Independent Schools as an industry are experiencing challenging times. Enrollment has declined 10% in the past ten years. Like private colleges, we’ve seen hard inquiries decline over 20% in that same period, no doubt due in part to escalating tuition and the explosion of private venture charter and online schools that are “poaching” the students and families we have historically attracted.
As we search for a new business model that will be help us resiliently adapt to education’s future, it is prudent to take stock of our “relationship” and “network” equity in the communities we serve. Independent schools that thrive are in partnership with the schools and communities that surround them.
A Board Sphere of Influence or a Sphere of Awareness Survey can help you combine your relational assets in a way that will prove strategic to your ability to survive and thrive. (Another term making the rounds that addresses a similar approach is Northwestern University professor John McKnight's "ABCD: Asset Based Community Development.") Encourage your board to get a collective picture of their “reach” into the community that can create partnerships with businesses and non-profits. What does your Board’s aggregate network look like?
On what other boards do they serve? With whom do they have relationships in the media, in government, with businesses, with youth organizations? Schools? Colleges and universities? How can your board members create partnerships and referrers that will increase enrollment, funding, and innovative student programs that will distinguish your school in a market saturated with educational options?
In preparation for a summer retreat for the trustees of a California independent school, we gathered all of their contacts in all of the above strategic areas.
The results—the Board’s Sphere of Influence—was breathtaking even to those who had served on the Board for years. Connections started firing, partnership ideas were born. Potential funders and families were identified. Trustees who weren’t involved, got involved. Leaders emerged.
The following year we expanded the Survey to include the contacts and relationships of current and past parents, faculty, and selected alumni. The resultant database of “community influencers” became the subject of an external perceptual marketing research project that resulted in new programming for students, merit scholarships, gained more funders and referrers, and helped the school become known as a community asset.
As you search for more revenue to maintain quality teaching and learning, don’t forget your most important asset of all—relationships. When applied strategically, your sphere of influence can benefit your students as it advances your mission and relevance in the greater community.