The moving truck just pulled up to your house. You settled on your new home a couple of days ago. New job, new home, new community—you should be excited, right? But something is weighing heavily on you. What you didn’t realize when you accepted your new head of school position is that your new school is in financial trouble. In fact, you may not be able to pay your teachers after December. What do you do?
Unfortunately, this is becoming a common scenario in our Christian schools, for new heads of school, as well as for those who have been in leadership awhile. Across the United States, many Christian schools are finding it hard to make ends meet and leaders are becoming discouraged. This was the case before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s possible more schools may find themselves in this scenario with added financial pressure this year. If this is your situation, let me restore your hope by exploring three biblical principles to take your school from survival to a place of financial viability.
School leaders are stewards. God has entrusted you to care for the school’s people, finances and resources: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
The first step to financial viability is evaluating the stewardship of your school. You need to answer the essential question, “How can I best steward these three most important aspects of the school?” In a turnaround situation, this means:
1. People – Gain an understanding of your demographics, both within your school and in the surrounding community. Census Bureau data can help you with your community. Find out what the economy is like in your community. How many school-age children are in the surrounding zip code areas?
Next, survey your parents and conduct focus group sessions. Collect data on their income ranges. Discover what they need from your school and whether they are promoters of your school. Determine ways to meet the needs of students with excellence and begin to lay out a plan for providing the best possible education for your students, which may include compensating teachers more equitably and supporting their professional development needs.
Finally, learn why parents choose or don’t choose a Christian school through the ACSI Barna data. Consider ways you are aligning with the desires of parents in the culture today. Make certain you are marketing to what the data tells you.
2. Finances – Collect financial data, financial assistance data, and enrollment data from the past five years. Examining solid historical data will help in planning for a better financial future. Commit to sound financial stewardship practices. Find basic tips from Nonprofit Accounting.
3. Resources – Assess the condition of your facilities, grounds, and educational resources. Prepare a list of priorities for improving the facilities, considering play areas, classrooms, and security. Evaluate your educational resources and dream with teachers about the future of your educational programs.
Begin to formulate a plan to improve your stewardship over people, finances, and resources based on all that you learned as you studied the stewardship of your school. This is visionary work! Becoming a visionary leader is just the beginning of a turnaround.
God calls us into account for our stewardship: “So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management’” (Luke 16:2, NIV).
The second step is to set up an accountability structure, via a Strategic Financial Plan (SFP). Your best ideas will fail without a financial plan to achieve your goals. And in creating that plan for school improvement with built-in structure for accountability, transparency with your constituency is critical.
Your new financial plan should include the following:
- What research tells you students of the future will need from your school
- Plans for improvements to the facilities, including security improvements
- Programs that create distinctives for your school
- The school’s financial/stewardship goals, to include: a) fund development goals, including funded financial assistance; b) balancing the budget; c) compensating employees appropriately; d) minimizing or eliminating debt; and e) building up reserves.
Assign dollar values (getting well-vetted estimates first) to cover your capital projects and prepare cost estimates to understand the impact on your annual operations. Assign people to oversee the outcomes.
An SFP will help you see financial realities and will help you make data-driven decisions on tuition increases. This is important, as many schools make reactionary tuition-increase decisions in December or January, rather than demonstrating a strategic posture with parents. Creating a strategic posture builds parental confidence, as well as provides a tool to help them plan long-term for their child’s Christian education.
God is the creator (see Genesis 1) and the sustainer of all things (see Hebrews 1:3). He is also the One “who is able to do immeasurable more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). This amazing God is a God of infinite abundance: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1); “For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine…for the world is mine, and all that is in it” (Psalm 50:10–12).
The third principle involves an understanding of God’s abundance. God’s people are the most generous people on earth. Your school has supporters and cheerleaders. Chances are, if you are having financial difficulties, you haven’t adequately enlisted the help of your supporters and cheerleaders. Perhaps you don’t even know who they are. If that’s the case, your philanthropy initiatives need to include the purchase of a donor database and a commitment to learn more about the responsibility to raise funds. To start learning now, Shultz and Williams has a helpful report on 2018 Independent School Fundraising Trends.
Seek out your top 10 supporters and share your school growth plan and your SFP with them. Most likely, they will be impressed and excited about your plan. A solid plan, based in reality, grounded in historical data, and structured with accountability will be irresistible to your supporters. Your stewardship and accountability work will put you in a position to receive God’s blessings. God will surprise you “far more than you can ask or imagine.” He is a God of infinite abundance.
Moving your school from surviving to thriving is hard work, but it is work that will prove to be fruitful, particularly when it’s grounded in these three biblical principles of stewardship, accountability, and abundance. Believing in the God of hope, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people” (Ephesians 1:18).
Note: This article was originally published in December 2018, and re-published in 2022 due to relevance.
About the Author
Cindy Dodds has been in Christian school leadership for over 20 years. During that time, Cindy led two formative-level schools from a deficit budget to a place of financial solvency and stability. Her expertise provides common-sense, practical solutions, and hope for school leaders. Cindy currently serves with ACSI as the Director of Professional Development. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.