The Final Three Things All Great Schools Do In Advancement

October 20th, 2021 by Barbara Barron

Before you read any further, I recommend you first take a look at the two articles that preceded this piece: “The Four Things All Great Schools Do in Advancement” and “Three More Things All Great Schools Do in Advancement.” All three of these articles have come out of my experience and first-hand witness over twenty-plus years in and around the world of advancement in independent schools. As you read, as yourself: “How many of these are happening at my school?”

  1. When times get tough, the school doubles down on support for its “sales” force, the admission and development staff.

What this looks like: Since the school leadership understands that revenue is derived from only two real sources: tuition and gifts, those revenue streams are treated as the vital lifeblood they are. Cutting budgets for marketing or the cultivation and stewardship of donors is considered only as a very last resort. The advancement team is supported in their work, given credit for accomplishments, and treated with respect and appreciation.

Can you imagine a business that relies on sales to decide during tough times that the smart choice is to fire the sales team? It makes no sense. Yet it happens in non-for-profits including our vaulted independent schools. Great leaders remember that even under budget pressure, the only non-tuition source of revenue is a charitable gift. We need to advocate for ourselves and our teams, commit to only the very best of practices in our work, and, as my clients know I like to say, be impeccable. And when you are in the warm beam of that appreciation and respect from your Head and Board, acknowledge it. Thank them for it. Thank your team for it. And then, double down.

2. Even in very small schools, development professionals are given realistic responsibilities and provided with support.

What this looks like: One-person development shops are common in small independent schools. But when those hard-working pros are left to work virtually in a closet, without a team, and without support, the resulting burnout is predictable. Great schools don’t let this happen. They find resources to outsource some of the demands even if it means going to an angel donor. They find administrative help in the form of interns or very carefully selected parent volunteers. They keep expectations reasonable by setting realistic goals and avoiding project creep.  And they find resources for important professional growth and collegial opportunities that are the care and feeding these solo practitioners crave. And deserve.

Asking for help is not easy. But we need to do it anyway. I have long held the belief that if I have a problem I am going to bring to my boss (or client, now), I had better bring along at least one possible solution. Many years ago, a wise colleague suggested that in order to make an important change, we really only need one or two advocates or early adopters of our strategy to make it work. So if there is a member of the development committee who sees what you are trying to do and believes in it. Start there.

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3. Advancement professionals are treated as the respected organizational leaders they are in all aspects of their work. They are loyal, trusted, even beloved members of the community, with long, successful tenures.

What this looks like: The development team is a vibrant, high-functioning office characterized by enthusiasm, professionalism, and skills. They are led with vision and clear direction. The Director supports the growth of each member of the office and advocates for them to the Head for things like salary increases, new responsibilities, and professional growth. The team sticks around and that longevity results in deep institutional knowledge and vibrant relationships with families including alumni families.  Annual evaluations create a growth mindset. From the director on out, everyone receives helpful feedback intended to both identify areas for improvement but also to recognize achieved success. There is a strong sense of respect for the work, job satisfaction, — even joy.

The number of truly high-functioning teams which I had the privilege and responsibility to lead are few. In other cases, we were high functioning at times but maybe not every day. Still, the moments when you find yourself with everyone bringing their A-game, taking on challenges with gusto, and supporting one another’s highest, best good are worth calling out. How can this be replicated? And how can you as the department leader bring this to the attention of your leaders — the Head and Board? Look for opportunities to give others the spotlight, let members of your team make presentations to the faculty and the Board. Brag on them to your colleagues in other departments. This kind of recognition for their good work goes a long way. It will help build trust and loyalty and guard against the premature departure of these valued professionals.

In closing…

As I detailed these three, it’s clear to me that they may be the most important towards building an outstanding advancement program. Do you agree?

Like before, I’m equally interested in what you have noticed from your vantage point. What is it that great schools do when it comes to advancement? And what can we do to bring these ideas to the schools that need them most?

As always, my inbox is open – and thank you for what you’re doing.

Stay well,

Barbara Barron

[email protected] // @BBAdvancement

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 Springs, Presidio 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.