Your Future Head of School Might be Right Down the Hall

Screen capture: KTOO Public Media

By Mandi Miller

As a veteran development professional working in a Jewish Day School, I can attest to the fact that so much has changed in the field of Day School development over the past fifteen years. Having served as the Development Director at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School since 2004 and most recently as the Director of Institutional Advancement, I am among a very small pool of development professionals serving in one school, in a development role, for this many consecutive years. During these 15 years, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to grow along with my school at a time when the impact and outcomes of Jewish day school education have never been more important to our Jewish communities.

On my first day at the job at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, my office was located in a back hallway and was less than an integral part of the school community. At that time, we were running a mediocre annual campaign, a flat annual scholarship event, and a rather significant endowment, as compared to our peers, that had been established at the creation of our High School. Fundraising was viewed as a necessary evil and was not an area of the school in which many volunteers had chosen to engage. The giving dynamic at that time included a small handful of powerful major donors who had been funding the majority of the school’s philanthropic needs. Over the last many years, that dynamic has been forced to change.  Our budget has become more thinly stretched, financial aid needs have tripled, and facilities have aged. The competition for philanthropic dollars has never been greater while our budgets continue to expand and become more difficulty to support.

To combat this increase in reliance on philanthropy, many schools like Beth Tfiloh, have expanded their Development operations. At Beth Tfiloh this growth has been realized in growth of our development staff from two to five professionals, the increase in visibility of development efforts, and the expansion of development’s involvement in the school’s administration. We have also made great progress toward increasing our school’s culture of philanthropy which has enhanced our interaction and engagement with students, parents, staff and faculty, alumni, parents of alumni and grandparents. Through this evolution, we have increased our donor base and donor engagement in very significant ways. In addition to the many ways that our development operation has evolved, my role as Director of Development has similarly grown and changed. Much of this growth can be attributed to the opportunities I have had to work with the very talented professional and lay leadership at Beth Tfiloh. I have had the privilege of being a part of a most dynamic administrative team from whom I’ve learned an immeasurable amount about all aspects of our educational program. The coalescence of our administrative team, led by our extraordinarily talented Head of School, has provided for on-going professional development that rivals the likes of any graduate level program. I have also had the honor of working with our School’s Board of Trustees, supporting volunteer involvement, participating in our Finance Committees, and have been a part of two major capital/endowment campaigns. These experiences have prepared me to become an integral partner with our leadership in strategically addressing enrollment, financial, and mission challenges that impact our school

During my tenure at Beth Tfiloh, I feel very fortunate to have found a network of peer senior development directors in Jewish Day Schools who, like me, strive to provide for the growing philanthropic demand on our schools. We are all a part of the increasingly important advancement functions within our schools, which includes our communications and marketing colleagues as well as our admissions and enrollment management programs. The group of senior development directors that I have had the fortune of working with have been providing peer mentoring for one another for several years. We are a self-convened group of development professionals, each one of us with will well over ten years experience in development, that meet regularly by phone and have held two in person gatherings attracting over 50 senior development professionals from thriving schools around the country. Our in person gatherings have provided opportunity for deeper peer mentoring and learning together about more advanced development topics that can benefit our schools. Not only do we value the professional expertise we gain from one another; perhaps even more importantly, we have gained a sense of being a part of the national Jewish Day School movement.

My enriched professional experience at Beth Tfiloh as well as the evolution of our Development engine, coupled with the inspiring conversations that I have had with many of my incredible peer mentors, really got me thinking. In this day and age, when our schools are faced with a dearth of professional leadership, why are we not considering advancement professionals to be sought after for major leadership roles in their schools? One reason could be that Heads of Jewish Day Schools have traditionally been groomed from educational leadership within our schools. For those of us who work closely with Heads of School we know how important their deep understanding of education, teacher mentoring, curriculum development is; however there is equal demand for their executive expertise as well. That being said, there are significant executive functions that our Heads of Schools are demanded to excel in and that skill set aligns very closely with the skill set of professionals working on advancement teams. The ability to develop relationship with board leadership and donors, building partnerships in the community and serving as a public representative of the school, contributing to financial discussions and having a deep understanding of the school’s financial needs are all skill sets that are required for professional leaders in Jewish Day Schools.

After the recent Prizmah Conference I had the fortune of being introduced to Amy Shafron, Head of School of Davis Academy in Atlanta. Amy is trained as an attorney and has a background in development through the Jewish Federation. She had a long career in development and advancement in Jewish Day Schools in Seattle and Atlanta, and 7 years ago transitioned from Director of Advancement to Associate Head of School to ultimately Head of School at the The Davis Academy. When I asked Amy to reflect upon how her development background uniquely prepared her to take on the role of Head of School this is what she shared:

“A Head is expected to manage a team that oversees day-to-day operations, develop relationships with all of the school’s many constituents, represent the school in the community, work in partnership with its Board of Trustees and devote significant time and attention to fundraising. The role requires a varied skill set and a ton of energy and in my experience, a background in development is great preparation for the complexities of school leadership. Understanding the nuances of relationship building through managing volunteers, listening to donors, cultivating loyal supporters and connecting individuals with their leadership strengths and passions is essential to this role. In addition, through development work one comes to fully understand all aspects of advancement including the school’s financial and governance structures as well as admissions and marketing components, all key facets of an independent school’s operations.”

How gratifying to hear Amy share what many of us have been thinking. The role of Head of School is a most complicated and demanding one. Amy’s experience as a development professional offered her school an opportunity to elevate a trusted member of their professional team from within the current staff to take on the challenge. Amy had a strong sense of institutional history, a deep understanding of the school’s mission, and had established relationships within and outside of the school community. The School also provided her with support and resources to build a strong team around her to ensure that all aspects of the school are being attended to.

Davis Academy made a wise decision in selecting Amy to take on this role. It is my hope that Amy’s success will inspire others schools to take note and that she will be the first of many talented advancement professionals to be elevated for an executive role within a school. School boards and leadership should be looking throughout the administrative structure of their schools to identify a future leadership pipeline. Given the dearth of potential candidates to lead our schools, all options should be explored for future executive leadership roles. I have deep respect and admiration for many of my peer advancement colleagues and know that many of them are very well suited to serve their schools in a deeper, more complex, and responsible role.

Mandi Miller is Director of Institutional Advancement, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and Synagogue.