Communications, Marketing and Resources

Shhhh…don’t tell any of your advancement and development colleagues about this.

I’ve been prompted recently to think about the role of communications/marketing offices (hereafter “c/m office”) in our work, and their proper placement in a school’s organizational chart. 

To start, there are two schools of thought (no pun intended!) on where in an organization to place this office.  Historically—and I think still the case at the vast majority of independent schools—the c/m office is seen as a support function to other offices. In some cases this office stands alone but often it is a branch of the development/advancement office. In a very limited number of schools, I have seen it elevated to the level of administration, with the director of communications (or some such title) at the big table. But that’s still uncommon.

For now, I’m not inclined to think outside the box and look at the less conventional model and, instead, am giving thought to the support function model. But within that model, I’d like to propose the idea of moving the c/m office out from under the development/advancement office and into an independent office of its own or as a branch of the admissions office. I have two rationales and hopefully they might help facilitate or further some conversations you have had with your head of school.

First, it’s about money, plain and simple. 90% or more of the operating budget at most any independent school comes from tuition revenue. No doubt the work done by advancement is critical to a school’s long-term survival, especially around the growth of an endowment and ability to raise funds for construction of facilities. The operating budget will never be able to pay for such things. 

But in the year-by-year operation of a school, all schools are tuition-dependent. So, if you’re a day school charging about $25K in upper school tuition, how much easier (relatively speaking!) is it for the admissions office to enroll four more students for an additional $100K in revenue than it is for the advancement office to find an additional $100K in donations? And we shouldn’t forget that the $100K in tuition revenue repeats itself for the next four years, assuming the child stays through graduation. If advancement can find an additional $100K in donations, what are the chances they can repeat that the next four years? So, essentially, if a school is looking to increase revenue for the annual operating budget, they are going to turn to admissions, not fundraising. Accordingly, the c/m office has to at least be equally available to the admissions office, if not part of the admissions office.

Second, the fundraising people are working with those who already know about the school or with organizations/foundations that are interested in education. They are tapping alumni, parents of alumni, current parents, and grandparents, etc. etc. etc. They are not expecting or hoping that perfect strangers who may know nothing or very little of your school are going to donate money. However, that’s exactly what the admissions office is doing! We are hoping that through our communications and marketing efforts (and outreach and recruitment and travel and networking) we will convince total strangers with no affiliation with the school that they should give over both their child and their money to us.  

We are engaging in a very steep, uphill battle. Accordingly, we need to commandeer and muster as much communications and marketing resources as we possibly can. “You don’t know much about us but we’d like you to trust us with your child and pay us a lot of money to do so” is a bigger challenge than, “You know us and love us, and we’re asking you to give back and support us.” Our work is disproportionately dependent on communications and marketing, while advancement capitalizes on and depends more on a potential donor's existing ties to the school and personal relationships.

Again, relatively speaking! 

I’m not saying it’s easy to raise money from friends. I’m just saying that it is a bit easier. So, let’s make sure the admissions office has at least equal access to and priority within the marketing and communications resources of our schools.