The most frequently uttered word, during PEJE’s recent Bay Area Challenge Award Webinar, was “transparency.” And when our webinarians said “transparency” they meant—of course—“financial transparency.” The Bay Area schools seemed to agree that when one is open with parents on financial matters, it helps build trust and grow engagement. Financial transparency is an important part of getting parents, and communities in general, to buy into the idea of day school. As PEJE’s Executive Director Amy Katz said at the Orthodox University Affordability Summit (the transparency talk starts at 18:40): “Parents and donors to schools want to see clear budgets, they want to see clear plans, they want to see financial transparency.”
During the Bay Area webinar, Board Secretary Lisa Sadikman of Contra Costa Jewish Day School talked about the importance of transparency, saying that it is “worth the effort to educate your parent base” on your school’s fiscal realities. To this end, CCJDS conducted “Focus on Finance” sessions to inform parents of the school’s economic situation. And while Sadikman admits that they had some trouble filling seats for these talks, she says that eventually the sessions—in combination with one-on-one financial tutorials—seemed to have an effect. CCJDS enrolled 31 new students this year, up from 25 the year before. They have also reduced attrition to public school from 11 students to 4.
Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, another school on the call, also used transparency to increase the percentage of parent participation in the annual fund drive. Joni Block, Hausner’s director of admission, told how the head of school sent out a weekly e-letter, including a feature called Annual Fund Corner, which reported on parental participation. (One notes that the AFC is indeed in the corner—the lower-left-hand corner—of Hausner’s newsletter.) By making the contributions visible to the community, school leaders were able to raise parent participation from 75% last year to 89% this year.
The idea of using a regular open reporting forum to spark parental participation is brilliant. By sensitively making this information known throughout the community, you help cement people’s participation—and goad those otherwise inactive parties to action. As it says in this great Wired article, feedback loops are great motivators, and those who learn to harvest their power can make real changes in individual behavior.
But we must also note that school finance is a complicated subject, and sometimes it’s extremely difficult to be completely transparent. First you must decide just how transparent you can be, and then you must be able to provide a good rationale if total transparency is not possible.
So how might this apply to your school? Here are four ways to help your school increase the trust and engagement of your parents and donors:
- Hold small-group sessions about your school finances. You might conduct these educational classes in an actual school classroom, to reinforce the idea that all JDS philanthropy is about the kids. On the other hand, some of your constituents might respond better if you used the fanciest meeting space on campus or even borrowed a conference room from the business of one of your high-powered business-owner parents. Pick the most appropriate setting for your financial sessions.
- Give one-on-one tutorials when approaching individuals for money. Show them exactly what you’re doing—or would do—with their money. Some people will want to have a carefully laid out plan for their philanthropic dollars; such prospects might well appreciate a one-on-one consultation.
- Create an infographic that shows your school’s fiscal breakdown. Visualization can help make it a less difficult subject to broach. It’s a good way to introduce financial concepts to numberphobic parents.
- Include, in your regular communications, a section that mentions how successful the community has been in its annual campaign. A feedback loop can go a long way toward motivating your community.
What is your school’s Transparency Quotient? How do you open the road to parental engagement? Let us know in the comment section below!