Only a handful of my friends know that I spend a decent amount of time each month as the President of the Board of Trustees at The New School Montessori in Cincinnati. It is a private Montessori program serving about 150 students from preschool through 6th grade in one of the older, close-in neighborhoods of the city. This is the school where both of my daughters go, so it was an easy decision to get involved with the program. Being on the Board not only allows me to use my knowledge and skills in leading an organization for the betterment of the school—it also provides me with another platform to learn and develop as a business leader. By day I work on billion-dollar brands for Fortune 100 companies. But in my volunteer time with the school I have a chance to work with a small, nonprofit organization. And last week I even learned how organizations such as this can benefit its customers and its business through Marketing with Meaning.
In addition to my role as Board President I head up the Marketing Committee for the school, working with some other parent volunteers and the school administration to maximize annual school enrollment and long-term equity in the community. We recently went through a marketing strategy process and chose to focus on attracting and retaining students by sharing and enrolling them in what truly makes our school special: its unique culture.
The New School Montessori has many benefits for the prospective parent: strong test scores, Montessori accreditation, a diverse student body, a challenging and personalized curriculum, and a unique setting in a historic mansion built in the 1800s. But what people end up loving most, and what other schools find difficult to compete with, is the people who are part of the school community. Parents, teachers, students, and administration are incredibly caring and giving. The leader and Director of The New School Montessori, Eric Dustman, exemplifies what makes the school great. And although he often has to make tough decisions (especially in this economy), Eric and those who work with him continually build upon the culture by doing what is right for students.
All of this is a long-winded way to describe one small example of how Eric chose to do the right thing for students in a way that puts school enrollment at risk, but ends up delivering meaningful marketing.
One of our annual events is something called “Life After The New School.” The event is held each fall, a few weeks after the start of classes. In this event, the class that just left the spring before returns to share their experiences in 7th grade with the new class of 6th graders. Because The New School ends at 6th grade, this event helps students start to learn about which schools they should consider attending the following year. The panel of “graduates” takes questions from students about everything from how much homework they have to the quality of the school lunches. And the answers vary a bit because there are students from about five different private and public schools in attendance. It’s a valuable, fun event for both parents and students of all ages.
In addition to students, Eric gives representatives of the schools themselves a chance to spend a few minutes talking about what makes their institutions unique and successful. This is where it gets interesting, because most of these other schools have programs for children in preschool through 6th grade. In other words, we are inviting our competition into our building to talk about how great their schools are.
Eric and I recently spoke about how this felt. He admitted that it can be a little unnerving to see parents of kindergartners in the audience getting pitched by the competition. But he realized that exposing these parents to other schools does two things: First, it is the right thing to do for parents and students, who eventually do have to choose another school for their child. This is a marketing service that goes back to examples such as Progressive Insurance, which tells you their price, and those of their competitors.
The second benefit is that in hearing about these other schools, parents are reminded of how great The New School Montessori really is. They see that these schools don’t offer anything more than we have, and the returning students all agreed in looking back that The New School Montessori prepared them extremely well—and that there are more than a few things they miss once they have left.
Doing the right thing for your customers, even at the risk of your business, ends up building loyalty and revenue. Interesting to see how even a small, nonprofit school can teach billion-dollar brands a little something.