After working in Wall Street for several years, and spending some time as a carpenter, Nick Stoneman was hired in 2003 as the Head of School at Shattuck St. Mary’s School (SSM), about 50 miles south of Minneapolis. In just 10 years, Stoneman helped the school move from a deficit to a surplus of close to $400,000, increased annual fundraising by 37%, enrollment by 52%, and tripled SSM’s endowment. The school used a model developed by Stoneman called “asset optimization” to achieve it.
When Stoneman joined SSM, he came to a school facing serious challenges: a deficit of almost $2 million, stagnating enrollment, and one strong asset—its hockey program, which has produced several NHL players, including Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“What really helped me think about our assets and the school in a new way was Scrabble. It’s a great model for looking at what you have, and what is the best way to lay it out.”
At the time, Yale School of Management was partnering with the Goldman Sachs Foundation to create The Partnership on Nonprofit Ventures, funded in part by the Pew Charitable Trust (one of the primary funders behind the Pew Research Center’s recent Jewish Population Survey). The Partnership ran a contest for nonprofits to find new ways of using their assets to create new revenue streams beyond development and their core activities. Four winners each year received $100,000. “The message,” says Stoneman, was that “nonprofits have to think differently about raising revenue.” The competition’s objective of asset development helped validate Stoneman’s ideas for the board. Also, Stoneman says, “Essentially the board looked at our deficit, looked at my idea, and said ‘What do we have to lose?’” Stoneman, together with the board and his administrative team, used the hockey program as a template for maximizing SSM’s assets:
- SSM was situated in a region that was extremely passionate about hockey.
- The school’s facilities offered top-quality resources to students.
- The program’s success gave SSM plenty of promotional material to attract athletes, as well as other students.
- The effort to build out the hockey program showed donors, staff, and the board that SSM had the capacity to create and maintain a highly-specialized, lucrative strategy.
After much trial and error, Stoneman says, the team at SSM created six asset categories (see list below)to analyze effectively the school’s resources. “We started with the low-hanging fruit,” says Stoneman. “Rental increases, summer programs—those were the first changes we made.” From there, SSM got more ambitious, creating “Centers of Excellence” based on their hockey program model. The Centers would be nationally recognized, serve as an “admissions magnet,” and require an additional fee for participation on top of baseline tuition. Nine Centers have since been established, in areas from soccer to bio-science. “The first Center for Excellence was a big turning point,” says Stoneman. “Once the board saw that we could build it, and that it attracted 40 new students, they had the confidence to keep going.” SSM’s biggest challenge, according to Stoneman, was changing the culture to one where “change is normal,” and “the board supports innovative thinking.”
Since that first effort, SSM has gone through the asset optimization process “three or four times.” When asked about how each iteration was different, Stoneman says “it doesn’t always take you where you expect, but it’s always compelling.” For example, the school tried to build a program that helped place Chinese students at American boarding schools and universities. Because of regulatory issues and other obstacles, the effort never got off the ground. But because of the relationships they built in the process, and the staff they hired to act as representatives in China, they increased Chinese enrollment dramatically. “You’re really just looking at what you have, and figuring out the best way to use it. If your school is next to an orchard, your school should be selling apple pies. Sometimes it’s that obvious.”
When Stoneman came to SSM, the school was in bad shape. It would have been much harder, he says, had the school been strong. “The hardest board to sell [on asset optimization] is the one that’s in decent shape. It’s a strong board that can look beyond this successful year and see a storm coming, and see the need to prepare for it. You have to be able to say, ‘This model doesn’t work.’”
Data about teachers, students, donors, and their community were essential to SSM’s asset optimization strategy. When asked about any special efforts the school used to collect and curate all of that information, Stoneman said he had no specific strategy.
“Schools have this information. They may not be writing it down, but it’s on resumes, it’s in your donor database. This is another area where teamwork is crucial—everyone has to come together to drill down, explore, and study all of your assets. It can’t be done in silos, with the board over here, and staff over there. Remember, at the base level, whatever their job titles, you have a group of smart, dedicated people who want to solve a problem.”
Before incorporating this strategy, take some time and collect data with each of your stakeholders. Meet with your teachers, administrators, board members, and families, and make sure you have a good handle on all of your available resources. In Part II, we will explore how SSM uses that data, and the six asset categories, to find linkages and build new programs and revenue streams. We will also look at how this work has affected the school’s bottom line.
School Asset Categories
- Faculty and Staff
- External Relationships
- Geography and Region
- Brand Recognition
- Programs Offered
Asset Optimization outcomes
- Faculty Engagement
- Student Retention
- Enrollment Growth
- Facility Expansion
- Endowment Growth
- Program Enhancement
- Supplemental Sources of Income