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Investing in Culture

In Delivering Happiness, former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh suggests the following:

“Once you have a culture – invest in it.”

Although this line is simple, it packs a powerful punch for school leaders.

As school leaders, we learn to do more with less. We always search for ways to build culture in ways that don’t cost money. We give notes of appreciation, allow staff to leave early, organize staff potlucks, and cover classrooms.

However, there comes a point when school leaders exhaust all their "free" ideas: one can only approve so many jeans' days! In these cases, school leaders must dip into school finances for the purpose of investing in school culture.

But in a world where school purchases are increasingly scrutinized, how can leaders invest in school culture without getting slapped on the wrist by auditors?


Before we go any further, it's important to define school culture investments, as well as clarify the costs associated with these investments.

First, let's be clear that investments in school culture cannot be extravagant and must follow certain rules. Therefore, those hoping to take employees on a Royal Caribbean cruise or rent the The Magic School (Party) Bus using district funds are out of luck.

Instead, we're looking at strategic, occasional instances when leaders provide gifts, facilitate activities, and organize gatherings that are of modest expense for the purpose of enhancing employee morale and engagement.

"You said 'modest expense.' How much are we talking?"

When discussing costs it's important to understand school budgets. While school funding varies by state, in Iowa an average-sized school district (approximately 2000 students) will likely spend in excess of $20 million dollars in general fund expenditures.

The general fund covers all of the day-to-day operations of running a school district, including employee compensation, supplies, textbooks, professional development, and special programing. The general fund also covers the "staff appreciation" purchases discussed in this article.

Given a $20 million dollar budget, what would you guess is a reasonable percentage to invest in school culture? Five percent? One percent? One-tenth of a percent?

While those numbers sound reasonable, they are likely far too much money to spend on these types of purchases. Believe it or not, spending .001 percent of the general fund budget - roughly $20,000 - should be all you need to provide staff with meaningful perks throughout the year.

“Wow,” you may be thinking. "That's such a small percentage!"

That's exactly my point! School leaders across the country run multimillion-dollar budgets. Yet, when asked to use school funds to (heaven forbid) buy coffee for the teacher's lounge they say, "I don't think that's in the budget."


Curious what could be done with $20,000? Below are seven ideas used in our school district of roughly 250 staff members:

All-Staff Celebrations ($10,000): We host four all-staff celebrations throughout the year. During these quarterly get-togethers, we serve food, recognize employees, play games, and give away prizes. Our staff relish this opportunity to connect with colleagues in a laid-back setting.

Staff T-Shirts ($3000): Every staff member receives a free t-shirt at the beginning of the year. We put a lot of thought into these t-shirts, including asking staff to vote on their favorite design and paying a couple extra dollars per shirt to get the ultra-soft version (Bella+Canvas brand are a district favorite!).

Flower Deliveries ($1,000): On the first day of school, we ask our local florist to deliver plants to every new teacher/certified employee. Each plant comes with a specially designed pot with our school district logo. These gifts look great in classrooms and help new staff feel special.

Popcorn Fridays ($1000): We purchased a popcorn machine for each school so that staff could enjoy a salty snack each Friday morning. Not only does fresh popcorn smell amazing, we have found this simple gesture goes a long ways towards making crazy Friday mornings more bearable.

Family Movies ($1000): Staff are always looking for something to keep their kids entertained during summer and winter break. To help give our families something to do, we collaborate with our community theatre to host a free "staff appreciation movie" for kids, grandkids, and spouses twice a year.

Yeti Mugs ($500): Our district emphasizes lifelong learning, so staff who earned a master's degree over the past school year are given a special Yeti tumbler with our school logo engraved. Finding a gift that everyone likes can be difficult ... but we found these trendy mugs to be a universal winner!

Baby Onesies ($300): We believe every employee (or employee’s spouse) should be recognized for the birth of a baby. So, we order school-district theme “onesies” to give away during all-staff celebrations. Some staff have said they want a baby just for the onesie (they are joking … I think!)

Keep in mind these ideas are shared from a district perspective. Building leaders can use a similar rule of thumb for their buildings: For every 100 students, invest $1000 of your building budget into employee culture.

Work in a 500-student elementary school? Invest $5000. Work in a 1,500-student high school? Invest $15,000. Of course, you could go much higher if you wanted, but these numbers reflect an investment that is a fraction of percent compared to the overall building budget.


“How are you able to do those cool things for staff? I didn’t think we could spend money on those items.”

Let’s address this question from two perspectives: district leadership and building leadership.

District Leaders: When I came to our district, these types of purchases were generally not advised. However, I knew other districts were making "staff morale" purchases and I wanted to learn how they were doing it. What I realized is when auditors examine purchases, they usually defer to school board policy. This means if school board policy provides leeway on staff appreciation purchases, auditors are less likely to flag those expenditures.

So I began digging through policies from other districts and crafting an updated policy. By no means was I trying to pull a quick one on our school board. Instead, I was looking for slight changes in policy language that would allow district leaders to provide occasional morale boosters to our staff.

Given that policies need formal approval, I also had to convince the school board that a revised public purpose policy was a good idea. But when I explained how these small expenditures have a big impact on staff retention (a challenge in rural districts like ours), I had their attention. And when I shared that far less than one percent of our budget would be spent on these gifts, I had their support.

The end result was our updated Expenditures for Public Purpose school board policy. Within our policy, there are a few pieces of language I'd like to highlight:

“The Board of Directors authorizes the expenditure of District funds ... which aid in recruitment of personnel, promotes improvement of staff morale and cooperation, and assists in building a commitment to the District, thus assisting in creating a more productive learning environment.”

“Staff appreciation meals (breakfast and/or lunch) to recognize employee contributions...”

“Motivational items for employees that align with the Board's mission and vision for teaching and learning and enhance the climate and culture of the district, provided the items are of modest expense.”

District leaders should look at their current public purpose expenditures policy. If current language doesn’t provide latitude, they should engage the school board in dialogue about modifying the language to allow for small school culture investments.


Building Leaders: Similar to district leaders, building leaders should also investigate school board policy. Far too often, building leaders don't take time to understand school board policy, and instead rely on district leaders to interpret procedural language. When school leaders dig into policy, they often realize their supervisor is misinformed ... whether it be about public purpose spending or other policies.

Another tip for school leaders is to compose a public purpose statement for staff purchases that may raise a red flag in your business office. Here is an example of a public purpose statement I’ve used in the past:

On Friday, August 23rd the Tama Florist delivered an STC-themed pot and plant to all new certified STC employees. A total of 16 plants were delivered across all four buildings for a total cost of $770.40.

I believe this purchase aligns with School Board Policy 804.07: Expenditures for Public Purpose. Specifically, I’d like to highlight the following statement: “Motivational items for employees that align with the Board's mission and vision for teaching and learning and enhance the climate and culture of the district, provided the items are of modest expense.”

My district credit card was used to make the purchase. Feel free to attach this email with the receipt in case the auditors have any questions.

While not every purchase “gatekeeper” will be on board with your thinking, referring to school board policy and writing a public purpose statement will likely allow you to get more approvals than denials.


In a world where effective school personnel are hard to find, leaders must look for opportunities to show staff appreciation.

Whereas lazy leaders suggest “That’s public money - we can’t make those purchases", motivated leaders create opportunities to invest in school culture.


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