Balancing the Books and the Brand

This business officer has overseen marketing and communications when needed — including during the Covid pandemic.

Nov 27, 2023  |  By Lisa Dwelle, The Steward School

From the November-December 2023 Net Assets Magazine.

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As the associate head of school for finance and operations for 20 years at the Steward School, I have witnessed significant evolution and growth in the school and my role. This journey has equipped me with not only a profound grasp of the business office but also a nuanced understanding of the school’s branding and messaging. So whenever the school has been without a marketing director, I’ve stepped in to assist with the role and provide supervisory support to our marketing staff.

During those periods, my responsibilities have revolved primarily around internal marketing and communications — streamlining communication with families, managing the communications calendar, and drafting messages to faculty and staff — while simultaneously running the business office. That may sound like an onerous and incongruous workload to a CFO, but anyone working in independent schools will know that wearing many hats is part of the job.

In early 2020, I stepped again into this role while the marketing director took maternity leave. Although I had supported marketing efforts before, I found myself facing an entirely new set of challenges that year. For one, it was the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students were sent home indefinitely, and each day felt like a constant game of catch-up with ever-changing guidelines and circumstances. I found myself at the center of our school’s crisis communications, working tirelessly to ensure that our students, parents and staff were informed and connected despite the physical distance that had suddenly become our new reality.

All this meant that with my business officer hat on, I was rearranging classrooms and getting trailers for quarantine spaces, and with the communications hat, I was writing the booklet on policies and procedures for parents so that they knew what to expect when we reopened. The booklet became a living document that we updated continuously throughout the pandemic.

At the same time, our school was set to launch a new website. We were staying with the same provider but completely redesigning the website’s look and feel. The basic infrastructure was complete when I stepped in, but I still had to hire a videographer; work with the team on how different pages would be ordered; and help select photos to be used on the website. And when the pandemic hit, the marketing team had to update our current website with new information daily in addition to launching the new website during the summer of 2020.

The timing of this project posed unique communications questions, like, How do you reflect the transition to outdoor band practices on the fine arts page? Do photos from past school assemblies on the homepage still align with the new reality of social distancing? These and other reflections prompted 11th-hour revisions to an already intricate website project.

To get through these challenges, I leaned heavily on my perspective as a parent whose children went through the JK-12 journey at the Steward School, as well as my experience in the business office, which requires adept project management and attention to detail. I’m grateful to our marketing staff for their hard work in those six weeks that I was their supervisor as well as for an amazing controller who helped hold down the business office while my attention was divided.

My experience in the marketing department has resulted in greater cohesion and collaboration between departments. For example, I have a running dialogue with our marketing director, so she knows when it’s audit time or when I’m working on new security plans over the summer. She likewise shares what’s happening in other departments, which gives me a more holistic view of the school. And my involvement in communications doesn’t end there: I still review the weekly newsletter and any school-wide communication that comes from a division director. I also write all new bios for faculty and staff. These are tasks that I both enjoy doing and help me make better decisions in the business office.

If you are a business leader looking to step outside your traditional role, my advice would be this: Don’t wait to be asked to help out. Participating actively in school life, attending events and engaging with students, parents and faculty will make you better at your job. You may even discover new, unexpected passions that make day-to-day life at a school more enjoyable.


Lisa Dwelle

Lisa Dwelle

Associate Head of School for Finance and Operations

The Steward School

Richmond, VA


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