The Challenge Ahead for Small Independent Schools

So, you are a senior leader or board member at a small independent school. Your classrooms are

filled with happy children engaged in their learning. Your faculty works hard, cares deeply about the

children they teach, and understands both the art and the science of teaching. Lots of dedicated

people, both paid and unpaid, work to make the school a special place to be a student. Your parents

know in their hearts that the only people in the world who take as good care of their children as they

do is you. Your alumni love you. They talk about your school like it was a second family.

At least that’s how it looks on your website and on tours.


But you are behind the curtain and you know things. You are accepting children today that would

not have been accepted not long ago. And that is putting a strain on those teachers who have been

working for cost of living raises for the past few years. As tuition continues to climb, more parents

are priced out of the market and the demand for financial aid increases. Driven by an increasing

consumer mentality, you are even getting parents in your office who are asking you to make a deal

on tuition or they will take their business elsewhere.


The independent school landscape is a very different place than it was just a decade ago. And it is

going to be even more different a decade from now. Certainly, the large schools with large

endowments and a highly developed culture of philanthropy will survive and even thrive as

competition continues to dwindle. But the simple economic fact is that schools that are heavily

tuition driven, that do not have development operations that reach deeply into the many school

constituencies and whose enrollment management case does not look very different from the case

they were making ten years ago, or the case of the other ten schools within ten miles of their door,

are not going to survive.


Independent school trends tend to mirror the trends in higher education, although they often lag a

few years behind. And anyone who is running a small independent school these days should be

watching those trends and taking steps now to be ready for the future. “In the post-Great Recession

era, there’s more and more focus on the return on investment on what one gets from an education,”

said Jason Lane, a senior fellow at SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute of Government. 1 That is at least as

true at the precollegiate level as it is for colleges. Being able to demonstrate value added for the

tuition dollar is crucial to attracting students of parents who can afford to pay your tuition.

At least as important as classrooms filled with full paying students is a robust development

operation. Unfortunately, many small schools rely on an event based program built around an

annual gala or auction run largely by parent volunteers. These kinds of events exist for lots of

positive reasons. Among them are building of school spirit and the opportunity for building a base

of volunteers who feel closely connected to the school’s success. But any school counting on those

events as the centerpiece of a development strategy needs to be thinking about a different model.

That model builds upon a solid annual fund with a major gift and planned giving program that is

supported by a broad range of the school’s constituencies.


Development professionals are expensive. Small schools have a hard time justifying the expense of

an operation that will not immediately pay for itself. Development success requires building

relationships, which takes time, sometimes years. So investing in a Director of Development and a

staff capable of handling event planning, and annual fund, as well as major and planned giving is a

stretch given the unlikely prospect that such an investment will immediately pay for itself.

I think that many small schools make the mistake of trying to replicate development operations that

simply don’t fit them. They look for a development director when there is really very little

development to direct. I think that more schools would do well to adopt the concept that I call

“building the bike while you are riding it.” It’s not as painful as it sounds.


The foundation of any strong development operation is the annual fund. It is where you steer first

time donors, the way that you build loyalty, and the place that supplies your major donor pool. That

is why your annual fund director is the first hire. They are cheaper than development directors

because they are not expected to raise major gifts. Computer skills are important here because this

person is going to have to mine your donor management system for lots of information that will be

helpful in building the donor base and populating a major donor portfolio, as well as maintain your

social media outreach.


Because the portfolio is going to be small at first, the person who needs to act as the major gift

officer is the Head of School. Yes, I know that you are busy doing everything else that small school

heads do, but, hey, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Besides, you likely already

have a relationship with most of the people who will be in that initial portfolio, and you were hired

to be the public face of your school. Nobody should be better than the head of school at articulating

the reasons why the school is worthy of support. If it is not already a part of your routine, schedule

visits with potential donors every month. Meet them at their offices, take them to lunch, or invite

them to school to see the wonderful things going on. Children are hard to resist. Let them make the

case for you.


That’s step one. Step two can be different at different schools. As the program grows, the options

will increase. But with a strong development foundation in place, the chances of long term viability

dramatically increase.


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Cardenio Consulting can help you chart the course for a sustainable future providing your school with an in-depth assessment of your current marketing, enrollment management and development operations. We can also provide development coaching for Heads of School and Board Members. Then we can provide recommendations for moving forward based on the market conditions in the community that you serve and the unique set of circumstances facing your school. Feel free to call Dan Rocha at (215) 779-3915 or email to discuss your needs.