One bite at a time.

While this could be a “Marketing Matter” about prioritization, to focus on just one area of advancement could be compared to plugging a hole in the dam that causes four other holes to appear. Then what do you do? This is more about looking at the big picture and not being overwhelmed by it.

Perhaps you’re looking at one of these types of monstrous projects. If you have several of them on the horizon, it might be very easy to let them alone (if they’re not causing huge problems) and focus on little things that can give you a sense of accomplishment. While you’re getting lots of tasks done, you know that “someday” you’re going to have to do something about the big stuff. The last time I checked the calendar, however, “someday” was not one of the seven days of the week.

Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” advocates “Put First Things First” as the Third habit. You would think that this would be the first of the series of seven; however, in almost every situation, there are things that must be put in place first before the “first step” can be taken. That journey of a thousand miles that begins with the first step will be a lot easier if the proper footwear is donned before making that first step. Therefore, it makes sense that “Be Proactive” and “Begin With the End In Mind” come before “Put First Things First.” One needs to make the decision to take action, and then, have a vision as to where one is going before one starts the journey.  This past December, the commencement speaker at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, Evan Frazier, CEO for the Advanced Leadership Institute, said that success equals a vision, a plan and the right attitude.  Even before that, however, something has to happen first – and that’s usually a desire to change something is the VERY first thing, after which all the first things can follow.

As for “Put First Things First,” Dr. Covey presents the example of a teacher who puts big rocks in a jar, and asks the class to tell him when the jar is full. Many of you probably know the story, and the moral – take care of the big things first.

But how do you do that? Again, one bite at a time. Indeed, in the world of advancement, everything in the system must be attended to. But that doesn’t mean that chaos reigns supreme. There are processes that must be put into place and plans that need to be created and executed so that the chaos is continued to be formed and shaped. Eventually, as in churning milk into butter, some results will float to the top. The processes need to continue to continue to define the desired shape of things to come.

Perhaps one of the reasons many schools have a difficult time introducing an “Advancement” structure into their school is dipping the big toe into the waters of development by appointing a volunteer development director, or assigning a teacher to it as an additional task. Teachers already have too much to do and today, adjustments to make, and the development professional needs to be out in the community making connections and developing relationships – not staying in the school.  To relegate development to a teacher puts it in the same category as moderating the cheerleaders or coaching the volleyball team.  Development is not a school activity – it’s an Advancement element. Instituting an Advancement framework puts a whole new structure into existence at your school.

Schools are used to systems, insomuch as all the elements of the system need to work together.  The elements of the system which comprises the school itself – a school’s faith identity (or, in the case of a private school, the founder’s heritage), activities, curriculum, technology and surroundings – all must work together.  School leaders and staff are quite adept at ensuring these five elements work together, and it goes without saying that they all must be attended to simultaneously.  It would be difficult to find a school today that would suspend its curriculum for a week until every piece of technology in the school could be upgraded, or say let’s focus on creating a great basketball program, and only then create a rigorous and relevant curriculum to prepare students for to answer questions that have not been asked yet.  Similarly, the elements of Advancement – Development, Retention, Enrollment, Asset Management and Marketing – also need to work together at the same time.

So let’s look at that big problem you’re going to tackle. First, dedicate time to analyze the problem (for those of you keeping score, that’s “habit” number one – “Be Proactive”), and then, visualize your desired outcome (that’s number two – “Begin With the End in Mind”), and write down where you need to go. Then, start filling in the steps of how you need to get there. Once you do it for something that you really need to accomplish, continued patterned repetition will create the habit, so that successive “big problems” may not seem so big.

From 2003 through 2008, I worked with a group of 15 Catholic elementary schools. How did I do it? Breaking it down into 5 groups of 3 and 3 groups of 5 helped, then I prioritized relative to which group was the most in need of what needed to be done. If you’re trying to deal with a group of 50 to 100 schools, it’s easier to create groupings rather than try to tackle the whole thing at once. Archdioceses and Dioceses create Deaneries and Vicariate Regions so that parishes can be grouped and, perhaps, share resources to be better stewards of funds entrusted to them.  Most recently, Catholic schools in the Dioceses of Youngstown (Ohio), Erie (Pennsylvania) and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) began regionalizing to allow business functions of a school to be handled by a coordinating entity, so that the schools can focus on those things which make them remarkable educational environments.

It’s interesting to compare this phenomenon to public schools. School districts throughout the country are looking for ways to break down their county-wide school districts – some with 20,000 students in each – to offer a more focused, “smaller” experience – creating “houses” where intramural sports and intra-house rivalries can lead to increased achievement. In other parts of the country, local school districts are feeling the pressures created by a tumultuous economy, and keep cutting teachers rather than exploring the potential of combining school districts. As more charter schools and online cyber learning environments along with diminishing tax bases begin to erode the financial foundation of the traditional public school model, the problems are akin to those big rocks in the jar.  Perhaps those problems are bigger than big rocks.  Perhaps they’re as large as an elephant.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2007-2022 (Original Publication Date: 20070423)