Communications Co-Op
June 14, 2024

Staying Accountable with Financial Storytelling

Staring at numbers may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but most people can’t pass up a good story. As school leaders, you are bound to present the numbers – budgets, audit reports, regular school board reports, but that doesn’t mean your job stops there. To be fully accountable to your stakeholders, it’s paramount that you present the numbers in a way that is understood and appreciated for what they are -¬ the result of the work and achievements of flesh and blood people. In the world of school financials, it should be less about the what – facts and figures – and more about the why. Why are you allocating specific amounts of money to each line item? How do you translate those numbers back to the people who are most affected?

More than Telling Tales

Financial storytelling is about more than telling a good story – it fosters a sense of transparency and trust in your greater community. It is also a way to forge an inroad to garnering more support for your district. A compelling narrative is a good starting point for telling an accurate story about your financial situation, but combined with a good graphic, you stand a better chance of explaining where you’re at and where you hope to go.

Take, for example boosting the narrative of school funding or explaining the impact of a bond or levy referendum on a student and his or her family. You could simply state that the school board is placing a referendum on the ballot for a certain amount per student, or you can go further and provide context for why there is a budget shortfall and what the impact will be for the average family.

Jeff Dehler, president of DehlerPR, a public relations firm that focuses on public sector clients, explains that adding context to the numbers helps families and the greater community understand why there’s a need and what it means. “Simply posting your budget online is not transparency,” Dehler says. “Provide a summary. Compare expenses and revenues to previous years. Explain changes that have occurred. Compare your district to others around you. When you frame the story, the reader doesn’t have to work hard to understand your situation.”

Community Financial Meeting Toolkit

The Region 9 Comprehensive Center (representing Iowa and Illinois), operated by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) through a U.S. Department of Education grant provides a set of resources to get districts thinking about what to say and how to say it. The resources are valid for other states, with only a passing reference to the states represented in the region.  Visit the Region 9 Comprehensive Center for tips, or follow this link to see its Community Financial Meeting Toolkit. The toolkit “provides guidance to build transparency and engage the community in understanding school finance.” 

Share Your Story

Once you’ve determined your story, it’s time to share it. Posting financial information on your district website is not the end of your role – it’s just the beginning. Tell your tale at board meetings and conduct town hall meetings. Your local chamber and other community meetings are other places you should consider to get the word out.

Never-ending story

Sharing about school finance isn’t “one and done,” but rather, consider each report, audit, or board meeting as another chapter in a never-ending story of transparency in your district. When your story is told in a straightforward manner, you take out the mystery and cast an important narrative that your community can support.

How to Show AND Tell Your Financial Story

Giving stakeholders an image to hold onto can make all the difference in understanding a school’s current and future situation. Here are a few examples of how graphics can boost understanding behind the numbers.

The effect of state funding lagging behind the rate of inflation is a harsh reality for most Minnesota public schools. It’s one thing to put out stark numbers; explaining the situation goes a step further, but showing how state funding has not kept pace with inflation, such as in the graphic above, can help more people understand how this disparity has affected per-student funding over time.

Another example is to contextualize information so individuals can put themselves into the story. Saying the impact of a referendum will be about $20 a month is not as meaningful as putting the information out in tangible ways, as shown in the graphic to the left that explains the actual impact is less than the cost of a large pizza.

Consider your district’s financial story and how it can be better told by providing context and visuals. Your stakeholders will thank you

This series on strategic communications in schools is provided as a service from Resource Training & Solutions to provide additional resources to busy school leaders.

The author is Jayne Helgevold, an Account Manager at DehlerPR.

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