Is Your School a “Family,” or a “Community” of Learners?

When I started working with Catholic schools, many of them saw marketing as advertising, and wondered where they should spend their very limited funds to get the most bang for their buck – a Yellow Pages ad? Television commercials? Billboards?

No one thought of a Web site.  If they did, they had a parent in the school who could put together a Web page for the school.

About 5 years ago, I offered a series of 12 posts to help schools create a marketing plan for their school.  There were three things that were necessary to understand before a school could begin their plan.  A school needed to know their “remarkable” traits, that marketing was not just advertising, and that marketing needed to be purposeful.

All three of these concepts took some time to understand, since schools needed know what made them truly remarkable places to be, and many touted qualities which were “expectations” of parents of prospective students.  Marketing was not just advertising, but, according to Investopedia.com,”It’s anything a company does to acquire customers and maintain a relationship with them. Even the small tasks like writing thank-you letters [and] returning calls promptly can be thought of as marketing.”

Marketing also needs to be purposeful.  If a school was going to spend their limited funds on a billboard, what was the purpose of doing so?  Was it so that the community would know that the school exists (awareness)? Was it so that people of the community could support the good works of the school with a contribution (funding)? Or was it so that interested parents would call the school for an appointment (enrollment)?

If it was for the last item, there was no way a parent was going to copy the school’s phone number while driving past the sign at 60 miles per hour…even if they passed by it every day for a month…especially if the billboard was up for the month of November.

But, true to my “three leads to four leads to five” theory, there were two more ideas that needed to be kept in mind: marketing is not a “short-term” strategy, and the other is the topic of today’s article.

Marketing is a “medium-term” strategy, in that great marketing for enrollment will not bring copious amounts of new students to the school in the short-term.  It will, however, bring inquiries from parents of prospective students.  Your enrollment process, consisting continuing to follow-up with the family, inviting them to experience your school community, turns those inquiries into students in the seats.

Read the previous line again, and you’ll see the answer to the question posed in the title of today’s Marketing Matters article.  Your school is a community; NOT a family. In educational circles, learning groups are referred to as “the community of learners.” In a faith-focused light, your parish might be termed a family, but when we’re talking about school, parents form a community.

If you’ve been a subscriber to these weekly Marketing Matters, you may recall a previous article listing the four “marks” of a faith-based school – Faith, Academics, Community and Experience. They combine to form the acronym, FACE. When parents seek out your school, they’re looking for a safe and caring community for their child – since THEY are the family. Parents treasure their children, and want personalized treatment for them.  Why would they want to give them to a “family” with 100+ kids? Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the father and mother as the primary educator of their children.  To refer to your school a “family” usurps that responsibility…and if we want our children to be more responsible, we have to teach their parents to be responsible as well.

We can carry the family analogy further for the Catholic and Christian school.  Jesus is the bridegroom, and his bride is the Church. I’ve heard it said that the Church, itself, is the “community of believers.” Therefore, the family relationship is created when Jesus is joined with His community of believers. In a family, there is always some type of paternal and maternal relationship involved. Anything less and different is, as we hear today, a “new” kind of family. In that light, some administrators would argue that there are many kinds of families involved in our schools today. If that is true, then stating that the school is a family is tantamount to trying to fit families into another type of family structure that really doesn’t exist, or, is itself a different kind of family. It makes much more sense to say that many types of families make up a community…just like the many types of families that comprises the community in which you and your family resides.

Perhaps the distinction can most readily be seen in terms of support. The community is supported by all the members based on their ability to contribute, and even by people outside of the community that once were members; the family is usually supported by a breadwinner with others making varying degrees of commitment as long as they’re living under the same roof. When members of the family leave, the family core usually provides support to the member that left until they can make it on their own, begin their own family, or return to the original family should there be an event or circumstance that requires them to do so.  The family provides a support dynamic different from that of the community.

Why is it important to know this distinction? It helps to remember that old adage, “United, we stand; divided, we fall.” When too many people start to worry about themselves do whatever they want to do, and leave the community, the community is weakened. With a family, you are always a member. If it were true that we are family, then it wouldn’t matter if one or two (or twelve) parents decide on their own that they can’t afford the increase in tuition and make the decision to withdraw their children. If we are family, they might be back next year – but rarely do they return. Therefore, when a decision is made for the good of the community, and someone says, “I don’t want to do that, so I won’t,” the strength of the community is undermined. The decision of one member of the community affects every other member of the community.

It’s important, therefore, to find activities that strengthen the community in order to grow your school.  The school community provides positive word of mouth marketing for the school, which is the most effective and the least expensive type of marketing available.  Growing a community of raving fans about your school is worth much more than any billboard campaign that’s designed to increase enrollment.  Billboards are for raising awareness.

Your school community is one of your best assets, and like all assets, needs to be protected.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2014 (Original Publication Date: 20140609)