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Development and Daring Do

After a career transition, a dedicated parent volunteer-turned-development officer took on the business office as well when the need arose at her small school.

Mar 22, 2024  |  By Nicole Pennington, Los Encinos School

From the March-April 2024 Net Assets Magazine.

los  Encinos School

Twenty years ago, I was the parent of an incoming kindergartener, hoping to find a school where my children would thrive. We were drawn to Los Encinos School (LES) by its intentionally small size, its integrated approach to curriculum, and its commitment to social emotional learning and belonging. As my two children went through elementary school, I became an increasingly active volunteer, with a focus on development. Thirteen years later, as my youngest child approached the transition to middle school, Head of School Ilene Reinfeld and I started talking about transitioning the school’s development operations. It was time for the school’s exceptionally lean admin team to grow. 

In the summer of 2017, I joined the LES team in the school’s first development position. However, since LES is a small school, no one wears just one hat. My secondary focus was supporting the director of finance, with whom I had a strong relationship. This kind of work was well within my wheelhouse, as I had been a producer in the entertainment industry before coming to LES, and the skill sets overlap a great deal. In fact, in Southern California, it is common to find entertainment industry transplants working in independent schools. 

My journey took an unexpected turn when the director of finance retired, and the replacement had a family crisis that took them away from the job. I took over the business office while the school conducted a search. I leaned heavily on relationships and resources within Cal-ISBOA and NBOA , and I attended the NBOA Business Officers Institute — something I recommend for everyone new to their position or new to schools. Today, these two organizations remain integral to my ability to effectively do my job. 

In the spring, the head of school officially offered me the combined business and development officer position. While the combination is unconventional, it makes perfect sense for LES. The team approach is embedded in our DNA. Every faculty and staff member has a role in advancing the mission of the school through admissions, DEIJB work, community building and more. In fact, each member of our admin team interacts with classrooms on a regular basis, which keeps us all focused on our “why” — the students — and how we are delivering on our mission. 

How do these two positions, development and school business, blend? Development is about building relationships and generating revenue. It’s a myth that business officers are not relationship people. In fact, business officers help families with financial struggles, a task that takes empathy and finesse. When you add in the HR responsibilities of business officers, their relationship building skills become even more evident. Development and business officers regularly work together on strategic planning, budgeting and financing/fundraising for capital projects. The nature of independent schools of all sizes is that collaboration across departments is key. In a small school, this is amplified, as we must make the most of our resources and talent. 

In the last couple of years, we have extended the development collaboration to admissions as well. This was a natural fit since a visit with the admissions coordinator is where a new family’s relationship with the school often begins. As an elementary school, we are usually a family’s first experience with independent schools. Our entire team works together to introduce families not only to the need and expectation for philanthropy as well as the importance of parent participation, but also to the independent school business model. In this process, we strive to help families understand the challenge that all independent schools face: why we ask for donations when families already pay tuition. Messaging this is a continual process. 

glass drawing

It is our goal that by the time a family enrolls, they have the beginning of a relationship with the head of school (who conducts all admissions interviews), the assistant head of school, and the business and development officer in addition to the admissions coordinator. As classes begin, this base of relationships extends to the entire faculty and staff. Through this process, our community comes to see each person, no matter their role, as a key part of the whole. It brings me great joy to see these relationships grow beyond sixth grade graduation, as our alumni return to visit campus, to work at summer camp, or to ask for advice as they look at colleges. 

I believe the model of blending roles such as business and development can and will be embraced by many schools, small and large, over time. Independent schools face a multitude of challenges today with tenured business and development professionals retiring, a tightening workforce, generational shifts in attitudes about work, demographic shifts in our communities and the economy, while also trying to find growth opportunities to fuel faculty retention, and opportunities to deepen our faculty’s understanding of school operations. Successfully navigating each of these challenges takes creativity. 

For Los Encinos, our approach has allowed us to build depth within a lean administrative team, make the most of our resources and stay true to our mission. For me personally, whether I am working on financials, writing a grant proposal or talking with students, I am thankful for a position and place that allows me to serve with meaning and purpose. 


nicole pennington

Nicole Pennington

Business and Development Officer

Los Encinos School

Nicole Pennington is the business and development officer at Los Encinos School, a K-6 day school with under 200 students in Encino, California. 



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