order? It tells a story about the number of hours each student is likely exploring ancient civilizations or the human body through VR. How many professional development opportunities did teachers and staff engage in? How many pounds of compost did the school send to the community compost program? How many graduate programs did the school offset for faculty seeking higher degrees? How many trees were likely saved by switching to a different kind of copier or paper supplier? You get the idea: find data points that tell stories about the kinds of things the annual fund pays for or about things that convey the school’s consciousness and care for its people and programs. The way to generate these kinds of stories is to meet regularly and let the business office in on what kinds of things motivate your community members.
Beyond stories, CFOs and operations teams have valuable information neither advancement nor enrollment can do without, but they are often left in the dark until deep into a school’s process. Campus master planning, as one example, sits squarely with the operations team yet could be made much more effective through deep collaboration with enrollment and advancement. Are families any more likely to enroll with an updated science wing? Are there donors out there who never want to give to the annual fund but who might be interested in funding a refurbished makerspace?
Another outstanding example of collaboration among The Golden Triangle also comes from St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. Weller says he worked closely with the advancement team and business office early in his tenure at the school. “We brought all three offices together to look at key data points. I started with the essential question, ‘What’s the value of a family to the school over time?’ We realized that senior class gifts were often significantly higher if a student had been enrolled at SSSAS since lower school. That said to me that my admission staff at the early grades should be more robust to help both revenue-generating offices. In the short term, a new lower school admissions role would boost strong student enrollment and retention, and in the longer term, it would enable stronger giving over time. This type of analysis helped the business office to effectively calculate ROI for an additional employee.”
This is exactly the kind of thinking schools need: How can we work together to analyze trends and data for the short and long term, and how can we do so in a way that maximizes opportunity and growth?
Consider the Head of School
In many cases, only the head of school and CFO work together on that kind of balcony view of the budget, but it’s time for that to change. Not only will revenue generators gain greater insight into revenue management, but revenue managers will have a deeper understanding of the methods by which goals and outcomes are considered. Perhaps more important, however, it’s time for the head of school to have a team of strategists truly supporting them in their work.
If you haven’t read the recent National Association of Independent Schools research on school leadership, I highly recommend you do so. According to its recent report, the average tenure of a head shrank from nine years in 2012 to seven years in 2021, and one in five heads will leave in under three years. The outlook for leadership is tenuous at best, and coming out of the pandemic, heads are understandably tired.
In many cases independent school leadership models rely far too much on the single personality, work ethic, and management of the head and don’t always empower those working with them to share the significant burden of true leadership. The Golden Triangle model encourages a cohesive revenue unit to buttress the work of the head and provide some valuable support and strategic insight to enable the chief executive to work more efficiently and avoid total burnout.
Looking to the Future
This updated revenue strategy is asking you to reach across the aisle to your fellow school leaders and ask them and yourself to steer outside of your lane.
With potential challenges ahead after a shaky decade in schools, you cannot afford to rest, thinking the increases you’ve seen in the past two years will last. Rather than imagining yourself (or your colleagues) as distinct directors of your areas of expertise, begin to think of yourselves as spokes in a larger strategic wheel, working toward greater sustainability.
To that end, meet regularly and begin to discuss the big issues facing the school from a revenue perspective. Will your challenges likely be donor retention? Student attrition? Increased financial aid? Affordability in general? These are all make-or-break issues that require as many thoughtful minds in the room as possible. Take advantage of the significant brain power and institutional knowledge of those around you, and find support in one another. It will make your work and your school stronger, and it will set you on a course for success into an uncertain next wave of independent school education.
About the author(s)
Ann Snyder is Senior Director, Communities Engagement at Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Prior to joining CASE, she was Director of External Affairs at Stuart Hall School in Virginia, United States. With more than a decade of experience in student and family marketing, school leadership, enrolment, fundraising, and external affairs, Snyder is a seasoned school leader and industry expert.
In her role at CASE, Snyder serves as the industry insider, expert, and thought leader for schools globally. Professional facilitation and speaking engagements include serving as a key speaker and collaborator for the Canadian Association of Independent Schools, the National Association of Independent Schools (U.S.), the Association of American Schools in South America, and regional associations throughout the United States.
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