By Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD
A generous day school donor called me a few months ago to talk about the numerous requests for donations he received from schools both in his home state and across the country (actually North America). What he wanted to know is which day schools were good investments in my opinion. To him, good investments were schools that were viable long-term. I was not in a position to provide answers, but I had a lot of questions (occupational hazard!) that he could ask of the schools to help him answer his question.
This got me thinking. Should day schools provide standard information to donors? If so, what factors are most useful in evaluating a school’s likelihood for sustainability? And is that the right outcome or return on investment?
To start the conversation off, here are some possible, key indicators of school vitality. To be sure, this list is not exhaustive nor definitive.
Key Criteria (Not necessarily in order)
1. Clarity of Mission, Vision and Values
- Defined shared vision, mission and values
- Articulation of school’s unique value proposition
- Strong leadership
- Succession planning
- Parent and community members represented
- Strong financial oversight
- Board involved in fundraising
3. School professional leadership
- Strong and consistent educational leadership
- Strong management
- Talented teachers
- Long tenured teachers
- Current and historical enrollment
- Class sizes
- Percentage of families that tour who enroll
- Retention rates
5. Demographics of the surrounding area
- Number of people in the catchment area that are possible customers
- Trends of housing prices and religious life in area
6. Quality and class sizes of alternative public schools
- For non-Orthodox and some modern-Orthodox schools, secular and other day schools.
- For Orthodox schools, some secular schools, other day schools both locally and in other cities with boarding and home hospitality.
7. Quality and price of other private or day school options
- Competitive pricing that takes into account facility, faculty, opportunities, etc.
- Current tuition
- Rate and percentage of tuition increases projected
- Numbers, percentage and total amount of financial aid given and trends
- Current endowment
9. Social opportunities
- School size
- Gender ratios
- Class size
10. Quality of secular academics
- Current and innovative curriculum
- Variety of subjects for older grades
- Language offerings
- STEAM, design labs etc.
- Evidence of alumni success
11. Quality and quantity of Judaic and Israel studies and Hebrew learning
- Market will dictate what is desired
12. Quality of school facility and technology
- Physical education facilities and fields
- Theater and arts
- Computers, iPads, whiteboards and current classroom technology
- Maker spaces
- Science labs
13. Community Impact
- Community feel and engagement internally
- Engagement by school and families in the larger Jewish community
- Evidence of alumni and families’ leadership in the Jewish community
14. Calendar and schedule to meet working parents needs (may be in collaboration with other providers). For example:
- Before school or after school programming
- Provision of lunch
- Vacation camps
- Summer programming
15. Ability to meet diverse student needs
- Different learning abilities and styles
- Current collaboration
- Openness of school to consider collaborations with other community organizations and schools
To be sure, getting a consensus on the right criteria would be difficult. But should it be a goal? And who should do this? Prizmah? JFNA? JFN?
We are at a tipping point for day schools across the nation. Not all-day schools are going to survive. Is the responsible thing to do for communal leadership to work with schools to prepare investment prospectuses? With consistent and transparent data and analysis, would more donors (communal and individual) direct investment dollars to schools that have the most demand or potential, the least other options, the biggest impact on their community, or the best odds to be sustainable? (To be sure, not every donor is going to care about this information. Many donors support schools based on history, relationships and/or emotion.) Could a by-product of transparent information be that schools become more open to collaborating or consolidating with others in their ecosystems?
I have more questions than answers. I do know though that for those of us who love day schools there is a tsunami coming, and it’s one recession away. If donors rallied around to capitalize and buoy some of our day schools, maybe they will not only withstand the storm but thrive and be here for generations to come. Maybe standard, transparent investor prospectuses can help this happen. Maybe not. What do you think?
Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is a catalyst for values-driven organizations and a proud day school parent. She is the founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for values-driven organizations. Nanette is the author of On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service. She can be reached at email@example.com.