43. Overcoming Obstacles in Development and Alumni Relations with Margaret Schlachter
In this episode, we are joined by Margaret Schlachter, Director of Development and Alumni Relations at Wasatch Academy. Margaret practices innovative ways of building connections with alumni students while still incorporating meaningful and classic soft touches. Margaret shares with us the importance of relationship building and how to create a strong and supportive community in the digital age.
Margaret is the Director of Development and Alumni Relations at Wasatch (Wah Satch) Academy. She has an extensive background in education. Prior to working at Wasatch (Wah Satch) Academy she spent nearly a decade helping develop and bring a voice to the sport of obstacle course racing as a business owner, author, writer, former professional athlete, and editor-in-chief of the largest online media source in the industry.
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Tara: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Tara Claeys.
Aubrey: And I’m Aubrey Bursch. Today we’re joined by Margaret Schlachter. Margaret is the Director of Development and Alumni relations at Wasatch Academy. She has an extensive background in education. Prior to working at Wasatch Academy, she spent nearly a decade helping develop and bring a voice to the sport of obstacle course racing as a business owner, author, writer, former professional athlete and editor in chief of the largest online media source in the industry. However, education is her passion and she is excited to join us today. Welcome, Margaret.
Margaret: Thank you so much for having me. Aa, appreciate joining both of you today. So this is great. It’s a, I don’t, whenever this comes out, it is a beautiful fall day here in Utah and the colors are just about peaking, so not sure when this comes out, but it is definitely fall season here right now as we record.
Tara: That’s great. It sounds beautiful. Yeah, I love it when the leaves are turning. They’re doing that here in Virginia as well. I’m, we’re so glad that you’re here today and I’d love to hear more about you and I would love for you to tell us a little bit more about obstacle course racing, cuz that’s something that I know nothing about, but it seems super interesting.
Margaret: Well, thanks. Yeah so I have been in independent school education since I applied to go to a boarding school at 13 years old when I was in eighth grade and said I wanna go to boarding school and I wanted to just ski race. So I went to a school in Vermont that was for Alpine ski racers, snowboard competitors, Nordic skiers called Stratton Mountain School, and then went off, raced in college, played lacrosse in college, did all of those things. So there’s a sports theme throughout my life, which is why when you asked about obstacle racing, that’s why I prefaced this. But I, after I graduated with an undergraduate in strategic management and entrepreneurship, from Babson College, I found myself going back into education first at Skidmore College, coaching lacrosse for them. And then ended up back at Strat Mun School where I held almost a lot of different roles. If you’re, if anyone listening is familiar with boarding, small boarding schools, you kind of do a little bit of everything. So I’ve been a dorm parent, I’ve been a coach. I’ve run an recruiting program for this school that was a pre-admissions program. I worked at another boarding school in Vermont, Killington Mountain School, where we- where I was head of admissions, head of college placement. I did our financial aid. I was head of residential life there, wrote some emergency protocols, did a a little bit of everything. Coached. And around that time there was this new sport that- then this new company called Spartan Race happened to start just down the road in Vermont from where I was living. So I did their first ever race back in back almost 13 years ago now. And it, I just got hooked and I got really into it and got inspired by it and just started doing it and then had some successes and I had a couple companies, very generously offer to sponsor me and support my racing. So in 2012, I took a hiatus from education to go pursue that. And as you said in the bio, I spent almost a decade running around doing races that were anything from a 5K distance to 24 48 hour type races. And there would be all sorts of different obstacles. Kind of like American Ninja Warrior you might see, or now the sport may actually be making it into the Olympics under Pentathlon. It’s exciting to see from let a couple hundred people in a field in Vermont to like, potentially now a test event at the Olympics. Could be, still, it’s a, could be, but being part of that industry. So I got to do a lot of really neat things. Got to travel around the world. Pull the business side of, we’re talking here about, I’m in development now, but the marketing and build strategic partnerships and do things like that. And really what it comes down to is build relationships with people around the world. And then a little over now, about four years ago, over four years ago, I had the opportunity to come back into education through an alum of Wasatch Academy and I’ve been here ever since. And yeah, that realized, I stepped back on campus and I said, education is I, I think the break was good, but now I don’t see myself leaving education. This is my passion and this is where I wanna be. It’s, yeah, that, that’s hopefully not too long winded of who I am and how I got where I am now.
Tara: Yeah, that’s great. I skied stratton and Killington and Magic Mountain, all those places up there when I was a kid beautiful.
Margaret: It’s a great place. That area. It’s the fall colors over there unparalleled. Sorry. I’m in fall color mode right now. It’s the foliage growing up in New England is is second to none, so-
Aubrey: That’s so cool. What I love about your story is that I feel like- cause I’ve had a chat with you earlier and we had so many things that we were talking about and one of them being relationship building, which I think it sounds like, that was part of this process for you. And it was, it was you out there building relationships in different forms and then now you’re bringing that skill set and many others back to Wasatch Academy in your role, as in development. I had so much fun chatting with you about like small talk, your small shop development offices before, and I want our audience to hear more about what you’re doing there. Cause I think it’s really unique and special. As we know with small schools there’s often limited resources including staff. Yet every small school is trying to meet those fundraising and marketing goals, similar to the larger schools. So as a one person development shop, what strategies have you found effective to moving projects forward and making the impact and seeing traction?
Margaret: Sure, yeah it’s true. So we. We’re about 150 year old school. But we do, we are a small school. We have about 200 students at the school right now. So we, we’ve actually, so I’m in the development office. We’re looking up bringing on a halftime person to work with me. But then I am part of an advancement team and we’ve been moving towards an advancement model in the last couple years. It’s, it offers a little bit more opportunities. So that’s something that it’s a strategy the school has used. For example, I have a colleague who is primarily, she’s head of our enrollment management at the school, but she is traveling to an area where we also have an alumni that she’s gonna be meeting with and having coffee with to kind of, if we’re gonna go on one trip, we have multiple opportunities to, to see different people. So that and then I’ll be going to a school fair as well and helping the admissions side of the school here in about a month or so when I have a conference in an area. And we’re putting a, an event at the on, at the same time. So that’s really an interesting strategy that we’ve tried to like couple, if one of us is going on a trip, we see if other people might be able to share and kind of help build those relationships and connections and, cause that’s really, when we talk development, really what development is all about is. Relationships and it’s building good relationships. I feel like there are all these different things that, that in all these, I get so many emails a day that say, do this to increase, do this, to increase. And we’ve found some of the really small things that we do have increased like our, made an impact. We do a small fundraising campaign at the beginning of each year. That is one of my, it’s one of my favorites that we do just because it has such an immediate impact. So all of the students that arrive on campus, they have a care package waiting for them when they arrive, when they move in, and it is in their room. Or for day students, they come by and pick it up their first day when they’re back at school here, and everyone is, they’re all sponsored and people can write little personal notes, whether they’re alumni, current parents, past parents, friends, faculty, staff. Whoever wanna donate and sponsor one of these care packages. And then our students, they, part of being at school here is they have community engagement time that they need to do different things within our community giving back. So I offered this year, and we’ve done it in the past, they, all the students wrote handwritten thank you notes to all of the donors who supported that care package campaign. It’s really neat. I think we’re in an age where we send so many emails. How often do we get a handwritten letter from a student? Even, we have 14, 15 year olds writing handwriting, Thank you notes. Little things like that. We try to have a lot of touch points with people and do different things.
Tara: That’s really interesting. I love the fact that you get to, to work in that teamwork and be resourceful in how you’re approaching your development. Over the past few years, what development projects have you seen and initiatives that are the most beneficial to from an ROI perspective? I know you’ve mentioned a few things but can you tell us a little bit more.
Margaret: Sure. I would say this one isn’t on the, the, I would say return on investment of time. This one more than anything else is when the pandemic started, we moved to having some virtual alumni gatherings, and we’re a school that has students from currently from 20- 25 states and 27 countries. So we have alumni. Once they leave here they go all over the world. And what’s come out of that is now once a year, I do, it takes about four and a half months to get through all of the five year cohorts of alumni, but do every Wednesday night an hour long zoom call with a different cohort of alumni. And it’s that per, again, it’s like that personal touch that, that it takes a lot of my time. But it’s been really great to get to know so many alumni and so many people within our community that may never be able to make it to campus for a visit again. But I learned their stories, what they’re doing where they are even sometimes, and that’s been just really great to be able to share what’s going on in the school and at the same. Then let them know when we have things like our giving day and our care package campaigns and things like that are coming up. But mostly it’s just getting to know our community in a way, since we’re located, I should say, we’re about a hundred miles from Salt Lake City, so we are smack dab in like the middle of Utah in a pretty rural area that unless it’s not really a place you just casually drive by. It’s been, that’s been a really great way for us to connect. And then I would say on as well, we do that, our senior leadership team and our head of school does that with our current parents and our current families. They do that every month. We have a Zoom call as well because our community is so widespread and I think those using technology, I think we all maybe have a little zoom burnout right now, but using technology in that very deliberate way has been a continued great way to, to connect to connect with people. So that’s not necessarily like a fundraising ROI initiative sort of thing, but it has been really great for us as a community and department and just building back up our engagement.
Aubrey: Absolutely. And as one of those silver linings from Covid, I mean, as a parent, I will say, thank goodness that not all the school meetings even, I’m not at a boarding school, but thank goodness some of ’em are still virtual. Cause it’s, it makes my life so much easier. So I’m glad to hear that you’re using that. Beyond Covid and really using it to build, continue to build those relationships. Now, when we talked before, we talked a little bit about your journey, like when you started. If you can go back to when you started in your position. And there, I’m sure your position looked a little bit different than it does now, and what you walked into probably looked a little different than your program actually looks right now. So if you could think back and think back to that time, what advice would you give to small schools with small teams that are trying to build like their alumni and development programs? I know we had talked a little bit about database building and a lot of other things that were going on, but could you reflect on that time period and share some of the things, like lessons learned from that?
Margaret: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. So you mentioned database that, So when I got here, I was just overseeing alumni relations at the school. So it’s a really fortunate position to be in if you can have that. But our database we believe we have about 5,300 living alumni. When I got here, I think that number was somewhere that we had active. So we either had an email address, Working physical address. I believe that number was around 25 to 2,700. Somewhere in there is how many active people we had. Fast forward today we have over 4,000 active people. So I spent a couple months just finding people, and when I say just finding people, there’s no there’s no magic to this really. It’s not, it’s I think when we spoke before Aubrey, it’s not the really attractive work. It’s not I’m not hosting a party in some city, or I’m not. I am sitting in front of a computer just looking up who are the people that are in, we had a pretty active Facebook group private Facebook group for alumni. So it’s going through and seeing what their name is and then sending them messages through Facebook. And I even got yesterday an update from a message I sent in 2019 from someone who just finally saw it in that other folder in Facebook that said, Oh yeah, I’m happy to share my information. Here’s my information with you now. Doing kind of the same thing in LinkedIn. It essentially felt like I was cold calling through social media people. But it’s meeting our, in this case, meeting our alumni where they’re at and I think that, It’s interesting as you asked me that question today, as that just this morning in the most recent issue of the fall NAIS magazine, there is a whole article about meeting our current parents that the new current parents moving into independent school education are now on the oldest end of the millennial into the Gen Zers are now in their twenties and they’re starting to look at that pre-K, potentially in kindergarten. So that first step into independent schools and where they are, it’s the digital generation now and looking at, so instead of, you know, the old way kind of picking up the phone and which is a great way and still has tons of value and I still think when you give somebody a phone call and just say thanks for making a donation is a incredible- You don’t get many phone calls like that these days. But just going and finding people where they’re at on the mediums that they’re at, and I think, honestly, LinkedIn is one that was pretty fruitful that I wouldn’t have thought from the get go. The same with now a little bit- now we’re years into it is keeping up to date with some of our younger alums through Instagram cohorts, and then one day I may have to get on to TikTok, but I think there’s still students that are mostly using TikTok. So I think I have a few years before that getting going there. Maybe by then I’ll have another younger person in that, that that is, is, that is more adept of that or the student interns that I have right now they can go on that medium. But that, that, that’s what we did. And I spent about three plus months just doing, Database, really basic stuff, or we had an email but no address. So just emailing the people and asking them for some updates. I think as we said before, the database, it’s databases in general, they are living, breathing organisms. That I don’t think unless you work in kind of a development office and you like live in it, in that, that you might hear this say, what is she talking about? How is a database a living, breathing organism? But it really is the lifeblood of the development office.
Tara: Yeah, I love that. Going back to basics. And phone calling which is something that, that you don’t see very often. I wanna ask you on the opposite end of that spectrum what’s the future? What kind of trends do you see? What kind. Tools or techniques or things do you see coming up? And have you noticed any trends with small schools and boarding schools?
Margaret: I think the same thing that we’re seeing across the board in the industry is just open communication. I think it, it just said is that as we have a new generation of parents coming into the fold- just that increased. They’re on they’re on all of the different mediums. They’re looking at, they’re researching things before they decide that this is gonna be the right school. So what your presence looks like and what is out there for the, for people to consume. If you have a magazine making, like for us, we have, we do an annual magazine that is both digital and print because we do have a lot of our constituency that, and there’s something that’s great about having an actual physical, magazine, but also realizing that as we move forward that a lot of people are just switching and opting to looking at things like that digitally and so I think that, I think it’ll be interesting, I think the next couple years in education across the board are gonna be really interesting. And I think the pandemic is, we’re on the, tail end or on the other side of the pandemic now. But now I think the time’s happening where we’re reflecting back on what are the good things we wanna continue to take out of it and. What, how has it changed what we’re doing for students at schools? I think there’s a lot we’re it’s, it gave us a great pause and a chance to rethink education.
Aubrey: Absolutely. I’m curious, as you’re looking forward to your own kind of position and development, what are some goals or some- I guess things that you are looking forward to diving deep into from the next two years or three years. Like you’re, I’m sure you have immediate ones, but looking down the road.
Margaret: Yeah, so it’s there’s a lot of things I’ve been looking at. In terms specifically at Wasatch- working here is, is building out. We use, I, we launched in 2020, our own internal we partner with an external company. The Gravity, they just changed their They just changed their name from graduated Gravity. But they, we use that, We have their part, we partner with them, we work with them. We’re their client, whatever, however you wanna say it. And one of the things they create is an entire online community. So we’ve lo we launched that about two years ago. We have about. Almost 800 people in our online community. And then really building that up in the next couple of years and creating, building more meaningful pieces for both our external community, whether they’re alumni or parents and that sort of thing, to work with our internal community here as we work to really build up an annual career day as well, building up a mentorship program that’s really enriching and meaningful for. Our juniors and seniors and then into young alums as they, they go off into the world. And in this platform we use has the capability to do all of that as well as really highlight our alumni and community own businesses. So taking those kind of pieces and I would love to see them. They’re all very much in our infancy stage here and really building robust class agents and all of those pieces. Those are the, every, When I, if you had asked me when I started here, I’d say, Oh, we’ll get it done in two years, three years now. I’m like, Okay, that’s like the five year plan. It’s things don’t always happen as quickly as I want them to. I think I’m more of a let’s get this done today and realizing that it’s a, it’s truly- I wouldn’t even call it a marathon. It’s sometimes an ultra-marathon when it comes to the different relationship building and rolling out new incentives and new programs for a community.
Aubrey: I love the sports reference you’re like ultra-marathon and isn’t it true? I feel like that should be on the wall of every school though, especially small. Where you’re trying to do a you’re like, it’s gonna happen this year, it’s gonna happen in five years. I think that’s a very realistic view. I’d love to dig into, if you wouldn’t mind, like I, it’s Gravity now, but it was graduate. And they just recently changed your name. I’m curious, we have a lot of people in the audience who, who ask about using it. And what have you found beneficial of it with that program? There are some other programs similar, but I’m curious to hear more about that. Would you mind tell talking a little bit more about that?
Margaret: Sure. Yeah. We looked at, we just wanted to create something and one of the things that drew us as an institution to using them over some of the different competitors was the personal connection. Like I, we have a account manager and then we also use their for our giving day. We also use their program for that. So we have a second person who of works on that. So in a way, I have two other people that are on my team that are not in the office with me, but they are there. They troubleshoot, they give advice, they let us know when new products are coming out. So that, that’s been really one of the biggest things with that particular company working with them is just that customer service base that they, when we got on the, started working with them, they gave us tons of templates. They’ll still give me tons of templates. We’re a couple, we’re about. We’re almost three years in working with them, so we hit our stride with a lot of like how we work together. But it’s been great. I mean, on the, the, the actual program side, whether you’re using them or Alma Base or there’s a whole bunch of different ones and you just kinda have to pick the one that works with you. Pick the price point that works for you and your, your institution. But what I liked with and one of the reasons with this too, is because of their integration with LinkedIn, we have a number of some alums in community, part of our community that are in China. And LinkedIn will work with our Chinese community so that they can get on to graduate where there are some other programs that if they link with other, that constituency may or may not be able to get onto onto that. So that was we try to think really globally when we’re thinking about our community here.That, that was, that, that was one of the big reasons why we went with them, and we’ve just stayed with them. It’s not the most inexpensive of the options out there, but it’s the one that works the best for us. And like I said, if I send an email saying we’ve got a problem or we’ve got something, I normally get a response most of the time in like under 10, 15 minutes, I feel like I get a response back. So it’s almost like having someone there with you and I’m really not trying to just sell this one program. Find the program that works for you. There’s tons of great ones out there. That’s just the experience that I have.
Tara: Yeah, that’s important. Support is really important when you, when it comes to technology and tools like that, and I could talk about that for a really long time. And I love, tools and finding different software platforms to solve different problems. So I really appreciate your sharing that with our audience so they can, hear firsthand how it’s working for you. That’s a, it’s a great resource for them to hear that. I’m gonna switch over and ask you about mind. Through the lens of our podcast, we talk about all of the things that we’ve been talking about, development and marketing and small school leaders. But we also talk about mindfulness as it applies to that. So I wanted to ask you how you define mindfulness and how you s see it applying to the development work that you do and probably to your obstacle course and other stuff too.
Margaret: Well, I think. I think personally, mindfulness comes in the way of remembering it. Just, I think my dogs are a great reminder of mindfulness in some ways. Maybe this is a very different, but they remind me, that that to make sure that their needs are met and that they’re always there. And there’s nothing like after a tough day having your dogs run up to you and just wanna cuddle and be with you and remind you that there’s more to life than just your job. So that’s when I think of mindfulness, sometimes these remind I in like the, that the mind piece of that, that sometimes you need that reminder. But Now, and this might be a little bit off of mindfulness, but I think it’s something that I celebrate every donation that we receive into the school, whether it is a dollar or a hundred thousand dollars, I get just about as excited, especially when I see who it comes from. And I’ve said to the people around me and to our business office that the day when I don’t get excited for that donation to come in of any amount you need to remind, like you, you need to remind me like, like you need to just be like, Margaret, what? Why? Because that- when you get that check in or that online donation, that is the fruits of the labor of all the working with people and it’s a reinforcement that you’re doing the right thing and that you’re working towards the mission. And I think that just seeing that, that’s the tangible at the end of it. So I think sometimes that, that can be some of our mindfulness is just, and it’s kinda a weird way, it might not be exactly what you’re asking, but I do think, I’ve got a little I, I keep, especially with our alumni, I have a printed out very old school all of our alums who donated the year before broken out by class year. And when they give again, the next year, I have a highlighter and I highlight their name. And I get excited when I get to highlight some of these names that now I really know the people. And then when I get to follow up with a thank you note and write the personal. I write a personal note on every thank you note. And I hand write every address for every thank you note. They’re just little things. They take more time, but I just and maybe they don’t make a difference, but I feel like that extra little bit makes a huge difference when you have a handwritten address as opposed to just that printed on or that label stuck when you get something in the mail. So they’re just little things and, and I’m mindful, I think about every donor as I do tho that, that, those little pieces. So-
Aubrey: I feel like it’s celebrating. Like celebrating the work that you do and the work that your school is doing every time you’re doing that. But also it’s like a gratitude practice, right? Cause you’re grateful for all those, whether it’s $1 or $100,000, you’re grateful. And I think I, I personally love the handwritten pieces. I love getting them in the mail. It is such a high impact. Tara’s especially good at sending notes. By the way, , I love, I celebrate your notes, Tara.
Every time I get them they mean so much. So like I think that’s just amazing to have that practice cuz it is a very intentional practice and I think that makes all the difference, especially in development work. Now we’re at the point in our show where we’re gonna jump into rapid fire questions. I know you’ve probably been holding your breath. Don’t be intimidated. They’re fun. So, Okay. If you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be?
Margaret: Oh, you, I guess it’s a business book. It’s a finance book. It’s it I would say it’s called The Simple Path to Wealth. It’s by JL Collins and it is a book that I wish I had read when I was 18 years old. Thankfully, I have some great family members who have been in, in kind of the banking world that said, Okay you’re 21, you have your first job, time to open your Roth IRA , even if you’re putting $20 a month into it. Anyways, things like that. It’s just a very simple it’s really just an idea of what you can do in really small set steps to set you up better in, in life and then give you the opportunity. To, I mean, wouldn’t it be great to write that five, six figure check to a school that you went to in gratitude for what you got as a student? That, that’s not a place that I am personally in but at the same and I’m so grateful for those that [00:30:00] are and at the same time, what a great. If you, if you’re in a space where you can do that, what a great place. And that book just lays out what you can do at a very young age that are really simple ways to whether your goal’s retiring early or just, saving and building up so you can retire at some point. Yeah, I would say that’s it.
Tara: Awesome. All right. Next rapid fire question is, what is one app you could not live without?
Margaret: Oh, I love scrolling Instagram especially. I love looking, I just sold a house that I renovated my, did most of the renovation myself. So I love looking at, like the Instagrams where people are renovating old homes, whether it’s a disaster or not. A guilty pleasure I guess.
Aubrey: Okay. I wish you lived nearby me so you could renovate my house. Yeah, that is like a skill. I don’t know how that didn’t get brought up in your entire like intro, but that is a, an amazing skill by the way. Quite impressed. Okay. What are you reading right now?
Margaret: So I listen to a lot of audio books. I sleep, I fall asleep. It’s how I turn my brain off is fiction audio books and one that I just finished it. So I of haven’t started one that I feel like enough to say anything about. But I just finished Project Hail Mary, which is by the same author that wrote The Martian. They’re making a movie out of it now too.
Tara: I’m listening to that too. I’m almost done.
Margaret: Really good. It’s really entertaining. Yeah. It’s fun. It’s fun.
Tara: It really is. Yeah. He’s got a, he’s got an interesting, way of writing or when you listen to it The voice. Yeah. It’s, it is interesting. That’s very cool. All right, last question. What is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave us with?
Margaret: Yeah. I think that in development work, I would say, There is no magic bullet. And anyone who tells you there’s a magic bullet and they have the thing that’s gonna that’s gonna, you know, they, they have the thing. I think it just comes down to hard work, spending the time building relationships with people and and just really genuinely caring about what you’re the, the community you’re working. I think if you do those things, you’ll be successful in whatever wherever you’re at.
Tara: Thank you so much, Margaret. You’ve shared so much great information. We really appreciate it. Where can people find you online?
Margaret: Best is, I’ve already mentioned it, you can find me on LinkedIn. It says my name, Margaret Schlachter. There aren’t many of me in the world, that’s probably- from there you can see and you can go from there, see what else I’ve done. So I try to be fairly and try to be active on LinkedIn.
Tara: Great. Thank you again so much. Thanks for joining.
Aubrey: Thank you.