Key Takeaways from CASE-NAIS Austin

Posted January 29, 2024

Development Guild has a long history of working closely with independent schools to help them achieve their missions, both through fundraising and executive search services. So while our experience runs deep, our staff works hard to stay on top of contemporary issues and challenges facing independent schools.

In that vein, Executive Director of Search Practice Tracy Marshall and Senior Consultant Melanie O’Keefe recently attended the CASE-NAIS conference in Austin to give a presentation entitled “Attracting and Retaining Diverse Talent with the Challenges of a Changing World.” Below, hear from Marshall and O’Keefe about why they wanted to attend the conference and give this specific presentation, the unique challenges and opportunities facing independent schools today, and strategies for independent schools seeking to diversify their staff.

Why did you want to attend this conference and give this particular presentation?

Mel posing in front of conference slides

Mel O’Keefe

Independent school culture is so robust and special and makes for such a meaningful experience for students, faculty, and staff. Because we frequently work with Independent Schools for both our search and fundraising counsel services, we felt that attending CASE-NAIS and giving this presentation was an opportunity to both share valuable information and learn how to better serve these clients.

Tracy Marshall posing in front of session poster

Tracy Marshall

One big challenge that independent schools often face when trying to attract and retain diverse talent is that the cultures can be so niche and particular that they create a two-fold problem:

  •     From an internal perspective, it can be easy to continue choosing staff who fit the particular mold – people who have deep experience with independent schools, and often those who attended one themselves.
  •     From an external perspective, people who could be great adds can have perceptions of independent schools that are inaccurate or out-of-date.

This leaves out many talented candidates who could bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to the school as a whole. And if new talent is rarely brought into the ecosystem of independent schools, it can feel like the only way to recruit staff is to poach from other schools, which ultimately harms everyone.

What can independent schools do to break out of this cycle and still find great candidates?

The first step is to start or continue internal conversations about what DEI means for your school so that you can create a full, “soup-to-nuts” process that will attract, secure, and retain great candidates. We go into detail about this in our presentation, which you can see below.

Outside of those specific steps, independent schools would do well to consider the culture “add” in their next hire, not the culture “fit.” Think about how a new hire who doesn’t fit the usual mold could strengthen your team.

Additionally, consider transferable skills, such as:

  •     A higher education background or other education work experience
  •     Graduates of independent schools who did not go onto work in education. These candidates will have some knowledge of the culture as a baseline, but also have valuable experiences from the rest of their educational and professional lives
  •     If filling a fundraising role, consider candidates with frontline sales experience. These folks will have the communication and people skills that can dovetail nicely with frontline fundraising goals

Establishing new hiring habits can be a difficult transition, but it can be well worth the effort for independent schools who tackle this challenge head-on, which is why we wanted to break down our process for finding, attracting, hiring, and retaining fantastic diverse candidates in a tough marketplace.

Below is a broad overview of our presentation from CASE-NAIS Austin, entitled “Attracting and Retaining Diverse Talent with the Challenges of a Changing World.” The full slide deck is also available by clicking the *button?!* below.

Step 1: Set the stage

  • Before you start looking for new staff members, thoroughly outline what DEI means for you. A lack of awareness of your own goals, existing culture, and support for new hires will make it difficult to attract and retain great, savvy candidates.

Step 2: Recruit

  • Leverage existing networks to connect you to great talent who are close to but outside the independent school realm
  • Consider investing in posts to DEI-specific job boards, committing staff and budget to focus exclusively on recruiting, and/or hiring a firm to make sure you are looking in every corner of the market

Step 3: Write your position announcement

  • This is a marketing piece that should highlight not just the role’s responsibilities, but your school’s culture – and, specifically, how DEI informs it
  • Consider broader qualifications so candidates don’t self-select out of applying – maybe a master’s degree isn’t strictly necessary, or transferable skills will work in lieu of direct experience
  • Salary transparency is key – many folks are beginning to not even apply to jobs without this transparency, and being open about the range helps to create an equal playing field

Step 4: The interviews

  • Make sure the interview team reflects your existing diversity
  • Don’t make the process so cumbersome that candidates lose interest.
  • Be aware of unconscious biases and look for the culture “add,” not the culture “fit.”

Step 5: Close the deal

  • It’s a candidate’s market, so try to be flexible
    • Consider hybrid options. Even one ‘work from home’ day per week will make a difference
    • Do not lose a great candidate over a few thousand dollars and laborious negotiations – diversifying your team is worth the investment
    • If an otherwise great candidate would benefit from learning a certain skill, consider adding an external training program for that skill to the offer

Step 6: Focus on retention

  • Build in consistent touch points during and after onboarding, and ensure it’s a safe space where new hires feel comfortable airing anything on their minds
  • Ask employees what they need. Do not assume
  • Invest in professional development
    • Don’t hire someone to check a DEI box if they really can’t do the job, and
    • Conversely, don’t reject someone if they aren’t “perfect.” Be open to different candidate profiles, skill sets, and lived experiences and adjust accordingly

Recruiting diverse staff is just the beginning. For strategies to successfully support diverse staff, read here for the top takeaways from the recent Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy Symposium by Development Guild staff Guirlaine Belizaire, Sajana Blank, and Mary Plum.

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Attracting and Retaining Diverse Talent

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