Last week I attended the CASE-NAIS annual conference in New York City. This conference was important to me professionally during the 14 years I led advancement programs; first at a day school and then at a boarding school. I then moved to higher education where I served as a vice president of advancement for a national liberal arts college. Now I provide consulting services to schools and colleges for GG+A.
It was great to reconnect with many friends. Some are still serving their schools in leadership roles in advancement, and several others have taken the path of becoming heads of schools. (What are they thinking?) And a few have, like me, joined the world of consulting and are now serving schools all across the country and the world.
From my conversations with new friends and from the sessions I attended, I came to a few conclusions about how things have changed over the past dozen years.
The profession is getting stronger at multiple levels. I am impressed by the experience advancement leaders bring to their jobs. Schools are investing in talented people with strong experience, often from higher education or elsewhere in the nonprofit world. Boarding schools and the largest day schools are attracting some very impressive professionals. I met a boarding school annual fund director who had served in roles at an Ivy League university. Another major gift officer at a leading day school had served two Top Ten business schools. Independent schools are often appealing to these professionals because there is less bureaucracy and more direct donor work. A development director of a top British boarding school brought corporate marketing and international day school development leadership to her new role.
There is more focus on using data, analytics, and metrics to plan and execute the work and then to measure success. When I worked at schools, I believed that independent schools followed the model of colleges with about a five year lag. That still seems to be true. Schools also are often more careful with their budgets. Effective programs are using research to identify the best prospects for cultivation and involvement. Metrics help evaluate activity and results and heads of institutions and board members want to see evidence through data that investment is being made in the right areas. I met several trustees and heads of schools who attended a thoughtful session on trends. “How does my school compare?” or “What are best practices at top schools?” were the top questions on their minds.
Independent schools are serving increasingly diverse populations, and advancement staffing and programming are starting to reflect this reality. In my years away from working in schools, this change has been significant. Schools are more diverse economically, racially and ethnically, and in many other ways. Many schools have increasingly international student populations and there were more professionals in attendance who are people of color and many are in leadership positions, but this varies widely school by school.
The best leaders are excited to work with top donors. Many of the very best leaders get most animated when talking about the work they do with the best prospects. CASE-NAIS was a great place to share ideas with colleagues about strategies for involvement and bringing a donor closer to the school and its mission and plans.
Great leaders are trusted partners of school heads and trustees. Strong listening skills, deep emotional intelligence, the ability to work with a wide variety of powerful people, and a real connection with the mission of the school are all essential characteristics of the best leaders in advancement. Turnover in the advancement leader position is an enemy of the time required to build trust and confidence.
My connections at CASE-NAIS gave me great hope for the future of independent education and for the central role our profession will continue to play in securing resources to advance our effectiveness and our impact on society.