08/29/2018 by Bob Regan |

Becoming Fluent Advocates

Leveraging the Goodwill and Influence of Catholic School Boards

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Archimedes: “Give me a lever and I will move the world.”

To the average American consumer, all Catholic schools must seem eerily alike. All have special missions and charisms and storied pasts, and they once had consecrated religious in formal ebony attire walking their corridors and whacking knuckles. That much they know. Often the differences that they “believe” to be real and distinguishing are not so real at all but imagined and assumed as part of the local lore. It’s baked-in branding, which benefits some schools but not all. Some reputations are acquired and deserved; others inherited and gladly accepted as assumed fact. Some families simply prefer Jesuit schools and are proud of their extensive legacies in those fine institutions. Others prefer the Lasallian or Benedictine experience for reasons often unexpressed but genuine and not subject to negotiation. Others yet prefer the secular scene and opt for charters or other independent schools. All are legitimate factors and part of the stubborn inertia characterizing the local competitive landscape.

As a result, changing hearts and minds and moving loyalties from one school to another involves a heavy, almost tectonic shift in many educational communities. But change can indeed happen in the margins, slowly and incrementally, making a significant difference over time in the financial condition and enrollment capacity of many schools. One of the overlooked assets in moving public opinion and gaining a competitive advantage is the ability of our governing boards to articulate their school’s compelling value proposition in compressed, persuasive scripts. Often these trustees are prominent members of their communities and country clubs and have a huge megaphone and platform from which to raise awareness and exert influence. Getting Catholic school boards to become what I call fluent advocates for their school is one of the greatest upside opportunities for these schools and one of the most overlooked and ignored institutional assets available.

I would suggest that Board Chairs and heads of Catholic schools take this matter seriously and make fluent advocacy a top priority in your board development plans. By the end of year one, if not sooner, every new trustee should be fluent in representing your institution to the unknowing public.  We are not talking about a glib or clever elevator speech written on the back of an envelope but an incisive and thoughtful appreciation of what makes your school special and distinct.

For starters, below is a list of three core questions that each trustee should be capable of addressing in two or three simple, high impact sentences each:

1. What is our mission, and how are we different?

2. How is our Catholic identity expressed in the student experience, and why is this important for all students, Catholic and non-Catholic alike?

3. Where are we now as an institution, and what do we aspire to become?

I frequently facilitate board retreats for client schools and often include “Fluent Advocacy” as a breakout session, assigning one question to each group. This always results in a lively, robust discussion and creates a convenient paper trail for further discussion at future board meetings. The goal is to produce tightly scripted responses for each question which can then be captured and printed on laminated index cards.  These core questions could be revisited at the beginning of every year to renew and refresh commitments and to orient new trustees. Some school heads bring this fluency exercise to their faculty and various parent groups as well, resulting in a viral and disciplined fluent advocacy throughout the community.

Greek astronomer Archimedes once famously proclaimed, “Give me a lever and I will move the world.” Archimedes knew the vast power of leverage – the ability to exert ten and twenty times one’s normal capacity.  Trustees and other key constituents who are fluent advocates represent one of the greatest leverageable assets available to our Catholic schools. This is how you enrich and memorialize brand and move stubborn markets, year over year.

Bob Regan is the leader of the CS&A Search Group’s Catholic Schools Practice. He can be reached at bob.regan@carneysandoe.com.

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