The Save Sweet Briar Success Story: 5 Lessons About Making an Impact

 Sweet Briar College campus, Photos by Adam Barnes Fine Art Photography

Sweet Briar College campus, Photos by Adam Barnes Fine Art Photography

You probably recognize the name of Sweet Briar College because you heard it mentioned on NPR or in an article on social media. The women's college was declared dead around this time last year then against all odds and expectations, it made a fairly shocking recovery. I've had the privilege of spending a few summers at Sweet Briar College when I worked there with Endstation Theatre Company. My husband and I chose their stunning campus for the location of our engagement photos and I sort of, well, fell in love with the beauty of Virginia there. 

When I heard the news that Sweet Briar would be closing I was saddened but not surprised. We all knew that women's colleges were in decline and that Sweet Briar had suffered from low enrollment. I wouldn't be deeply impacted by the loss of Sweet Briar. I was an outsider who enjoyed the tranquil campus. I would miss that. Little did I know that Sweet Briar alumni would sweep in, raise money, and save the institution. Fast forward a mere seven months since Mission: Save Sweet Briar was officially accomplished and the school is boasting its highest application rate in half a century. This is some serious, Lazarus-level coming back from the dead stuff. It's just amazing. So what can we all learn from this Cinderella story? Here's a few things I've noticed.

The Save Sweet Briar Success Story: 5 Lessons About Making an Impact

1. Social media can be a game changer. While the Save Sweet Briar Movement may have been able to achieve similar success if it had occurred prior to the advent of social media, it's undeniable that social media was critical to networking, spreading messages and galvanizing this donor base. Social media gave alumni and supporters all over the country a front row ticket to what was going on right here in central Virginia. That was a huge component of this movement working. If you have a product or message that you're passionate about, there's no replacement for growing awareness through a well-executed social media strategy. 

2. Institutions rise and fall on leadership. A president and a board were ready to wash their hands of the struggle of running a women's college. They didn't see a way out. There was no Plan B. They were going to shutter the doors. Alumni stepped in and immediately began to cast a vision. They weren't just complaining. They weren't just upset. They were going to take action. Sweet Briar's success can be credited to the leadership of its alumni. The success or failure of any organization can be attributed in large part to its leadership. We must choose our leaders well! 

3. Actions reveal what people really care about. Leaders must cast vision that inspires constituents. And no matter what their people say or how much they press "like," it's the real-life actions taken by human beings that show what they care about. Actions are telling. Whether in saving an institution or simply in how people treat one another, actions really do speak louder than words. Sweet Briar was saved because people were passionate about it enough to take action.   

4. The best days can often come after “the game has been called.” Many, many people did not give Sweet Briar a chance. The Save Sweet Briar movement talked about "coming back" and many of us just sort of shook our heads and sighed. They couldn't really raise all that money. The damage had been done. Pink slips had been issued. The school had no chance. Little did any of us know that not only would Sweet Briar make it, it would blossom and achieve unprecedented milestones. Sweet Briar is the Rocky Balboa of colleges. It just keeps getting back up again. And you know what? There's no reason why your best days can't still be in front of you.   

5. Never underestimate the power of good press. Sweet Briar has gotten a lot of media coverage over the last year. No doubt that the media coverage helped put Sweet Briar on the map. I totally get why a high school senior would apply to Sweet Briar. Look at what their alumni were able to accomplish! Who wouldn't want to join those ranks? Publicity probably didn't have a lot to do with Sweet Briar's recovery, but it certainly has helped it's growth in number of applications received. Good press is gold. 

Every time I think of Sweet Briar it reminds me that when things are looking bad, it in no way means that we have to give up. When an organization or business has strong leadership, good storytelling and communication, and passionate, action-oriented people, the potential for achievement really is huge. Go Sweet Briar. Proud to know you.