Your School’s Responsive Web Site

Publishing articles once a week about Advancement and “how it works,” I’ve found not only is a mind a terrible thing to waste, but it’s even more difficult to change when folks are “stuck” in not only “fundraising” mode, but even in “development” mode. Development does not occur in a vacuum. It is part of a system that includes Asset Management, Retention, Marketing and Enrollment as the other key elements.

The real issue is that we’re not taught to think systemically.  The schooling you and I experienced taught us how to think this way…first Religion class, then English class, then Math class, then History class.  School was “linear,” going from one class to the next, most of the time will little knowledge as to how the previous class period connected to the next.  “Linear Thinking” (not to be confused with “Process Thinking”) can be categorized as “first, then.”  “Process Thinking,” on the other hand, is characterized by “if/then.”

Ironically, schools, school districts, and school systems are looking to cut programs that are considered as “extras,” such as art and music, when it’s precisely those types of classes which provide context, discipline, logic and creativity to the Math/English/Social Studies/Science classes.  It seems more than coincidental that those four subjects create the acronym “MESS” (the dark side of “STEM,” if you will).  We’re so focused on doing what we need to do in each of the components that we fail to see the whole picture, and don’t make the necessary connections between the disciplines to bring context to the issues we face.

Interestingly, students in college today are not being trained this way.  In management classes, for instance, they are taught to scrupulously analyze situations, discovering every nuance of a process, and every bit of data they can uncover to develop summations of a company’s challenges.  From those summations, they can then make connections between the causes to offer potential solutions to the issues.  It’s amazing to watch how fast these young adults think.

Returning to the familiarity of linear thinking, though, schools that are still “Fundraising” go from the candy sale, to the flower sale, to the fruit sale, to the pie sale, to the – you get the idea – while hoagies (or subs or grinders) are sold every month along with Market Day.  In all these situations, more than likely, schools or school organizations keep asking the same people to buy the same stuff month after month after month.

But in difficult economic times, what do you think will be the first thing to be cut from the household budget when folks need to cut back on their expenses? Yes, it’s the cookie dough, the pizza kits and the wrapping paper.  While the school ventures to do more fundraising to raise more money, fundraising initiatives will suffer since many folks don’t have the extra money to buy stuff they don’t need. When a school takes a look at its budget, Marketing (since it, as one school told me, “Really doesn’t raise any money for us”) and Development (since Development takes too long to get to the money part, and “We need money now!”) are the next in line to be “cut.” After all, the Development Director should be able to raise at least their own salary, right? (The correct answer is ‘Wrong,” but that’s another matter for another day.)

Development is the practice of building long-term relationships rather than just focusing on short-term sales. As those relationships deepen, people become engaged with the mission of your school and will commit their time, talent and treasure to seeing it succeed. And just like another long-term vehicle (known as the stock market), there can be some setbacks on the road to success.

For instance, if families with children enrolled in faith-based schools had practiced planned giving 50 years ago, these schools would be some of the most well-funded institutions in the nation. But, in the case of Catholic schools, that was 1967 when the Sisters were still teaching in the classroom. Back then, Catholic schools couldn’t imagine life without them; today, we don’t have to imagine.  They weren’t paid for their labor since it was their vocation.  Consequently, there were no retirement benefits, either.

For the sake of argument, let’s say your school chooses to move beyond fundraising, and makes the commitment to move forward with Development. That’s when you start to realize that you have to communicate with people (Marketing), and while you’re communicating why it’s important to support the school, you have to also communicate with parents of prospective students so they will enroll their children in the school. Then you have to try to retain those students currently enrolled (Retention), because they become alumni only if they graduate, and the alumni are the ones who have the potential of giving back your school through your Development efforts.  See how quickly you’ve gone from “just doing Development” to full-blown “Advancement!”

In order to advance toward your institution’s vision, all these things have to happen…and that’s the difference between “Mission” and “Vision” seems to surface.  “Mission” is a “Development” “thing” – people must become engaged with your schools’ “mission.” But what does that mean?  Perhaps it’s that the institution must always move forward so that it can continue to fulfill its mission.

While moving forward is good, it’s directional – linear, if you will. Moving forward implies that you cannot move up, down, or from one side to another, or in several directions simultaneously.

All these different paths, however, allow you to “Advance toward your vision.” Although it implies direction, your vision may not be “somewhere down the road.” Truth be told, you may never attain your vision for your school, because once you do, your journey may be completed.  Such a journey can be compare to the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we talk about the heavenly Kingdom, but the Kingdom of God is very much “right now” in addition to it being “someday.”  The goal of advancement is growth (and growth leads to sustainability), but think of growth as three-dimensional rather than simply an ascending line on a graph. You’re at a particular starting point – and rather than moving from here to there, the point expands in all directions…like a small golf ball that becomes the size of a basketball…and continues to grow. The model is further concretized when you consider the term “Spheres of Influence.”

To make this happen, three things are required – a compelling vision, leadership, and proper tools to do the job.

In regard to the compelling vision and leadership, one can look back in history to the 2008 presidential election, where Barack Obama and John McCain received the nominations of their respective parties.  Forget about experience vs. inexperience, Democrat vs. Republican, right vs. left, etc. The one thing no one seemed to talk about was old vs. new.  Please note I didn’t say “old vs. young,”  I said “old vs. new.”

“We bought a new house,” the proud homeowner exclaims. “How old is it,” the friend replies. “Oh, it’s about 13 years old, but it’s in really great shape.” So is it really “new?” It’s not newly constructed, but it’s still considered “new” to the family that bought it. The image John McCain represented was that of an experienced congressman.  Unfortunately, when the nation’s economy began to collapse just several months before the election, “staying the course” was not what the American public wanted to hear.  The image that Barack Obama projected was that of a confident advocate of change, presenting a new compelling vision.  To be clear, this isn’t a statement of political advocacy or blame for our nation’s current situation.  It only speaks to the concept of “a compelling vision.”

Similarly, 2008 saw the systemic collapse of the American economy.  For some industries, the Federal Government (that is, “We, the people,”) bailed out banks and the auto industry in the hope of a fast recovery.  There was no fast recovery, and we are still saddled with unprecedented debt.  Offering a long-term solution would have brought about progress over time, but the people needed to see some kind of action to reverse the recession, and needed it right then.

So how does this relate to the title of today’s article, and your Web site for your school?

It’s one of those proper tools that are necessary today, and to be blunt, “You need it NOW.” If you’ve been putting off the investment in a new Web site for your school because you believe it’s too expensive or it will take too much time to develop (yes, any kind of development takes time), you are at a point in history where you will lose potential students because it will take parents too much time and energy to discover information about your school if you don’t put it at their fingertips.

However, just as fundraising has advanced to development which has advanced to, well, advancement, it’s now no longer just enough to have a “nice” Web site.   There are a number companies that build some of the great looking sites and are expanding services to include forms creation, teacher pages, video vaults, and other solutions which schools will need to serve this and the next generations of parents. Unfortunately, if you’re a fan of “flash” Web sites, they won’t work on iPads and iPhones, and will soon be obsolete.

But a site that looks great on a computer isn’t good enough today.  Users of mobile devices want a mobile experience (and, if you’ve been a reader of these articles, you’ll recall that it’s all about “The Experience”).   How important is this?  Research shows that in 2015, mobile devices accounted for 55% of Internet usage, surpassing desktop usage.  Today, in 2017, that number is nearing 75%.

Today, your school’s Web presence must be responsive.  You don’t need a mobile Web site anymore.  You need one which readjusts its size automatically depending upon the size of the screen it’s being viewed on.  The parents of students enrolling in your school are college graduates who are communicating with Facebook on SmartPhones and Tablets that are in reality handheld computers.   As we progress into the future, you must be able to communicate with these folks in the manner in which they are comfortable communicating.

If you don’t have the time nor resources nor expertise to create what’s necessary for a robust and interactive Web presence for your school, this is the time to move in this direction as quickly as possible, and not just shelf the project for a later time.  Otherwise, rather than a Web site, you may need a padlock for the door.  Parents of school-age children today demand excellence and have high expectations, especially when they’re expected to pay four-or five-figures per child for the education their children will receive at your school.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2017