Our school leaders prepare for such a scenario: A potential funder, during a school visit, is amazed at the education that the school provides and the outcomes that have been achieved with our most vulnerable students. Yet, even with a history spanning over 10 or even 20 years, the funder expresses concern that a financial model dependent on philanthropy will not hold up over the next 5 years, 10 years, 25 years, or more. None of our school leaders can guarantee sustainability; like any non-profit or small business, there are too many factors and variables at work to promise that they will be around in the coming years. The best each school leader can guarantee is that they are thinking strategically, planning ahead, and implementing the practices today that will increase the likelihood that they are engaged in this mission for years to come.
As non-tuition driven schools that are unable to increase tuition to raise additional revenue, what can our schools do to increase the likelihood of sustainability and remain accessible to the families that we were founded to serve? It has been over five years since the NativityMiguel Network leadership team released an article entitled The Sustainability of our Network Schools. After reading that article again and connecting it to conversations that I have had with school leaders in the last six months, I contend that the equation to flourish has not changed much for most of our schools, especially in markets without tax credits or vouchers. The following conditions better position a school to shift the mindset from surviving to thriving:
Deliver an Excellent Education: Schools define outcomes of an excellent education and ensure that a high percentage of enrolled students meet those outcomes.
Inspire an Invested Board: When each board member is invested in the school – giving of time, skill and money to the extent possible and inviting others to do so as well, the board and the head of school collectively accept ownership of the school’s success
Enter the School Year Fully-Funded: Schools enter a school year fully funded and raise funds for the following year which ensures that strategic decisions are based on a balanced budget and realistic projections of revenue and expenses
More Fully Engage More Supporters in the Mission: Schools set and meet (and exceed!) clear benchmarks for increasing the number of supporters (individual donors, foundations, corporations, volunteers, community partners, etc.) each year and increasing the contribution of each supporter over an extended period of time.
Focus on Forward-Thinking Funding: Increasing the percentage of forward-thinking revenue through planned-giving, multi-year gifts or multi-year grants, and interest from a growing endowment ensures a steady base of revenue that kick-starts fundraising each year.
Build Reserves: Schools set aside additional money for capital improvements or other necessities to ease the pressure if a crisis situation should arise.
This list is not intended to suggest that this is a simple and easy equation: school leadership in the NativityMiguel Coalition demands incredible focus, a courageous spirit, an unwavering conviction, real optimism, and prayerful patience. Schools that have built capacity in these areas, however, see themselves in a place of strong financial health and stability which opens the door for growth. School leaders are able to put more energy into thinking about what is needed to strengthen an excellent education and less time concerned about their financial situation. This tipping point can have dramatic impact in the mindset of a board, the leadership team, and faculty and staff. When this happens, the entire school community, its board, head of school, leadership team, faculty, staff, student and families, is able to ask what more can we do?
Our mission is real to thousands of students and families, and our schools are doing what they can each day to be present, relevant, and effective in meeting the educational need in their community. Without compromising the integrity of our education, our school leaders are learning how to flourish and boldly ask what more can we do. There is great risk and tremendous opportunity here, and this is where the narrative of growth (and next week’s blog) begins.