by Barbara Barron | Posted August 24th, 2022 | Subscribe to this newsletter
Back in May of ’22, I shared my mythical school with you: The Nirvana School.
(If May was too nutty, I invite you to read it now.)
If you did, you’ll remember that the purpose of the Nirvana School was to answer the question, “What would it look like if everything worked exactly as we hoped?” At the Nirvana School, the advancement team functions cohesively to attract, retain, and steward the great volunteerism and philanthropy of right-fit families. At the Nirvana School, teachers understand the valuable role they play and collaborate enthusiastically with the advancement team to tell compelling stories of life in their classrooms and on their stages and playing fields. Families at the Nirvana School feel welcomed and seen from the start of their journey so they engage right away, in only appropriate and helpful ways, and tell all their friends how much they love the school. The school raises significant dollars from meaningful gifts from every family (regardless of what dollar amount that is for each), which results in top-notch facilities and highly respected programs because everyone–everyone–is informed and involved. Stewardship is a top priority. Therefore, all donors see and feel the value and impact of their gifts. Everyone counts. The sense of community is like none other.
As anyone reading this knows, what it would take to make my mystical school a reality is … a lot! Not the least of which is a Board of Trustees fully committed to these ideals and these excellent practices.
In fact, without the Board fully on board, if you will, it simply can’t happen.
A Little Background…
A few years ago, as I was leaving a Director position at a school, I was asked to use my final board report to share my thoughts about where the school was and what was or could be ahead of them. It was a rare moment I have come to love as a consultant: I got to speak the truth. I started with the standard stuff, of course. I highlighted the growth and improvements we’d made together. I thanked them for their work and for the opportunity to serve. I even urged them to set as a KPI for the Head that she continue to engage in professional development and that they remain focused on building out the major gifts program we had started.
But then, at the end, I offered them a challenge.
I said that if they really wanted to, they had an opportunity to create a culture where people would be clamoring to serve on this Board. In this aspirational but possible, improved version of the school, trustees who were fortunate enough to be selected would serve with passion, generosity, and tirelessness. These trustees would tell anyone and everyone who asked that serving on this school’s board was the hardest and most rewarding work they’d ever done.
Many of those listening smiled like they thought I might be joking. But a few looked deadly serious. This would mean a paradigm shift and they sensed it.
“Paradigm shift” may be too tame a phrase. This “shift” would be seismic in most schools. But as hard as it might be to accomplish, assuming you were really interested in beginning to move your school in this direction, what would it really take?
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Here’s What it Takes
First, like with most important decisions, it begins with intention. And then some language to codify those intentions. We know that it is the Board of an independent school that is charged with holding the mission of the school. But interestingly, rare is the school whose Board creates and lives by a mission for itself. Let’s do that. Let’s have the trustees work with a creative, strategic consultant to develop a mission statement to inform and guide their work.
Next, we recruit prospective trustees who want to own that mission. Let’s get the people with the skills and experience we need — but without personal agendas. Let’s be transparent about what we need and not waste anyone’s time if they are not up for the job. Remember, this is going to be the hardest and yet most rewarding volunteer work of their lives. We need to be honest about that from the start.
Prospective trustees are told at the first interview that they will need to make the school, during their term of service, their highest priority of time and treasure. That means other worthy organizations they care deeply about will need to fall back in line. For now. They need to be the first to support every fundraising activity from the Annual Fund to a capital campaign. They need to make plans to leave a gift in their estate.
Don’t Stop There
We double down. Job descriptions and individual “portfolios” of projects are created for each trustee so they know what they are working on and why. Everyone makes and keeps the commitment to attend all meetings – that’s right, all meetings, folks – and engage fully in committee work. Professional development is a mainstay. Training about how to have exceptional cultivation conversations, how to ask for significant gifts, and how to add value to the school’s stellar stewardship program are perennial offerings.
In our Nirvana Board, the advancement team and Head of School have a bevy of eager, willing, and highly skilled advocates to help open doors and introduce, and host coffees or lunches to create the environment to get to know new families and then seek their support. Because each trustee has made the school their number one priority, they can easily and gracefully ask others to join them. They are able to stand in that beautiful place of high integrity because they are walking the talk.
And when their term is up, they remain involved as emeritus trustees, available (when asked!) for counsel and connections, supporting the school in an ongoing way. They proudly sport their school wear around town, display school stickers on their cars, and showcase their token recognition of service gift in their homes or offices. And since they are members of the school’s legacy society, they come to school events and are remembered fondly, always.
What do you think? Want to work there? Go there? Serve there? Give there? I do!
As always, thanks for all you’re doing.
About the Author
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 over 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful fundraising plans and programs 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 Springs, Presidio Knolls, Sage Ridge, and San Diego French American, 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.