• Independent Schools
5 Things Heads of School Told Us About Marketing and Trustees
Kate Persons

A meeting of your school’s board of trustees looms on the horizon and you know you should prep a whole bunch of statistics and prove return on investment (ROI) from all your efforts. Are you staring at a blank slidedeck, wondering how to fill it? What do the trustees want to know about your marketing and communications work? We’ve been hearing from a bunch of you on this front, asking for guidance. You’ve told us it’s unclear to you what is expected. So let’s dive in.

My colleagues Angelo Otterbein, Red Abbott and I decided to go straight to the source. Angelo serves as a board chair at a Baltimore independent school; I’ve presented to boards in several previous school advancement roles; Red has developed board presentations for client schools; and the three of us have collectively worked in and among independent schools for more than 50 years! So we reached out to a dozen-ish heads of school and the former executive director of NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) to hear their insights on this topic. After all, the board is the head’s boss. No one feels the importance of proving ROI more than a head of school!

We asked open-ended questions about what info marketing and communications teams should present to the board and how they should present it. And we probed for the biggest challenges in conveying marcom info to trustees along with where the heads have found success. We heard five clear takeaways in their responses.  

1. Report in the Context of Broad Institutional Goals

The most common theme that came through loud and clear in our conversations with the Heads of School is that marketing and communications data and analysis should always be reported in the context of broad institutional goals. In other words, if Marcom’s efforts are focused on enrollment, retention, and growing philanthropic support for your school, then report the information in terms of how it supports these key admissions and advancement goals.

Trustees are supposed to focus on governance, not on operations. However, marketing is largely an operational function. You don’t want your trustees involved in this topic because it naturally sets the up to put their fingers in the pie of daily school life where trustee end up directing specific activities that can be at cross purposes. And we’ve all heard disaster stories about trustees getting involved in faculty hiring, student discipline, admission of specific students, and worse. There need to be clear barriers between governance and operations.        

2. Let a Task Force be Your Friend 

Don’t have a standing marketing/communications committee on your board! One head we interviewed straight up said: “Marketing committees are a trainwreck.” We heard a story about a head who was actually fired over issues with a marketing committee. Several Heads told us they used to have standing marketing committees and disbanded them as soon as possible. These committees tend to exist because you feel like you’re supposed to have one. But they also tend to lack purpose, and it’s almost impossible to keep a marketing committee focused on governance (see theme #1 above). 

Good news -- a well-defined task force can be highly valuable. A task force is a short-term team that is created to address a specific topic and project with a clear goal and a preset end date. One example of a great use of a task force is to oversee regular constituency surveys. Several trustees mentioned surveys and that they should be conducted on a regular schedule, outside of crisis times so the data is not skewed. A task force can help organize, conduct, and analyze a survey and need only exist for 6-12 months every 3-5 years. Another great use of a task force is during a re-branding/re-messaging exercise or for launching a parent ambassador program. 

3. Educate the Board

With all this talk of keeping trustees out of operations, you may be tempted to think that the less you tell them, the better. However, it came out loud and clear in our conversations that educating the board is a key component of having them understand the essential work your marketing and communications team performs. The heads consider it their job to inform and educate their schools’ trustees on the context in which the trustees make essential governance decisions. That broader context in which trustees make decisions refers to the market(s) in which you recruit students, the health of the regional economy (or for boarding schools, many geographic regions), how your school measures up against key performance indicators for financial health in independent schools, and the like. 

Broad demographic trends (such as the fact that birth rates for millennials are lower than previous generations while their average incomes are also lower) inform the market. So if it’s your Head of School’s job to do this educating, it’s your job to prepare your Head to do it well. Does the Head of your school have a clear understanding of how your school meets the goals of perspective parents? And do the head and board have focused message to support that?

If not, considering looking together at the results of this parent survey, conducted by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) for which area to improve on. 

The survey, which asked parents why they choose independent schools, showed that parents expect a school to accomplish one or more of four essential “jobs”. NAIS recommends schools focus on which of these four jobs their school does well and not try to be everything to every prospective parent. Read an overview on the study here. The article includes links for NAIS members to log in and view the research and findings in more detail. 

Do your Head of School and trustees understand the basic components, toolkit, and terminology of current marketing and communications methods, specific to the education industry? If not, we’ve got your covered! We compiled a hand one-page Trustees Cheatsheet. Download yours and provide it to trustees at their next board meeting. Educating your board on these basics will make it easier for you to advocate for budget and resources you need to get your job done. 

Download Trustees Digital Marketing Cheatsheet


4. Board Meetings are for Headliners

The Heads we interviewed advised us that one way to keep trustees focused on the big picture and not get in the weeds is to keep reporting at the “headline” level. Don’t report microstats, but have them in your back pocket at the ready. For example, report up through your admissions team this headline: “Our new tagline is resonating well with prospective families.” The board may be delighted to hear this and move happily on to the next topic (and you, therefore, have not provided more than needed). But if the trustees ask for more, you’ll have those stats on clickthrough rates from your latest PPC “campaign and survey results on hand and ready to share They are not the headline. 

People in different roles need to know different information and levels of detail. The Marcom team needs to know all the details of bounce rates, click-through rates, bidding on PPC keywords, etc. The Head of School needs to know this terminology, but not the detailed stats. The board is interested in the headline (key takeaway) only. For each campaign, effort, and event you undertake, think through who needs to know what level of detail. 

5. Have an Invested Partner Trustee

“Never let a board meeting be the first time all of your trustees hear about an important topic.” The concept behind this piece of advice from the Heads we interviewed is that you should have at least one trustee who is your trusted partner and ally. So an important topic may be new to most trustees at a board meeting, but not to your trustee ally. A Head should have a trustee to back up everything she says in order to avoid “us vs. them” (staff vs. board) faceoffs or blame games. You’re on the same team, working on the same positive outcomes for your school — and teammates fill each other in and prepare together before the big game. Do you have a “red flag” situation with a current parent that you suspect may build into something bigger? Get in front of it with your Head of School so she can similarly alert her trustee ally. Then if it bubbles up to the board level, the trustee ally can speak up knowledgeably, not defensively. The goal for the Head is to “get your words to come out of the trustees’ mouths.” While this theme may seem a step removed from your role in Marcom, having a strong head/trustee ally relationship in place can help you tremendously, especially when you have difficult news to share about a campaign or effort that didn’t meet its goal, enrollment that’s not quite where it should be, an event with attendance lower than anticipated, or an unplanned mid-year budget request. 

The smart, insightful and committed Heads of School who lent their time and expertise to this undertaking have found that paying attention to these five themes have led to more positive and productive relationships with their trustees. We hope their experience and wisdom will similarly help you!

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Mia Major

Before joining Finalsite in 2012, Kate was a client for almost a decade, as a content manager for the advancement sections of her school's website. She's worn almost every hat in Advancement over sixteen years — alumni director, database manager, annual fund director, budget and hiring manager, envelope stuffer, party planner, chauffeur, you name it..

  • Marketing/Communications
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