I remember the days as a development director in the late 90s when there was a wide gulf between admission and development at independent schools based on admission directors' ethical concerns. “We shouldn’t let a person’s wealth play into any part of our admission decision” was the well-intentioned cry from admission directors back then. The lines were clearly drawn. Development and admission were oil and water.
The divide may have been further fueled by resentment that development directors were typically paid 3 to 4 times more than admission directors (even though admission brought in 80-90% of the operations budget). Admission officers had no incentive to help development, even though philanthropy paid for program and facility improvements that attracted families to the school.
But those were the days when everyone lived in their own silos. Teachers taught, admission enrolled, and who really knew what development directors did? The standing joke was that we were paid better than any other administrator to “go out to expensive dinners with donors.” Enrollment and admission officers were reluctant to talk about the importance of philanthropy to prospective parents because they thought it would scare off families who were already staring down a huge tuition price point. And of course, by not managing expectations, families suspected a bait and switch when the annual fund was announced at parent orientation in the fall.
With rising tuitions and ever-increasing competition, however, the game has shifted. Now everyone is in the same boat, particularly those schools in danger of sinking unless everyone reaches for a bucket and starts bailing. Even for schools that are doing quite well, it is still in everyone’s best interest to own enrollment, retention, and fundraising.
A common enemy has a way of encouraging cooperation among the most intractable departments of any business. Many schools are losing market share, merging, looking for new revenue streams, or closing. We all need to row in the same direction to defend ourselves against the waves and tides of the threat of irrelevance or, even worse, extinction. Even teachers and trustees are now beginning to acknowledge the wisdom of paying attention to marketing, enrollment, retention, and communication when it comes to keeping their jobs and their school sustainable.
When I first got into consulting about 20 years ago, the “radical” idea I was on fire about – “everyone owns marketing and communicating value” -- has now moved into the mainstream. As a consultant who has worked in teaching, development, and enrollment management, my prime directive for all schools, struggling or not, is to continue to get everyone into the boat through market research and provide a metaphorical bucket to bail and an oar to row!
We recently announced that Connor Associates is offering a new service, prioritizing donors and potential donors. This includes not just those with whom you are currently engaged, but those who are not yet in your inquiry pool! It is simply a logical progression to take collaboration and mutual support between development and enrollment management to a new and necessary level. The benefit this alliance brings to making our schools potentially more affordable and accessible is indisputable.
I still expect pushback from both sides on this, even today. But for independent schools to both survive and thrive, my opinion is that an expectation of cooperation among all departments is non-negotiable. Heads of Schools need to expect not only admission and development to work together, but for everyone in the entire school community to “row and go" together.