The following excerpt comes from "Celebrate! 25 Years of NBOA," the story of how NBOA came to be, how it’s evolved over 25 years, and where it is going in the next 25 years. Read the previous excerpt, "Celebrate! 25 Years of NBOA: Who Was at the Table?"
In addition to helping business officers do their jobs and serve their schools better, another critical reason that NBOA was formed was to elevate the role of the business officer within schools. Historically the job had been filled by veterans who managed operations, and business managers were not always or even often involved in key strategic meetings and decisions, explained Armstrong.
In the 1990s when the position was becoming more complex by the day and school business operations with it, “the business officer had a unique position to be a strategic support to the head of school,” noted founding business officer Will Hancock. Business officers wanted and needed to be perceived as such. “We weren’t these pocket protector kind of accountant types,” said Lindsey. “We were doing everything from legal, risk management, insurance, construction and accounting.” From the beginning, NBOA had a head of school on the Board to cultivate the head-business officer relationship. The first head to serve was Bruce Stewart of Sidwell Friends, “because he admired Terry Armstrong [who was his business officer at the time], and we all admired Bruce as a very thoughtful head of school,” said Lindsey.
One of the first things NBOA did, in its first year of existence, was establish the Ken White Distinguished Business Officer Award to recognize excellence in the profession. “It was important to generate pride in the work,” explained Daignault. And NBOA’s first research project was to survey business officers on their salary to give colleagues a tool to advocate for themselves.
Some of NBOA’s longest serving business officers who are still in the field today joined the independent school world just as this shift was taking place, and were hired into the role to move the business office forward. Joseph is one such individual. “Given that the association was making their push [to elevate the business officer] at that time, I benefited because the school brought me in to be strategic,” he said. “Now I had an association that had become the definitive voice of finance in our industry, basically saying to the head of school, ‘Your CFO should be your strategic partner.’”
Joseph came to independent schools following a career in higher ed and had been familiar with the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). When he joined NBOA in 2000, he assumed it was well established. Then he realized that the organization was just finding its feet, and that the connections he made at his first NBOA meeting, with founding business officers Katie Lindsey, Paul Ibsen, Bob Mueller and Terry Armstrong, for example, were in fact key players in making the association a reality.
“NBOA and I have grown together over the last 25 years, if you will,” he said. “I think back on all of the workshops and webinars that I attended over the last 23 years, and they have all contributed to my success as a chief financial officer here at the Baylor School,” Joseph continued. Working under five different heads, he regularly needed to adapt his skills and knowledge base to meet the moment. And now Joseph reaps the benefits of what he helped build, as his business office staff today use NBOA resources to train themselves.
Former Board Chair Frank Aloise was similarly hired into the role to be strategic in a way no one in his school’s business office had been before. His savvy head signed him up for a Summer Institute the summer before he started. “I came from banking. I knew nothing about being a business officer of an independent school, and all these people supported me,” he said. “I got this incredible sense of community that was surrounding me and supporting me and answering all the questions I had. I can’t tell you how many times that first year I called someone or emailed them and said, ‘Hey, can you help me with this problem?’” That foundation allowed Aloise to serve as a strategic partner to not only the head who hired him but to five others since then. “They’ve been generous in allowing me that opportunity to be their thought partners,” he said.
A Growing Network
“From the beginning it was a culture of, ‘I’m not competing with a school in Texas for knowledge about property and casualty insurance or how to go about doing a construction project or how to deal with a lawyer or how to look at and analyze class lists and structures and work duties of different people and development costs,’ you know, all these different things that we are asked to do,” said Aloise. Sharing information “was built into the culture of the organization from the start. It’s NBOA’s DNA,” he said. “I think it’s really beautiful.” Aloise continues to give back, helping newer business officers with resources, articles and advice, currently serving as a mentor for the NBOA Leadership Academy, and more.
Former Board Chair Chuck McCullagh had similar experiences. As a CFO at a boarding school, he leaned on fellow boarding school business officers he’d met through Summer Institute and NBOA in his early days in the field. “Being able to pick up the phone or meet people at the Annual Meeting — that interaction that you have with people — that will be the continuing coin of the realm as far as I’m concerned for NBOA,” he said. In turn, he has served on the Business Officer Institute faculty, and stays in touch with some of those he taught there
“The primary reason I go to the NBOA Annual Meeting every year is that I always get something out of it that I bring back,” McCullagh said. “I like to think our school is now pretty receptive — they say, ‘It’s supported by what he saw at NBOA, so we’ll go ahead and implement it.” Even now, decades later, he reports a faculty housing initiative, the current student ID and relationships with international families have all been influenced by conversations within NBOA over the past few years.
Long-time business officer Palmer Ball experienced the difficulties of not having fellow business officer connections at her first school, before she discovered offerings at NAIS and then NBOA. “I met nobody for four years, but then I went to Summer Institute and kept meeting people from there,” she said. The year she joined NBOA, she noted in her performance evaluation that the single best thing she’d done that year was get access to the NBOA list serv. “The ability to communicate with your peers around the country and to use other people’s resources saves so much time,” she said.
“It’s just nice to have colleagues who get it. When you need to talk about a difficult situation, you don’t have to set the tone with a fellow business officer.”
—Linda Dennison, Glenelg Country School
Ball too has served on the Business Officer Institute faculty, in her case five times. She later taught courses and sessions on the long-range financial model developed by business officer Thom Greenlaw, NBOA and TABS. “I have said numerous times, we would’ve done things differently at my former school, had that model existed way back when, had we been able to see the 10-year impact on various decisions we made,” she said. The resources really do impact schools as a whole, and therefore the entire independent school community.
“It’s just nice to have colleagues who get it,” said long-time business officer and former NBOA staff member Linda Dennison. “When you need to talk about a difficult situation, you don’t have to set the tone with a fellow business officer,” she explained. She paid homage to a group of business officers in the Boston area “who took me under their wing” in her first year. “Their first piece of advice was, ‘If you want good data, you have to give good data.’ This was when everything was still on paper, and it took even longer than today. But they were right.”
Dennison recalled how fellow business officer Thom Greenlaw, who worked at a nearby school, provided critical backup when a risk auditor suddenly showed up on campus her first week on the job. Her insurance broker couldn’t make it, but Greenlaw guided the process appropriately, keeping the auditor in check according to best practices. Bobbi Whiting and Dean Sidell were other early mentors. “They were like, ‘Listen, rookie, you need to make sure you do this, this and this.’ They always made sure I showed up at the right places, got the right professional development.”
When Dennison was working for NBOA as a consultant, her mother passed away unexpectedly while the Annual Meeting was being held. NBOA staff helped her pack up, and as Dennison traveled home to be with family, messages of sympathy poured in. “People still remember that to this day,” she said. “It’s that kindness that I can’t live without.” It is what keeps her coming back — Dennison is now on her 10th school turnaround — despite the hard work and difficult situations that schools present.
A New Era
“We came to a point where the program was growing exponentially,” said Lindsey. “The role of the business officer was being elevated. Our efforts of planting the little seedlings were actually creating forests,” she continued. “All of a sudden the heads of schools also wanted to come to our conference because they too were realizing the financial squeeze and the pinch of tuitions that were outstripping inflation by quite a bit.”
At this critical juncture, with NBOA on more than sound footing, Sarah Daignault was ready to step down from her role as executive director, and the Board began a search for an association professional to lead from the top. Joseph was one of three Board members tasked with bringing forward candidates for consideration. His assigned candidate was Jeff Shields.
“I knew the moment that I received his resume that this was the guy for the role, because he had been in the higher ed space at NACUBO, and had a depth and breadth of information about how CFOs work in schools. I just knew that he would come in and be able to take us to the next level,” said Joseph. “He energized the membership base and was creative about bringing in new vendors and tools that CFOs needed to help move their organizations forward.”
Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, became NBOA’s president and CEO in 2010. Encouraged to apply for the position by colleagues in higher education, he saw that NBOA “had ‘good bones’ and a tight community,” reported Shields. He convinced his colleague from NACUBO, Steve Doran, to join the staff, heighten marketing efforts and grow the membership. “I still remember how proud and exhilarated the entire staff was when we doubled the number of attendees at the Annual Meeting and when the 1,000th U.S. member school joined,” said Shields.
“Another critical aspect of NBOA’s growth was to invest further in subject matter experts on staff, and we were lucky enough to successfully recruit human resource compliance expertise in Grace H. Lee [now NBOA’s legal counsel and a partner at Venable LLP] and later accounting expertise,” said Shields. “Those early investments have been sustained and broadened the value of NBOA beyond the business officer to human resources and controllers.”
Since Shields has led the association, existing products and programs have grown, and countless others have come into being. Most significant is the association’s growth in online learning. As a younger association, NBOA did not have a large portfolio of face-to-face meetings, with only the Annual Meeting and BOI. Face-to-face meetings require significant financial investment by both the association and its members. To build a breadth of offerings that could reach all schools and increase value proposition of membership, NBOA expanded its robust webinar program to include online courses and workshops.
Face-to-face programs, including the NBOA Annual Meeting and the newly launched NBOA Leadership Academy, have grown and evolved to involve digital elements while bringing in power-house speakers. The NBOA private online community became NBOA Connect and broadened from general discussion posts to multiple communities. The website expanded again to include a resource library. NBOA has not only updated its introductory book to the business office twice —the most recent iteration being “The Business of Independent Schools: A Leader’s Guide” — but has added two other books to the mix, on independent school HR and financial governance. And that’s not to mention the numerous publications of industry guidance and leading research reports.
The association’s research agenda, which initially included only the Business Officer Survey and the Commonfund Benchmark Study, grew and led to the building of the Business Intelligence for Independent Schools or BIIS, data platform. NBOA also built tools to help business officers and school leaders understand financial data: the NBOA Dashboard and Composite Financial Index calculator, and most recently the NBOA Heat Map. Momentously, in 2021, the DASL-BIIS data collection partnership was announced, bringing to fruition a long-held desire to make the process less onerous and combine the NAIS-NBOA data set into the largest among independent schools.
NBOA has two additional awards, one to recognize innovation in schools, the Jeffrey Shields Innovation in Business Operations Award, and the other to recognize excellence across the business office, the NBOA Professional Achievement Award. And the association now has and lives by a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, released in February 2020. (See the timeline on page 58 for more on key milestones in NBOA’s history.)
What follows are vignettes of the business officer experience over the past 10 years or so, which reveal how business officers have overcome challenges typical to the profession – with NBOA playing no small part in the solutions.