How to Produce an Epic Financial Story
As the finance administrator of your district, having a good story and pairing it with compelling visuals is perhaps the most important responsibility of your position. That’s because you’re the person responsible for developing strategies — and even the best, most thought-out strategies are only as good as your ability to align the organization and stakeholders behind them. If there’s no buy-in, there’s no implementation.
So, “How can I turn budget numbers into a good story?” you may ask. That’s a good question. The following is your guide to producing an epic financial story.
Connect the Dots
Have you ever been part of a board session where hours were devoted to the discussion of field trips, classroom purchases, curriculum changes, and more, only to have your budget proposal approved in minutes? There was a time when this was viewed as a positive – but those days are in the past. This sad reality exists because:
- many board members don’t understand school finance
- the school budget is viewed as a standalone entity
Business officials need to change this paradigm and make their boards and stakeholders care about the district’s financials. Start by connecting financial operations with curricular decisions. Look at your strategic plan in parallel with various initiatives – does your budget align?
A community member should be able to look at a school district’s budget and have a good sense for what is being prioritized in the strategic plan before even looking at it. Does your budget reflect district goals? Does your board understand this?
How to Effectively Prepare and Communicate Your Budget Presentation to Stakeholders
Look Backwards to Move Forwards
Another, related idea, is to look backwards at previous years’ budgets and ask questions, like:
- Did outcomes match the money invested?
- Did the dollars invested in a given project produce the outcomes we were hoping for?
- If not, how are we adjusting? What might we do differently with those dollars?
Thinking along these lines and asking these types of questions will not only lead to sound budget development processes for the entire organization, but will also lead to more engagement, excitement, and understanding from the board and community.
Budgeting – You Can’t Look Forward Without Looking Back
Use Visualizations to Bring Your Story to Life
As the chief school business official for your district, you wear many hats when it comes to your interactions with your Board and the community at large. But one of your primary activities is presenting data through storytelling. Whether that data has to do with the budget, tax levy, audit, collective bargaining comparatives, or just your monthly Treasurer’s Report, the ability to effectively tell your story will benefit you and your district as your peers can attest.
Visualizations are the key to this. Take for example this account from Saad Bawany, the Data Analyst at Oak Park Elementary District 97: “the use of peer groups and comparative analysis did wonders for our referendum committee. Not only did it help us internally evaluate our financial performance compared to similar districts, but also for presenting to the community. We were able to communicate that we had been good stewards of the local tax dollars from the last referendum while also displaying the impact of rising costs and ballooning enrollment that necessitated another referendum.”
Allen Albus, a retired Associate Superintendent for Lake Forest Districts 67 and 115, recounts an instance where a visualization changed the outcome of a board vote: “A few years ago, a couple members of the Board stated that they were going to propose a levy below the product of the Tax Cap formula. In anticipation, the Administration used a simple illustration to show why the district should levy the full amount allowed under the formula. The graph illustrated how other local and state revenue sources had been decreasing since the beginning of the recession. After the administrative presentation, the Board voted 7-0 to approve the levy as presented. Later, one of the board members stated that the graphics presented made him change his mind.”
These types of data storytelling successes are not uncommon – but the skill it requires doesn’t develop overnight. Own your data, strategize how best to present it and create an environment where it integrates with the priorities that your board and community have established for the district.
Lastly, leverage your peers. Colleagues both within and outside your organization can provide valuable feedback and a fresh set of eyes that is not as immersed in the data as you are.