This article is part three of three items from Seth Godin’s book, “The Dip” (New York: The Penguin Group, 2007). The idea behind “The Dip” is that everything worth doing starts out as a new challenge with excitement and enthusiasm, but then the going begins to get tough, and for a variety of reasons: the economy, demographics, increased choices, other interests, etc. The premise of the book is that too many excellent ventures quit when they start to experience “the dip.” To quote the text:

The Dip is the secret to your success. The people who set out to make it through the Dip – the people who invest the time and the energy and the effort to power through the Dip – those are the ones who become the best in the world. (Godin, 23).

Yes, last week’s started the in the same manner – but I received some feedback (which I knew would happen) wondering how the closing of some schools could be a good thing.  After all, it means fewer faith-based schools which are available to serve local communities.

True, it is indeed a sad day when a Catholic, Christian or other faith-based school closes. One of those schools I mentioned last week that closed is the school where I attended grades 1 through 8. A sadder day for me, however, was when the school merged with another school that was on the next hill and the name was changed. In retrospect, THAT was the day “my” school closed. Because few elementary schools have kept track of their alumni, school administrators don’t know the effect that changing a school name has on the students that called it “home” for 6 to 9 years. For many people today, that’s longer than they live in their house with their families!  A merged school will succeed only if it reaches out to the alums from both (or three or four) schools, inviting them in for a tour or to attend an event, demonstrating that their educational community, though changed, as all communities must change, still exists and is honored. An arbitrary name change because it is thought the school will simply serve the current community of parents and children without reaching out to the community and to alumni is a precursor to closure.

It’s also interesting to note that several months ago, the parish I belonged to that hosted the school I attended, and had merged with three other parishes five years ago, merged with two additional parishes!  No churches are being closed at this time, but the parishes are have been assigned to act as one parish, and facilities, worship opportunities and activities will all fall under one administrative umbrella.  However, it again proves my assertion that the closure of a Catholic school is the precursor to changes which will affect its parish.  Interestingly, one of the two parishes brought together with the previously merged parishes has a Catholic school – so now all those parishes, as one parish, will help to support the school…something five of those previous parishes haven’t done for a long time.

“Best in the World,” as mentioned last week, is not “best” in your mind. “Best” is very subjective and very personal today…even when it comes to businesses which espouse “best practices.”  If you examine your schools’ academics, you may find that even though students are testing well above their public school counterparts, enrollment keeps eroding, like the proverbial water torture. Logic would tell you that enrollment should be increasing because you are offering better learning experience, but attending a tuition-driven institution is not a logical choice; it is, rather, an emotional one. Similarly, you can point to the many awards your sports teams have amassed; yet, despite a healthy enrollment, an active parent organization, and development activities that engage the community, you are still slated for merger with a school down the street that has none of those things. You know you are “the best” – but that’s not what counts. What does count is how others (current parents, prospective parents, alumni, donors, community members, businesses, parishioners and pastoral leadership and diocesan leadership) view you, and what you are “best” at.

As a quick example, I can see myself as an organized person; however, if my desk and office is a total disaster, with papers and files strewn about, the observer will assume that I’m not very organized (even though I do indeed know “where everything is”).

Which brings me to the point of today’s topic – What Business Are You In? To quote “The Dip:”

Yes, you should (you must) quit a product or feature or design.  You need to do it regularly if you’re going to grow and have the resources to invest in the right businesses. But no, you mustn’t quit a marketing strategy or a niche. The market wants to see you persist. It demands a signal from you that you’re serious, powerful, accepted and safe. (Godin, 50-51)

How about that! “The market wants to see you persist.” There’s always a ring of sadness whenever anyone hears that a school is closing – rarely do we hear the comment, “Well, it’s about time somebody got the message.”

In business, the most obvious example I can point to which illustrates this concept is Starbucks. Even in difficult economic times, there are still people who will pay $5 for a cup of coffee. But Starbucks tried to get into the music business in the summer of 2004. When you came in to the store, you could log in at a table, choose several songs from a vast library of mp3s, and make your own CD of your favorite tunes. You won’t find that in Starbucks now – they re-focused on their niche, and dumped a project that was killed by the emergence of the iPod, iPhone, iTunes and whatever new “i”Nvention will come along. They’ve realized “what business they’re in.”

When I was a novice program director for a public radio station, a perspicacious and seasoned program director from a nearby market held a seminar for our staff, and asked the question, “What are you?” The staff replied, “A radio station.” His retort, “And who is your competition?” “Other radio stations.” Obvious, right? But he kept asking the question, “What are you?” (at one point it reminded me of Jesus repeating the question, “Who do people say I am,” or “Peter, do you love me?”).  After about the fifth go-round, someone said, “a choice.” “Ah – now we’re getting somewhere,” he replied. Through the course of the next two days, we came to discover that we were not competing against other radio stations which used tactics to attract audience so they could approach companies to market their products to the audience they’ve amassed. We were competing against other cultural organizations that engaged their membership so they would support them with their time, talent and treasure. I had thought that it was my job as the program director to bring in the ratings with excellent programming, and that the development director would bring in the funding from the increased audience. While that’s true, I also had to keep in mind that the programming I was doing had to be “supportable.” It wasn’t enough to have a large audience, since it could be an audience that didn’t support the station, and even though it might be a market niche that could attract an underwriter to expose their message to this audience, the purpose of underwriting was to support the program content, and not to expose the listening audience to a company or organization whose product or service they could utilize.  That’s what commercial radio did.  Conversely, we also learned that we could have all the funding we could ever hope for, but, if nobody listened to the programming, the station would not be fulfilling its mission.

And that’s what it’s all about today in Catholic, Christian and other faith-based schools. The programming is akin to dedicated teachers, strong academics, quality programs, and faith identity. Because teachers and administrators have degrees in education, it’s what is first and foremost in their minds.  But, if no one supports the school’s mission and vision with time, talent and treasure, the school will experience hardship the minute the enrollment starts to dip. Continuing the analogy, our schools can have all the funding in the world – but if no parents enroll their children in the school, the school cannot fulfill its mission.

So – is your school a quality school? Is it a quality faith-based school?  Is it an excellent faith-based school?  Is it a community resource? Or a worthwhile endeavor? Chances are that it’s all of them – but how do you know ? After all, it doesn’t really matter what you think you know – it matters what your market knows, since the market wants to see your school persist!  Ask your various constituent groups, “What do you say we are?”  These three questions could provide you with a simple market research tool to assess some beliefs of alumni, businesses, community members, donors, enrolled student’s parents and families of alumni:

1) On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best faith-based educational environment imaginable, rate our school;
2) If the answer is not 10, what one thing do you believe is the most important thing we need to do to get to a 10; and
3) How are you willing to support that endeavor with your time, talent and treasure?

Why those 6 constituent groups?  Because they’ve had direct experience with your school.  Parents of prospective children have not had direct experience with your school, and therefore, cannot base their answers to those questions on their first-hand experience, but only upon comments that they’ve heard from others.  The answers provided by those 6 constituent groups will help to attract like-minded individuals to build the community of your school.

The answers may be difficult ones to hear – but they must be considered if you’re going to plan to be the best in the world at forming the next generation of leaders of the faith, and ultimately, of our world.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2009-2019 (Original Publication Date: 20090330)