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Woodberry Forest School Twists and Turns to Unexpected Outcomes

by on August 22, 2017

The Woodberry Forest School team entered the MISBO + IDEO Project with great interest and hope that an intensive design thinking experience would yield meaningful results. While the path of the experience took several unexpected turns from what we envisioned at the start, the results exceeded our expectations! As noted by the IDEO team, that is often what happens in design thinking-based projects.

For readers that may not know Woodberry Forest School, we are an all-boys, all-boarding independent school located on 1,200 acres in the country about 30 miles northeast of Charlottesville, Virginia. With a new strategic plan endorsed by the board of trustees and the successful completion of the school’s 10-year self-study and accreditation by the Southern Association of Independent Schools, Byron Hulsey, Head of School, and our executive leadership team launched into the MISBO + IDEO Project in a very traditional independent school mindset. We know we have a great product, we’ve tested it against our own experience and values, and the wisdom of this work has been blessed by our peers. Our next steps were to effectively communicate to donors and prospective families regarding Woodberry’s value proposition. A feasibility study indicated a high level of general support to the school by alumni and friends of the school. And certainly, prospective families should see that the value of a Woodberry experience is well worth the $55,600 tuition.

Improved messaging would help address the stiffening competition for a shrinking pool of full-pay prospective families. So our MISBO + IDEO Project team brought the idea of implementing a longitudinal study of alumni, similar to Harvard’s longitudinal study of happiness, to IDEO as our “experiment.” The intent of this study would be to explore how Woodberry Forest affects the lives of its alumni; how that is or is not different for different age cohorts; what graduates take away from their high school experience and which of those lessons serve them best in the future; how their values and career paths and ambitions change over time; and critically, what they feel they lacked in their formative high school years.

However, when our team arrived at the first project workshop we were turned on our heads with mind-clearing exercises and the rigor of the “5 Why’s” exercise. Why were we really interested in the longitudinal study? Why? Why? Why? Why? Ultimately, we concluded that a core reason why we were embarking on the longitudinal study is that we are greatly concerned about the affordability of our school. Further, we are greatly concerned about how affordability is playing a more significant role in shaping the nature of boys enrolled than the administration feels will be healthy for the school long-term.

We asked ourselves, “how could our school, with its rich history of transforming boys into young men of character, located on a beautifully manicured campus nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and equipped with facilities designed specifically to offer adolescent boys experiences they never dreamed of, feel so vulnerable?” We strongly believe that the call for leadership, including young men equipped with the skills, the emotional intelligence, and empathy to make positive differences in their local communities and the world at large, has never been louder. This has historically been Woodberry’s sweet spot, and we have been at it for over a hundred years.

Yet, without dorms full of engaged boys, a school with state-of-the-art facilities, $300 million in endowment resources, and a faculty who are poised to get to know and challenge each boy will no longer be the school it once was, nor will we succeed in fulfilling our shared future vision.

It was at this juncture that our IDEO/MISBO team pivoted and focused our attention on the central issue of affordability. Can we make affordability the primary basis for a fundraising campaign in support of financial assistance? What will be the most successful communications strategy in telling the story about why Woodberry’s future financial stability will be dependent on raising significant new endowment funds in support of financial assistance?

Our energy turned away from the longer-term alumni study project, which we believe still has significant merit, to the immediate priority of framing the case for a capital campaign. Through further research regarding the size of our full-pay market – estimated to be 0.19% of households in our five-state region – and testing messaging with alumni regarding their impressions of financial assistance, we effectively turned from an administrative team focused on our school and what is important to us, to a team focused on our parents and alumni and what is important to them. This simple shift, an orientation central to design thinking work, helped us realize that it is not what we charge (in tuition) that is driving our financial model, it’s what prospective parents are able and willing to pay that is shaping and will dictate the future of our financial model.

Our team developed a renewed commitment to the long-term business model challenge of making Woodberry more affordable. We are endeavoring to take the issue of price off the table as a potential barrier to enrolling best-fit boys. This message was shared with the board of trustees at our May meeting along with supporting information regarding the relationship between Woodberry’s dramatic increase in “real cost” and the corresponding increases in unfunded financial aid. Fully funding financial aid quickly became our shared objective.

With the support of the board, a substantial endowment campaign in support of financial assistance is being planned and internal communications are under way regarding the issue of affordability and the importance of ongoing expense control.

In reflection, I believe the IDEO-led experience helped Woodberry in two very important ways. First, it created a sense of urgency. We had a window in which to articulate a plan, design it, execute it, and assess the results. Without clear deadlines, long-term strategy work often gets pushed aside. Secondly, the methodology forced us to look at the school from a new perspective, specifically our customers’ perspectives. We have gained a greater appreciation for the sacrifices and investments they are making on behalf of their sons to join the Woodberry family. Our schools are in partnerships with our families and affordability has started to become a barrier to new family partnerships and a source of unhealthy friction with current families.

Our work is far from being done. We continue to test and refine the messaging around affordability and are initiating design thinking working sessions with operations and maintenance staff intended to improve the transparency between their roles in addressing affordability. Affordability is a strategic imperative of equal importance to educational program quality; they are inseparable.

We feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with MISBO and IDEO. You can hear more about our experience through this project at the 2017 MISBO Fall Conference, where we will share more of our story.


Ace Ellis
Chief Financial Officer
Woodberry Forest School


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