Are You Ready?
Making the Journey to Financial Health
Years ago, long before cable and Dish Network, I was the proud owner of a 17 inch black and white television set whose chief value was its portability. Now and again on a quiet weekend my wife and I would decide to watch a movie from the comfort of our bed. So I would move our “massive” TV from its location in the living room/family room/office to a spot on top of the high boy dresser in our “master suite”. That high boy put the TV at a perfect angle for viewing a movie from bed.
On one particular evening, with pop corn a-popping, I went through my relocation routine, plugged in the power cord and made final preparations for a quiet couple of hours of mindless movie watching. At that point that I made my fatal mistake. I pulled the comforter from the bed with a bit of extra enthusiasm and tossed it aside (only a guy would do that). What didn’t catch my eye was the taut power cord stretching from the TV atop that high boy to the electrical outlet next to the bed.
While I watched in horror our nifty little TV began sliding to the edge of that dresser. The comforter that I had so casually thrown to the floor had landed directly on the power cord and its weight was enough to . . . . Well you get the picture. That TV landed on the floor with a loud thud, I let loose with an even louder shout of dismay, and our quiet evening of movie watching ended prematurely. All these years later I can still vividly recall that evening in remarkable detail.
Most people would argue that a broken TV hardly measures up to one of life’s great tragedies. And that is certainly true. But the feeling of helplessness I experienced that night was real. I saw a catastrophe in the making and there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent it. I suspect you’ve experienced something similar. Perhaps you’ve been in the room when a doctor has told your spouse or a good friend, “There’s nothing we can do,” or watched an expensive heirloom shatter into hundreds of pieces after it has slipped through your hands, or seen your child tumble from the branches of a tree, falling far enough, and awkwardly enough to break an arm or worse.
It isn’t a pleasant sensation; and I’m feeling it again as I sit here at the keyboard of my laptop. Only this time it isn’t about something as easily replaceable as my old black and white TV. What I’m seeing is a potentially massive collision between the passion and purpose of Christian schooling and the cold, hard reality of rapidly escalating costs. The sky may not be falling, but there are verifiable rumors of a Level 5 tornado nearby.
Sadly, too many Christian schools are like the family that lives from paycheck to paycheck. They make it, but even minor financial challenges can turn into a disaster that threatens their very existence. In that kind of environment it is hard to think and act strategically. Weariness sets in that robs people of enthusiasm and hope. It is as deadly as any disease and if it doesn’t kill it limits life in substantial ways.
Does this describe you and your school? If so, I am hoping that you might be willing to re-visit the historic funding paradigms that have long shaped financial decisions at most Christian schools. Hopefully you have already begun the transition by replacing candy sales with an annual fund built around a professional resource development strategy. Perhaps you have even been willing to weather the predictable storm of protest and have implemented cost based tuition.
If so you have taken essential first steps in the construction of a new paradigm. I suspect, however, that you have come to realize that even the best annual fund and pricing strategy will not fully bridge your current funding gap much less the chasm that lies ahead. Teacher salaries are still not what they should be and costs related to technology, facilities and curriculum just keep climbing. So, is there any hope? Is there a practical approach to building the kind of sustainable financial base that would allow your school to flourish even when costs escalate as they have during the past twenty-five years?
The answer, of course, is yes. But it is not a simple, easy yes. You can’t attend a three day seminar and walk away with a plan to build sustainable funding. That is both naïve and unrealistic. And it is equally unrealistic to assume that your current and future funding needs are going to be fully met by the same people who struggle to pay your current tuition. After all, we are not talking about raising an extra hundred thousand or two. We are talking about millions of dollars.
Compassion and excellence always come with a price. You just can’t give education away. Someone always pays. In most of our schools historically that someone has been our classroom teachers and administrative staff. And even that sacrifice will be inadequate in the face of rapidly increasing costs. It is definitely time to find another way. Here are four steps toward forging a new path.
STEP ONE: Discard Your Old Wineskins
I can’t state this forcefully enough. Business as usual must end in Christian schools. While we dare not surrender our non-negotiables, when it comes to organizational practice nothing must escape intense scrutiny.
Schools like Harvard and Yale have been able to make radical changes in pricing because they have historically done two things well. First, they have consistently practiced wise fiscal planning and secondly, they have aggressively built strong resource development programs, particularly in the areas of planned giving and endowment. You can afford to be generous when your endowment, like Harvard’s, exceeds 36 billion dollars.
Christian schools are right to be concerned about the impact of continuously rising tuition. But unless schools build the right kind of strong, sustainable financial base they won’t be able to make any real reductions in tuition rates without putting themselves at greater financial risk. Thirty six billion may be out of your reach, but ten, twenty or even fifty million or more is not.
STEP TWO: Ignite the Imagination and Passion of People
If you are honest you’ll probably admit that support for your school among local churches and within your community is weak. That is unlikely to change until school leaders commit themselves aggressively to the role of what Max Dupree calls tribal story teller.
You’ve got to break away from your desk and from your campus at every opportunity to remind people of the essential work being accomplished at your school. To do that you’ve got to tell stories that focus on impact rather than on input. People need to know that you make a significant difference in the lives of your students and that your graduates are true difference makers in the world. The way to a person’s heart is not through statistics, it is through stories; compelling stories, well told.
STEP THREE: Establish and Sustain Strategic Partnerships
To fulfill this goal you must do two things. First of all you must identify specific kinds of key people; people of wisdom, wealth and influence. This is less difficult than you might think though you do need to know what to look for and how to make initial contact. Once initial contact is made you must win their hearts. That takes a winsome spirit, those compelling stories I just mentioned, and time. The kinds of partnerships I envision don’t happen overnight.
Next you must consider two key principles. First, you must understand that wealthy people don’t give to ministries, rather they invest in ministries. And they invest where they see the greatest possibility of impact. Secondly, you must remember that wealthy people typically fund their own personal passion, not yours. Your task, therefore, is to infect them with your passion.
STEP FOUR: Initiate and Cultivate an Effective, Integrated Resource Development Strategy
There is a lot to learn before you can truly help people become wise stewards. There are complex financial and personal dynamics at work when people are thinking about how to manage and dispose of their estates. Tax laws must be considered, as well as personal life situation including the possible need for long term care. It takes continually increasing knowledge of planning giving strategies and ever deeper understanding of people if you are going to help any individual make wise decisions about giving. Now is the time to initiate that education.
What I’ve briefly outlined is a big task so I understand if you are feeling just a bit overwhelmed. While I understand that feeling, I also know that the funding challenges facing your school are not going to simply disappear. If anything they will continue to grow more complex and threatening.
It is, therefore, time to act. You’ve got to make wise decisions abut the right things, and then you must act decisively and effectively. If you don’t, that sense of helplessness I mentioned earlier will become your daily companion as you watch something of great value slip away, perhaps to be lost forever.
How to Get Into Harvard, Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2007 Gloomy Outlook for Vouchers, Joel Belz, World, November 24, 2007 College tuitions rise while endowments simply swell, Lynne Munson, USA TODAY, October 18, 2007 Harvard Trims Tuition Bills for Families, John Hechinger, Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2007
Top-tier colleges ease cost burden, Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY, December 11, 2007