Successful independent schools across the country are, for the first time in decades, watching waitlists shrink and enrollment numbers soften, largely due to demographic shifts. In the face of these changes, your independent school has to show how the unique value you offer remains — and will remain — relevant.
An independent school’s “product,” after all, is the education it provides to its students. Its mission, therefore, must be to ensure that its students remain relevant to colleges, employers, and the communities they enliven.
And retaining (or reclaiming) that relevancy is where strategic planning can prove most valuable.
Strategic planning inspires and aligns those within your school around a clear vision for the future (based on a clear understanding of the environment today). It maps your course so that you can set your students up for success.
Mission Minded entered the strategic planning space in 2017 when we became aware of a problem: many of our clients were investing in strategic planning processes, yet not reaping much, or any, benefit. Rather than reestablishing the relevance of their schools, their “new” strategic plans were virtually indistinguishable from the strategic plans they replaced.
In most cases, the strategy was missing altogether.
We discovered three truths about most strategic plans: 1) they look strikingly similar to each other, regardless of which school they come from; 2) they place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on operations (facilities, finance, fundraising, etc.) at the expense of the school’s core reason for existing; and 3) they fail to connect to the school’s brand strategy.
To ensure your independent school’s strategic planning process results in relevant, strategic outcomes for your school and its students, consider the following three factors:
If you take a look at an average (and unsatisfying) strategic plan, chances are you’ll see that, despite an investment of 18 months and a not insignificant outlay of capital, the priorities it sets forth are fairly obvious. It’ll champion reaching financial sustainability, expanding or modernizing facilities, articulating the organization’s unique value proposition, and strengthening core programs.
If you’re in this position, and already know what you need to do, though, why not just get to it? Skip the 18-month investment, brainstorm which strategies you’ll employ in pursuit of your priorities, conserve your resources, and focus your energies on putting your plan into action.
If your school has bigger challenges, however, a full strategic planning process is likely in order. Rushing through, inadequately evaluating the landscape, or failing to build community buy-in will result in a non-strategic plan with low likelihood of inspiring your community. Without commitment to doing it well, you won’t have strategy — you might not even have a plan, just a stack of paper that gets stuck in a drawer.
For a strategic plan to be worth the investment, a school needs to assess and be willing to commit to the impact it seeks to have on its students and the community. Doing this takes courage and a willingness to evolve.
Are you brave enough to reorient and write a strategic plan that is decidedly different from your last one? After all, a shift in operations or tactics isn’t a new strategic plan; it’s an expensive to-do list.
Too often, school leaders and trustees confuse the operational business of achieving the school’s mission with the actual impact the school exists to bring about. It’s the actual impact that puts the “strategy” in a strategic plan.
Facilities expansion, financial sustainability, or having a data-driven fundraising plan are not the outcomes or objectives your mission calls for — they’re operational strategies and tactics that help you achieve your objectives.
An example of an impact-focused outcome that an independent school might set as a strategic goal could be to “Imbue our students with life-long habits of health, balance, and wellness.” It could be to, “Instill the habits of collaboration and the value of empathy that serve as the foundation for leadership.”
If your school isn’t intrepid enough to really dig into its raison d’être, you might not be ready for strategic planning.
Nearly every strategic plan we’ve seen includes a priority about strengthening messaging, marketing, and/or or the organization’s brand. This raises an important question: if you know that branding is a priority, why wait?
Naming brand strategy as a goal in your strategic plan means — instead of taking advantage of the resources you’ve marshalled and the community you’ve gathered for strategic planning and addressing brand simultaneously — you’ll face added costs, impractical delays, and an overtaxed community when you begin the branding process next year.
At Mission Minded we lead a unique, combined strategic planning and branding process. In the time it would normally take to produce only a strategic plan, our clients come away with:
Effective strategic planning requires commitment, courage, and clarity. Make the most of it — and succeed in your organization’s mission — by creating a strategic plan that makes your school, and your students, relevant.
Interested in learning more about Mission Minded’s approach to strategic planning with independent schools? Check out our free guide here.
Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.
See all posts by Jennie Winton