Welcome to the Nirvana School

by Barbara Barron | Posted May 25th, 2022 | Subscribe to this newsletter

I am an advancement consultant. I work exclusively with independent schools on all matters regarding and pertaining to advancement. And yet I work with very few “Directors of Advancement”. How is that? Am I out of step (or ahead of the curve)?

In our little world of independent schools, there are far more Directors of Development, Directors of Admission (or Enrollment Management), and Directors of Communication than Directors of Advancement. Those that do have the title of Director of Advancement either work at schools that are tiny, with one brave soul managing all three functions, or at schools that have giant programs, dozens on the team, and are highly resourced.

For the rest of us, and since most independent schools are small or midsize, the Director of Advancement title is a bit of a misnomer. Let’s face it, they are Directors of Development, with a different title.

Why does this matter? Because words matter.

As does the scope of this individual’s influence. Real “Directors of Advancement” have responsibility and influence over the full arc of experiences a family has when joining and becoming an engaged member of our community. What families learn during inquiry bears out in the admission and orientation phase, and is lived every day through their time as members of our community. There’s no discordant tone. No weird or awkward “hand-off” between those friendly people who interviewed and welcomed them back in the spring, and the stranger, with an office in a basement somewhere, who writes them a letter in the fall and asks for money.

How bizarre is that!?

If we recognize that that is wrong, then what does “right” look like? In other words, how can we change the way we do business? How might we break down the age-old silos between admission and development (and often communication, too) that keep separate these vital programs that function so much better and more collaboratively when they are pulled together? How can we build a true advancement program at our schools? And what difference might it make?

Welcome to the Nirvana School. Nirvana is my own personal imaginary independent school. At Nirvana,  the advancement program thinks as a team. They do what it takes to support one another and create a high standard and strong work ethic. The atmosphere is collaborative and fun, sure — but these people are all deeply committed to maintaining a high-functioning team. They know that true success lies in finding, attracting, retaining, and stewarding right-fit students and their families. It’s job one.

What does that look like and what are the results? Families are engaged immediately, and therefore make the school a priority with their time, talent, and treasure. They are full-throated, positive ambassadors for the school out in the world. The students thrive at Nirvana and continue on to do good things in the world. They remember and speak about their time at their alma mater with passion and, because they saw regular examples of what it means to be a loyal alum, they will find ways to stay involved and support the school financially throughout their careers. They may even send their own children to the school. Eventually, they leave a legacy and are remembered with affection.

Do you like my Nirvana School? I thought you might. (Just wait til you hear how its Board functions!)

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But how about some brass tacks, Barbara?

Fair. Let’s start with expectations, set by the Board and the Head of School.

Those expectations are backed by a budget that makes magnificent work possible. They hire a dedicated team, led by an inspiring and experienced Director. They are seen by the faculty and staff as valuable assets, whose work results in terrific kids to teach, helpful and generous parents, and a culture of philanthropy that allows the school to thrive. This results in excellent, up-to-date facilities and teachers who are paid what they’re worth. (Well, almost. We can never really pay teachers what they’re worth. But I did name this school Nirvana, right?!)

What else?!

The entire advancement team helps out at admission and development events. That’s everything from open houses and tours to fundraising and community gatherings and alumni reunions. From the perspective of our families, there is no distinction between those who raise money and those who manage enrollment. We insiders know that – in reality – those discrete functions are separate and done with professionalism and confidentiality. But what our community experiences is that anyone and everyone in the advancement office knows them by name and can help answer a question or solve a problem. Everyone in the advancement office is visible, known, and trusted.

What other good does this bring to our schools? The natural (and sadly, common) frustrations and traffic jams in activities, messages, and events are eased or even, dare I say it? eliminated. A true team effort means a shared calendar and the reduction of moments when there is either too much or too little going on or being asked of our families. High-level, through-line messages are determined during the summer and then delivered throughout the year, all of which reinforce important on-mission themes that build retention and commitment.

The community reports back that they feel well informed, and that they learn about key dates and deadlines in timely ways. Regular stories are shared about how the philanthropy generated by the community is put to beneficial use. Families read and watch, with pride, the powerful impact of their support.

It may be Nirvana in this article. But most of the changes I suggest here are doable. Yes, you will need support from above, a commitment to build this over time, and the patience of those around you while you do. And you’ll need to hire the best people. But to borrow from the terrific movie “A Field of Dreams”, “if you build it, they will come.” You can create something with lasting value for your school and its bright future that functions far better. And working there is a whole lot more fulfilling. So, there’s that.

My inbox is open. Let me know what you think.

Be 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 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.