Making Your Case

Getting buy-in from principals, community members, and parents

One cannot deny that school is a busy place. With classes, new learning initiatives, sports, clubs, celebrations, and of course, National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, and student council meetings, students and staff are constantly juggling multiple commitments. Meaningful experiences outside the classroom, such as the LEAD Conferences (www.leadconferences.org) and large-scale community-based projects, must dovetail not only with school-based activities, but also with all of the other work being done in the larger community. This is why it is so important for NHS, NJHS, and student council leaders to have consistent buy-in from principals, community members, and parents. Successful advisers need the community rallying around them to provide support.

There are a number of ways busy advisers can secure this buy-in. Most of these highlight the need to make it easy to partner up with your organization, present a clear message, and get the community authentically excited for the work that you are proposing. With these key themes in mind, there are some specific initiatives an adviser might take to get everyone ready to collaborate.

It is always best to approach your administrator with a fleshed-out plan and an equally viable plan B.

Be Clear in Your Communication

It doesn’t matter whether you are reaching out for help in writing or in person; you are most likely to get buy-in if listeners are given a clear, concise, and persuasive explanation of the planned event. It is important to make sure that your presentation addresses the five big questions:

  1. Why is it important to students or the community?
  2. What has already been done?
  3. What is needed to make the event a success?
  4. What do you need from the stakeholder, specifically?
  5. What will the outcome be?

Debra Fishwick, principal of Shrewsbury Mountain School in Shrewsbury, VT, has led elementary, middle, and high schools. She says that when an adviser comes to her to request support for a project, she wants to make sure they “have a clear vision for what they want to do and know how to move these plans forward. The adviser should be able to answer questions about how they will edit their plans if something can’t work.” As Fishwick says, “It is always best to approach your administrator with a fleshed-out plan and an equally viable plan B.” She also states the importance of imparting passion for the work within the presentation.

Know Your History

When presenting a plan for a large-scale project to stakeholders, it helps to have background research about similar projects that were previously completed at your school or in another school. As Jess Flaherty, assistant adviser to the student council at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon, VT, states, “Show advisers and community members evidence of past projects in order to present your plan within the context of success. If you are hoping the project will enhance the school’s reputation or prestige, make connections to other successful institutions that have done the same thing.” Fishwick also suggests advisers “research community organizations that are already involved with the mission and consider what they have done to be successful and whether they might be able to help you.”

Align Projects with School or Community Goals

Nothing ensures buy-in from principals and community members better than proposing a project meant to support and enhance the central goals of the school or organization. Is your school focusing on transferable communication skills? Flaherty suggests stressing that “the LEAD Conferences teach student leaders to hone their communication skills and to help young people find their own voices.”

Are you aware of a local community action group that is dedicated to increasing access to healthy food? Such a group might make the perfect co-facilitator for a healthy food drive or garden seed fundraiser. A symbiotic relationship in which both groups are advancing their missions is an easy way to ensure enthusiastic buy-in.

Vary Your Sources

If you are planning multiple large-scale projects throughout the year, try to appeal to different organizations and stakeholders so no one group feels overburdened. Flaherty is hoping to help students attend one of the LEAD Conferences next year and plans to reach out to multiple local service organizations and community sources to reduce the intensity of commitment required from the people she asks. Creating a wide base of support also teaches students important lessons about community and collaboration.

Pick the Right Time

With the multiple demands on teachers and advisers throughout the school day, it can be difficult to find the perfect time to present project ideas to school administrators. Attempting to make an appointment before or after school might help ensure buy-in from principals. Without students moving through the office, it is easier for a principal to focus on what you are presenting. It also shows your commitment to both regular professional responsibilities and the important post of adviser. Flaherty states, “My school day doesn’t allow much time for service organization work, but after school I can really focus. Students are also more centered and ready to co-present when the day has wound down.”

Let Kids Take the Lead

Fishwick believes, “It is integral that if the project is one that kids want to move forward, they are the voices asking for support.” Since NHS, NJHS, and student council help teach young people to be leaders in their communities, allowing them to help prepare and present new projects to administrators and reach out to community organizations can be a great exercise and increase excitement and buy-in. Students can help research the project, prepare budgets and work plans, and get the community excited about the event.

Paul Rondinone is the parent of an NHS student, a Mill River Union High School board member, and a seasoned educator. He agrees with Fishwick, stating, “The students are the ones who will be doing a lot of the work. They’re the ones we want to help and the reason both parents and advisers are working so hard. Let them be the voices when putting it all together.”

Co-sponsor Activities

One way to increase buy-in is to broaden the community base from which you are looking for support. Co-sponsoring a major event with another group can reduce the workload and increase success. An activity that is co-sponsored with an outside community organization will likely boost community support and can help ensure good attendance. Rotary International, American Legion, and Lions Clubs are often motivated organizations that are happy to get involved with student-led initiatives.

Mill River Union High School’s NHS and student council have worked together to host blood drives in memory of a student. The drives were highly successful because the events and their purpose were close to the hearts of both students and the community. Students took the lead in planning, volunteering, and organizing the events. Their passion and voices ensured buy-in from everyone around them. Co-sponsorship meant a lot of advertising before the events and plenty of student volunteers to set up and run the blood drives.

Get Creative

With the tight budgets that frequently challenge today’s school administrators, it can be easier for an adviser to gain principal support for activities that won’t cost the school much to host. There are many events that can be inexpensive to run, but profitable for your organization. Flaherty recommends a variety of these, including themed 5Ks, raffles, and student project auctions. Rondinone says, “Fundraising can teach students important lessons about marketing, handling money, and tenacity.” As long as the fundraisers are fun and affordable, parents are likely to buy into the activities and support the event.

Follow up After the Event

It is important to follow up on a successful event to let the community know what you have accomplished. Fishwick states, “There is value in making sure this communication is humble. It shouldn’t feel like your organization is bragging about helping the less fortunate, but the community and parents rejoice in hearing about students doing great things.” Positive media may validate the commitment others have made to support your ideas. Rondinone says he loves to read about NHS events in the morning paper. Consider posting photos to Facebook showing students preparing for or participating in the activity. (Make sure those in the photo have signed media releases!) Send home a flier to parents announcing how much money was collected, sharing stories from students, or giving examples of how the community benefited. Documenting successful events has the added benefit of creating an archive to remind everyone how great things went the next time you’re drumming up support for a similar activity.

There is also benefit to school-based follow-up. Fishwick suggests asking students to teach others the skills they learn at LEAD and other conferences, or use the acquired skills to increase the co-facilitation done between students and the adviser to free up some of the adviser’s time. “Bringing leadership skills back and applying them is the best kind of follow-up,” she believes.

Fundraising can teach students important lessons about marketing, handling money, and tenacity.

Apply Feedback to the Next Event

When an event is over, it is helpful to ask those who supported it for feedback. Incorporating this feedback into the next request will ensure that parents, administrators, and community members feel like valued parts of your team. Flaherty says recent feedback she received stated, “Parents want clear roles when volunteering, and balanced fundraising and time commitments that make sense within the context of the work and school week.” Overall, it is good practice to demonstrate the feedback loop to students and show them how important it is to recognize those who support them.


Jodie Stewart-Ruck is the dean of students at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon, VT.