Serving Schools, Educators, and Families

Mission and Admission–Some Reflections

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Last week I and my friend Tiffany Hendryx of Crane MetaMarketing presented a webinar for the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals called “Selling Mission: Aspirational Statements as Selling Points.” Our mission, if you will, was to remind admission officers that their schools’ mission statements, mottos, taglines, core value lists, and other key language can be plumbed to frame the school’s story and, naturally, its case for admission.
I have to say I love being able to collaborate using tools like Skype and Google Docs with a partner eight hundred miles away, but the actual mind-meld was the most fun of all. I’ve spent nearly forty years on the academic side of the independent school world, and I’m a fanatic about schools delivering on their promises in the classroom and other programs. Tiff is a senior strategist in an organization that is scary smart about helping schools find their essence and identity and then find ways to talk about these. Together, we’re all about that soon-to-be-retired cliché, keeping it real.
Trying to boil our overall message down to a few blog-friendly bullet points, I’d sum our presentation up more or less like this:
1.     Schools have mission statements for a number of good reasons. Strong statements are both aspirational (my perspective) and foundational (Tiffany’s), containing a school’s DNA and laying out the institutional raison d’etre. These can be mined for language that inspires stories, images, and language that can clarify the school’s existential purpose for prospective families and students (and prospective faculty, of course) even as it guides the school in framing practices, programs, policies, and strategic directions.
2.     There are a few obvious criteria for good mission-derived messaging. Not rocket science, but the three big ones are
·      authentic—true, honest, real
·      differentiating—showing something about the school that is unique and distinctive, at least in its market
·      relevant—this is the most important in many ways: the school’s message and creeds should resonate with the deepest needs, dreams, and beliefs of families and students
3.     Some mission language isn’t worthy of its school, making it time to burrow through other aspirational/foundational statements. Channel your inner Talmudist or literary critic, and try to extract some meaning from other sources that can tell the school’s story—your enumeration of “core values,” maybe, or your tagline—even a favorite quote from the founder. Or go to that Greek or Latin motto that has been gathering dust on the school seal.(Check out, for example, how Phillips Academy, a.k.a. Andover, explains theirs, Non Sibi.)
For example, we offered up the motto of the high school I attended, which is (in classical Greek) “Truth.” We proposed this exegesis: “At our school you will explore the truth about the world (say, in science, history, and math), the truth about the human spirit (say, in literature, art, language, and the social studies and in civic engagement), and the truth about yourself (say, in the arts, in writing, in athletics, in service, and in being part of this community).” Whatever your motto might be, you can probably use it in this way.
A side effect of this kind of exercise can be the exposure of areas in which the aspirational/foundational language is out of kilter with the actual experience of students (and these things should be in alignment, clearly). This presents an opportunity to work toward some meaningful change or genuine program improvement. This won’t necessarily be a pleasing prospect, but it does demand what can be really fruitful partnership between a school’s program and advancement functions; this is a good thing. And serious and sustained misalignment between what a school says and what it actually does can be fatal.

Over the next month or so I’ll be doing five more webinars for AISAP—a few of these with Tiffany, a few solo—and I’m enjoying the challenge of bringing my perspective as a program guy to bear on questions that are more easily described as being about marketing and communication. It’s just one more way to explore the essence of schools, and how cool is that?

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