Every charter school has a story. Many school leaders believe in the power of storytelling as a compelling way to share their mission, highlight accomplishments, and inspire support. Although it may seem unusual to center a narrative around numbers, storytelling can be equally compelling in finance.
A financial story uses your numbers to explain where you are today, how you got there, and where you want to go. It allows you to build trust and credibility and advocate for the resources you need to fulfill your mission.
A financial story also protects against misinterpretation of your numbers. Without context, an operating deficit is a red flag. However, a planned deficit in one fiscal year to invest in additional social workers to support your mission of providing students with wraparound services provides an explanation that would not be apparent by reading your financial audit.
As COVID-19 has exacerbated the complexity of the charter school operating environment, many charter school leaders find themselves in even more need of flexible financing to support operations and facility projects. They may have debt, be seeking debt, or embarking on new fundraising efforts. Here are three tips for telling a compelling financial story:
Connect past, present, and future
Write a brief narrative (1-2 pages) that tells the story of your school’s financial life. Refresh the narrative during your budgeting process to determine your school’s situation, priorities, and needs. You can pull from this narrative to accompany a loan application or financial reporting to your lender, when writing grant applications, and even to train new staff and board members.
Consider: What are your school’s major milestones? How has your operating environment changed, and how has your school adapted? How do you anticipate your school will meet community needs, now and in the future?
Connect numbers to mission, actions, and needs
Connecting the dots between financial data and mission needs can help rally support.
For example, perhaps your charter school has been able to secure operating reserves of one month, and, on paper, looks financially stable. What if the story behind the numbers reveals that your school consistently needs to use reserves to cover increased costs for technology, food distribution, and cleaning as a result of COVID-19? And then can’t invest in extracurricular programs and wrap-around services? And that school leadership is so focused on cash flow management it impedes the ability to innovate and meet evolving community needs?
By connecting COVID-19 response to the impact on staff, students, and families, your school is better poised to seek additional funding to support its mission.
Communicate early and often with lenders
Stay in front of your lender by telling your financial story regularly and sharing impact updates. Establishing an open dialogue and feedback loop beyond scheduled reporting and compliance due dates keeps lenders informed of and excited about your work and fosters a positive and flexible relationship.
Imagine you are considering applying for a government capital grant to support a facility project. If awarded, grant funds will be reimbursed periodically only after eligible construction costs have been incurred. Though receiving the award would limit the amount you would need to fundraise from individuals or foundations, it would cause a strain on your cash flow. Speaking with a lender early on can help shed light on the best way to pay for the project – with and without the award - and could potentially bolster your grant application if your lender is able to provide a letter of support to bridge the funds.
Understanding and sharing your financial story is an opportunity to advance your school’s mission and build a stable future.
This guest blog post is the first in a series from Nonprofit Finance Fund. Olivia Pipitone is Associate Director of Business Development.