Moving Beyond Conflict Between the Development & Business Offices

August 11th, 2021 by Barbara Barron

Conflict between development and business offices doesn’t have to be a thing, but my experience in this profession has shown me that it often is.

Many school’s business and development offices live in an awkward space between conflict and cooperation. Sometimes the relationship is chilly but workable, other times unproductive, even adversarial.

From the outside, it looks like we ought to be squarely on the same team. Both offices, along with the admission department, are responsible for 100% of the revenue that comes into our schools. Oftentimes, solely responsible. Together, we make up the business side of the organization. We typically have, as requested by the Head, responsibilities to the Board through standing committees. We report at their meetings. We all have goals and numbers to hit. We are so in this together.

But why doesn’t it feel like that? Too often what I experienced as a director – and what I now witness as a consultant – is a much sadder scenario.  What does it look like at your school? Perhaps your business office colleagues are skeptical or even dismissive about the pledges you are so excited to count. They may act miserly about budgets, not fully understanding or appreciating the value of money spent on cultivation and stewardship. I’ve seen business office personnel act territorial about things like data updates. From their seats, it looks like their colleagues across the way in the development office are always “out to lunch.” Or “planning fancy parties.” They see “those development people” spending money while the business folks slave away, carefully tracking every precious penny spent. Not fun.

Meanwhile, we in the development office can be a bit dismissive about the importance of adhering to close and regular reconciliation – the thing that our business office colleagues need to do their jobs well. We can oftentimes be too casual about documentation, especially of those important pledges. We are sometimes not all that diligent about notifying the business office when restricted funds can be released. And then we may act rather put out when we’re asked to provide backup documentation, like during the audit.

So everyone feels overworked and a bit testy. I’ve seen requests between departments go unanswered or given only the most passive aggressive replies. If the development team feels unappreciated for the charitable dollars they bring in with minimal thanks against fundraising goals they had little to do with establishing, the business team feels unappreciated for balancing budgets on the head of a pin amid ever increasing costs.  No parties for them – even though the development team is forever tasked with anything remotely hospitality related!

Now, this is clearly a dismal, worst-case situation I’m painting for you. Hopefully your school has achieved détente or even a nice cooperative atmosphere. But from my seat, I see that most schools fall somewhere along the continuum from hostile enemies to productive partners.

Recently, I spoke with two experienced CFOs from very different schools. Both are former colleagues of mine with whom I enjoyed really good working relationships at schools in the past. Actually, I count them as trusted friends for many years now. We talked about the sources of that conflict, much of which I have captured here. More of our conversation centered on what I prefer to do: find and amplify the positive.

The question came down to this:

What are some practical and positive solutions we can implement to improve the working relationship between these two important offices?

After all, we are in this together. As leaders, this is our work to do. Our staff is watching us. And even if that doesn’t motivate you, I can assure you that your Head of School has little interest in being pulled into arbitration between you! So let’s make this better.

Like with so many conflicts, the solution is never found at the level of the problem. We need to get above the pettiness and find common ground. Start with the fundamentals. A shared vision. Mutual respect. Relationships we establish early, that are based on understanding and respect. So simple and yet not always so easy. 

Let’s begin with the basics. How often, if ever, do your two offices come together? Do you each know what the other does, beyond a cursory understanding? How about a gathering (with snacks, naturally) to talk about what you are each facing, your log-jam times, your high-pressure moments during the school year. Learn about each other’s worlds and how little things can make life easier or a nightmare for all of you.

Beyond that kind of meeting, how about occasional gatherings that simply and vitally build relationships? Between people. Between colleagues. A shared meal is so simple and yet powerful. Talk about what movies you’ve seen, what you’re reading and binging. It’s far harder to “other” someone you have come to know. One of my CFO buddies told me about working at a college that owned a bowling alley. She brought the two offices together for some fun and healthy competition in the lanes.

But beyond shared experiences and some all-important fun from time to time, there is an essential piece that may be missing but is easily found.

My other, wise CFO friend said it well when he talked about “the importance of sharing why we work where we work.”

He said that we should regularly ask ourselves: what it is about the school’s mission and values that resonate? There are plenty of places to work, many at which your paycheck would be greater. It follows that there must be reasons that brought each of you to this place, this work. What about being at a school, your school, that draws you in? And keeps you there? He said that he’s found that when he has that kind of conversation, a common thread is revealed. Often it is a desire to do what we can, in our roles, to serve the students. To support and enhance the student-teacher relationship. He speaks of being “custodians of the parents’ trust”. I like that. 

And as a plug for my development peeps out there, never forget that it is your department, your work, that makes any and all diversity possible for your school. Healthy diversity that improves life and learning for everyone. Without the charitable dollars and those specifically raised for financial aid, our schools would not be the rich and vibrant places they are. Maybe the business folks have just never thought about it that way. Is this a conversation that you, as the director (or Head of School), can help facilitate?

As always, thank you for what you’re doing.

Stay well,

Barbara Barron

[email protected] // @BBAdvancement

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My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for nearly 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal SpringsPresidio Knolls and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.

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