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 linearly…first Religion class, then English class, then Math class, then History class.  School was “linear,” going from one class to the next, and most of the time, with 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/next.”  “Process Thinking,” on the other hand, is characterized by “if/then,” since there are different paths the logic can follow.  You can think of “first/next” as a funnel, or a pipeline.  Think of “if/then” as a schematic.

This also helps to explain why, as many school marketing experts have concluded, that the “funnel” is broken.  Sales organizations are also coming to that realization.

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 be able to connect the Math/English/Social Studies/Science classes into some type of systemic structure.  It seems more than coincidental that those four subjects create the acronym “MESS” (the dark side of “STEM,” if you will).  We are 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 bright, young adults think and can do data analysis!

When these talented people then enter the workplace, they’re told they’ll have to “pay their dues” before they can hold positions that tenured employees occupy.  As they progress through the ranks, they’re told, “That’s a great idea.  Now, go do the job we hired you to do.”

Now you know why SO many young people are starting their own companies, generating revenue fueled by social media and networking connections.

Most interestingly, we’re seeing more and more employers today, like fast food restaurants, convenience stores and small businesses displaying the need for workers, and offering jobs to high school students!  Why?  College students are seeking internships with companies where there’s opportunity for advancement within the organization or field.  Some are even using their skills to create apps for your mobile device, or taking full advantage of the “work from home” situation, realizing that it’s really “work from anywhere,” and capitalizing on the connectivity to create revenue.

Perhaps we need to start thinking about them as the “Revenue Generation” rather than the younger side of the Millennial category, since they’re looking at means of generating revenue – and that may not be “getting a job” as society has come to define it.

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 mattress sale to the – you get the idea – while hoagies (or subs or grinders) are sold every month along with scrip cards.  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 are the first things 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.  If your school is wondering why more and more fundraisers aren’t generating more and more revenue, now you know that reason too!

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 56 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.

And see how quickly you’ve gone from “just doing Development” to full-blown “Advancement”!

And here’s the problem with that.  So many school leaders see this as “a lot of work that’s going to cost a lot of money.”

And choose to remain stuck in their current rut, because it’s easier to complain than it is to do the work.

In order to advance toward your institution’s vision, all these things have to happen…and that’s when 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?  The institution must always move forward (advance) so that it can continue to fulfill its mission.

And while moving forward is good, it’s simply directional – linear, if you will – which is why it’s aligned with linear thinking.

Moving forward linearly implies that you cannot move up, down, or from one side to another, or in several directions simultaneously.

Indeed, you certainly don’t want to go backward, since that’s called “regression,” and sadly, it’s what some schools choose to do when advancement efforts don’t bring immediate gains.  What happens next to those that do decide to move forward?  They usually shrink, merge with another institution, shrink again, then close.  I’ve seen it happen WAY too many times over the last 20 years.

All these different paths, however, allow you to “Advance toward your vision.”  The vision must be an engaging one!  As Proverbs 29:18 tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Sadly, “We hope we’ll be open next year” is not a compelling vision for the parent that wants to enroll their most precious child in an educational environment.

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 compared 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.”

And that’s difficult to display, since all our current reporting is offered in two-dimensional charts and graphs – not three-dimensional models.

Therefore, to make this three-dimensional approach 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 – 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 our nation is 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 all 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.

And, if it looks “old,” and doesn’t work on their mobile device, your school will be perceived as just as outdated as your Web site.  Interestingly, that’s exactly what happened to several local Catholic and Christian schools in the area where I live after the 18-19 school year – and that was prior to the havoc caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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. The unfortunate part is that while they look great on a computer, they just. don’t. work. on a mobile device.

Today’s technology needs to be designed with a “mobile first” mindset.  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.  This article – – predicted that in 2018, that percentage would be 73%.  Guess what?  It was knocking on 90% in 2019 and exceeded 90% in 2020!  In 2023 – you MUST be “all in” on “Mobile First.”

“Mobile First” is paramount in designing the user experience (UX) – and when a school spends tens of thousands of dollars on a site that looks great on a computer, but the text clashes with the background colors on a mobile device to the point that it’s not readable, that’s really not a good experience to provide to parents considering enrolling students in your school…not to mention the funds that have been wasted on the product.

Today, your school needs a Web site 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 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, as well as offer different experiences to those parents with children enrolled in your school, as well as those parents who are seeking an educational environment for your school.  Indeed, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is a phrase that can be immediately and finally be retired.

So if there are teachers in your school who do not embrace this mindset, that’s an issue you as a school leader are going to need to deal with.  If there are board members or religious leadership who do not agree with this reality, then you know what you have to do.  If you don’t agree with this reality, then prepare for some really bad things to happen.

Serving parents with technology means you don’t just need one great Web presence today…you need TWO – one to market the school to parents of prospective students, and one that is specifically for interacting with members of your current parent community.  The one for your parent community is not a Web site.  It’s an App.  The app can connect to the Web site, as well as to other elements parents need to connect to on your Student Information System, but parents in your school today want EVERYTHING at their fingertips and in the palm of their hand.

If you don’t believe me, survey your parents.  Ask them one question:  how many of them have a smartphone/mobile device, and use it every day?

Chances are they’re using their mobile device more than their computer.

If you don’t have the time nor resources nor expertise to create what’s necessary for robust and interactive Web presences 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 lock for your school’s front door.  Parents of school-age children today not only expect, but demand, excellence…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, 2006-2023