One key to being a great financial steward is the ability to communicate your school’s financial story to non-business audiences. This may include members of your administrative leadership team, the parent body, faculty and certainly your board of trustees. I’m often told that boards are filled with financial knowledge, but they may not, in fact, understand the nuances of the independent school business model, market demographics or drivers like auxiliary program revenue. In this increasingly complex environment for independent schools, it is critical that financial and operational data is not merely reported but delivered with context. Your role is to help those around you understand what the data means for the current and future financial health of your school.
That’s why a recent article from the MIT Sloan School of Management, “Presenting About Data to Your Board,” caught my attention. Author Dylan Walsh stressed the importance of preparing early, catering data presentations to reach different audiences, connecting data to key business goals and telling compelling stories. Inspired by his six tips, I’ve pulled out four strategies that may help business leaders use data to frame stories about your school’s business strategy:
Share stories with broad relevance. Your school’s trustees don’t need to know everything you know — just the key points they need to know. Don’t focus on the minutiae of specific projects or day-to-day business, but instead tell a story about how crucial levers are performing, for example a new enrollment strategy or a new, unique program. Connect the data you present to your strategic plan and business objectives. A business officer once shared that when she provided financials to the board, she focused on areas that the board understood were financial investments that supported the strategic plan.
Focus on the competitiveness of your school. Business officers have multiple access points to benchmarking data that is helpful to understanding how your school is performing in comparison to years past as well as peer institutions, and where financial investments could make the most difference. Outline the most effective financial levers to pull.
Be prepared. As a former independent school trustee, it was admittedly tiring to sit in a monthly Monday-night trustee meeting that often ran to 10 or 11 p.m. It’s important to make the most of everyone’s time. Walsh offers the following tips for your next financial update:
- Prepare and focus on a clear message, where you will make one or two important points.
- Plan to cover your key messages in 10-20 minutes to command the attention of your audience.
- Leave plenty of time and prepare for questions. Most business officers enjoy a long tenure and, over time, foster deep relationships with the school’s trustees. Brainstorm questions you are most likely to receive and think about succinct and clear responses to them prior to the meeting.
- Finally, don’t use acronyms. At any given meeting, you are likely to have new or newer trustees. Don’t make assumptions and use shorthand that will confuse or have some trustees check out too embarrassed to ask for an explanation.
Draw on the highest-quality data. As a reminder, DASL/BIIS is currently open for this year’s data entry. If you have your audited financials, or even draft audited financials in hand, enter it now so that you and your business officer colleagues have access to the largest, most accurate and valuable independent school data set in the country. You must participate in the DASL Foundations data entry by October 14 to participate in the DASL/BIIS Financial Operations data, which will remain open until November 18. But even more important, when BIIS reporting opens in December, use the tools and easy-to-use-reports such as the composite financial index (CFI) calculator and NBOA Financial Dashboard to help tell your school’s financial story and provide context for the data you share.
Managing and reporting your school’s financials accurately is baseline for today’s business officer. To be the strategic partner your school needs you to be, it’s imperative to interpret the data and frame the financial landscape so that school leaders may collaboratively make the best and most informed financial decisions to help ensure your school’s long-term financial success. And, as always, NBOA is here to help you do just that.
Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.