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Six Takeaways from the SAIS Annual Conference

Along with some stunning fall weather, the 2022 Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS) conference in Nashville was full of experts and inspiration.

The Winkler Group team spread out and attended sessions, roundtables, and keynotes. We enjoyed deep discussions and learned much from new and old friends and colleagues. Here’s what stood out over the three content-packed days. 

A Moving Testimony to the Power of an Independent School

Kicking off the 2022 SAIS Annual Conference was one of the most powerful keynote addresses we’ve heard. Reggie Ford was born to a 14-year-old mom; his grandmother was 29. As Reggie put it, his father was an entrepreneur in the “feel-good” business. In other words, as Reggie shared, he was a drug dealer.

Reggie was candid about his struggles as the only Black student in his class—and the isolation he felt. He made us laugh when he described typing his first-ever paper, when he thought “double spaced” meant that he hit the space bar after every word. But most importantly, Reggie described how an independent school changed the trajectory of his life, and his family’s.   

Once Reggie realized that he was helping the school and its students by bringing diversity of experience to campus, he began to embrace his role. He was twice named Scholar-Athlete of the year and was recruited by Harvard, Stanford, and others. Reggie ultimately chose Vanderbilt because it was close to home, where he wanted to be a positive presence to his younger siblings.

He reminded conference-goers of independent schools’ opportunity to impact the human spirit. 

Most Frequently Heard Term

We heard one term over and over: campus master plan. So many independent schools are in the process of, just finished, or are planning for a campus master plan. For us as capital campaign strategists, we know just how powerful a campus master plan can be.

Nothing excites donors more than a thoughtful, well-conceived plan that maps out a long-term vision. Most importantly, when donors are included in the process, they are far more likely to invest in bringing the vision to life.  

It’s Time to Put Students Front and Center Again

“Culture wars and political politicization have led to too many conversations with adults,” says SAIS President Debra Wilson. Instead, she suggests that it’s time to recenter schools around students and make their experiences the focus. “They will bring us all more joy and lift.”    

Buildings Aren't a Magic Pill

We had the pleasure of leading a session at the SAIS Annual Conference with Nate Morrow, Christ Presbyterian Academy Head of School. The session was a before-and-after look at CPA’s reimagined campus and a discussion about the real power of a campaign to transform a school.

“A capital campaign is an opportunity to live out your mission,” Nate explained. It’s an opportunity to build authentic relationships with donors that last well after the campaign ends.

“The same people are asked to contribute to every campaign and they get exhausted,” he said. “We found that it’s not the buildings that excite them—it’s the mission. The buildings are just a facilitator for that mission.” 

Think Big

Major donor cultivation will always be a hot topic for school leaders and advancement staff. Giving to education is expected to rise further in 2023, with larger gifts and fewer donors. The number of donors will continue to decline, but those giving will give more. These large donors will be motivated to give because they are connected to a school’s mission and impact, and they are eager to solve a problem for the causes they care about. Thoughtful questions, active listening, and respect for their time will encourage major donors to stretch their giving and make a significant difference in an independent school.

Challenges Ahead: Head of School Turnover

Debra Wilson is concerned about leadership turnover after, as she put it, a brutal few years. The average tenure of a head continues to become shorter and shorter. Across the country, 40 percent of current heads of school have three or fewer years in the role. 

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