Bursars and marketers: a marriage made in heaven?
A good relationship between bursars and marketers is vital for independent schools
Communication between the bursar and the marketing director is just as important as it is between the head and the bursar. The latter relationship is remarked upon a lot, for example, how heads “go through 2.2 bursars in their lifetime”. But no one ever speaks about bursars and marketers.
It’s not supposed to be an easy alliance: one person is trying to ensure the books balance and the other is spending a vast amount of money on sometimes very unquantifiable activities. However, with the state of the independent schools’ market today, it is and should be an important relationship. Schools are focusing on commercial aspects far more and as headteachers are in most cases teachers, business acumen is needed.
For the most part that can be found in a bursar or marketer. It should therefore be an easy alliance of business understanding. As a marketer myself (and Scottish), I have a touch of the “spend and save” in me and have been raised in a business sphere. As well as this, I can remember something one of my company bosses said during one of my first jobs: “Income, expenditure and profit … these are the only numbers I want to know about with regard to this campaign”.
"Marketing takes time to work; they have to consider the long game."
I am lucky to have worked in three schools and worked with three outstanding bursars. They have all understood me and my skill sets of strategy, processes, customers and relationship building. They have generally ignored my inability to talk and go over details, preferring to get on with the job and let them read my completed strategy document if they need to.
They all understood that marketing needs investment. However, I understand that a bursar who also represents the governing team along with the headmaster, needs a case for support with regard to any money required. Additionally, they have also understood when emergency money needs to be freed up for an activity with regard to the bigger picture. They have never said no because I have always provided a strong case for support.
If you are going to recruit a bursar, my top tips are: ensure they have a sound business background, are firm and fair, are considered, really listen and are willing to consider the big picture at every turn. Marketing takes time to work (usually in my experience about two years to see real results); they have to consider the long game.
When I speak to some colleagues in the sector and they talk to me about their bursars, I do feel very lucky to have worked with true business people who really understand that spending money is not about how it affects the bottom line then and there: it is about how it will support the school in the long run. They are big picture people who really get it and that is rare.
Don’t forget, we are in the business of education. It is not enough (even if true) to use the usual industry maxims of: you need to spend 5 per cent of your turnover to keep where you are and 10 per cent of turnover to grow your turnover (in our case recruitment numbers). You need cold hard facts and reasons to support activities and therefore costs.
"Bursars are planners are cautious people by trade."
In each school, I have produced detailed marketing plans, even if they are generally a work in progress.
These marketing plans include the usual three sections: where are we now, where do we want to be and how are we going to get there? It is usually the latter that includes the financial requirements: resources and budgets needed with costs listed against the activities proposed to get to the desired target numbers.
Bursars are planners and cautious people by trade — and rightly so since they are dealing with the money — and they need to work with proposed numbers to add to spreadsheets that frankly give me a headache just to look at. I have to applaud bursars in this regard; I love spreadsheets but the level of spreadsheets they work with is on a whole new level to recruits, targets, boarding allocations, retention rates and KPIs.
The partnership between bursars and marketers can and should be a marriage made in heaven as long as each respects each other’s skillsets and expertise. As long as bursars show patience to mad marketers (like me) and marketers show facts and plans to cautious bursars, the business of education is in safe hands.
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