As we celebrate NBOA’s 25 years, it’s hard to believe that I have had the privilege to serve as the association’s president and CEO for 13 years. I still remember taking the stage at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 2010 and sharing my vision and aspirations for NBOA and our community of independent school business officers. Much has changed for the association and the community since 2010.
At that time, our schools were recovering from the Great Recession. They were wrestling with Pat Basset and NAIS’s model for a “new normal” and ISM’s “full steam ahead” philosophies — should they align program and pricing to be more in sync with their market, or should they charge what it cost? Thanks to for-profit malfeasance and the repercussions from Enron’s collapse, 403(b) audits were subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and schools were wrestling with finding the time and resources to conduct them. These issues haven’t entirely passed, though new ones have arisen.
Most of all, I recall a community of welcoming members that trusted “the new guy” arriving from NACUBO, the National Association of College and University Business Officers. I was filled with energy and ideas to make NBOA the best it could be, focused on advancing business, finance and operations, and supporting the community of business professionals, who I quickly learned were smart, trustworthy, and passionate about their schools.
Meeting Online and Off
A few months into my tenure, I was invited to a meeting of the Association of Business Officers of Independent Schools (ABOIS) in Dallas, Texas. I had the opportunity to meet individuals who had founded NBOA, and also among that group was Brad Rathgeber, who was leading Online School for Girls, which would later become One Schoolhouse. As I strategized how best to build out NBOA’s professional development program to meet the expanding needs of members with limited financial resources, offering professional development online would play a major role. Not long after that ABOIS meeting, NBOA launched its first online course, The Essentials of Business Office Leadership, in partnership with One Schoolhouse. Today, NBOA offers 17 unique online courses, workshops and programs, in addition to robust year-round webinar offerings. True to its digital roots with an early list serv, NBOA has become a leader among independent school associations in online learning.
By 2013, we were very close to bringing 1,000 U.S. independent schools onto the NBOA membership rolls. To get us over the finish line, we developed the “RACE TO 1,000” campaign. At the 2013 NBOA Annual Meeting’s opening general session, I offered to any nonmember school who joined entry into a raffle for a trip to next year’s annual meeting, in Orlando. When I announced the 1,000th member school at the meeting, I remember feeling that NBOA had truly arrived as a national association.
Hungry for Data
If I had a dime for every time a member said “Why don’t you and NAIS collect data together?” I would have retired long ago. Building off the success of the annual Business Officer Survey, other research efforts followed to align with our expanding membership, including the Financial Position Survey (Thank you, Jim Pugh!), Business Office Staffing and Compensation Survey, and the Commonfund Study of Independent Schools.
As the association and community matured, our research efforts needed to as well, and with that, the Business Intelligence for Independent Schools (BIIS) data platform was born. Today, BIIS represents NBOA’s largest single programmatic investment in any member offering. “Built by business officers, for business officers,” BIIS is now a first-in-class financial reporting tool offering customizable benchmarking, the NBOA Financial Dashboard, the Composite Financial Index calculator, and soon, the Financial Sustainability Heat Map.
Last year, the dream for streamlined data collection was realized when NBOA announced a partnership with NAIS, thanks to NBOA’s tenacious efforts and the collaborative spirit of NAIS President Donna Orem. Now NBOA members need enter their data only once to reap all the benefits of reliable data in BIIS and the many tools that help ensure our schools’ financial health.
Our Incredible Community
The NBOA Annual Meeting continues to be the largest gathering of independent school business officers in the country, hitting a highwater mark in 2019 of more than 1,400 attendees. A celebration of the independent school business community, the program as currently designed offers general sessions to help our community “think differently,” and the deep dives and concurrent sessions help attendees “do differently.” It has been a thrill to have a front row seat for so many outstanding speakers, including Daniel Pink, Sal Kahn, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords, Diana Nyad, Soledad O’Brien, Cynt Marshall and Jade Simmons. I’ve been inspired alongside all of you year after year.
During this same time, our association has had the incredibly good fortune of electing the right board leadership at the right time. The following individuals have worn the title of NBOA Board Chair during my tenure, but I would add “partner,” “colleague,” and “friend” to every one of them: Kate Lindsey, Dallas Joseph, Frank Aloise, Melissa Orth, Tracey Fudge, Chuck McCullagh and of course, our current NBOA Board Chair, Rose Neubert, who is closing out the association’s first quarter century and handing it off to Duncan Booth. Thank you for your leadership and partnership. And I would be remiss not to mention the smart, talented and hard-working NBOA staff, past and present, who I have the distinct honor to lead every day. They inspire me, and I hope they inspire you too.
These are my reflections for this special anniversary issue of Net Assets, in place of my usual projections. It's been a gratifying, meaningful, and at times, wild ride the past 13 years. Cheers to NBOA and its first 25 years, and here’s to the next 25 and beyond!
To honor NBOA’s founders as we celebrate our silver anniversary, I invited NBOA’s founding executive director, Sarah Daignault, to contribute her reflections to this column.
Generosity. Community. Knowledge. Pride.
It was a cold fall day in 1997, too cold to play golf where I was living at the time, in Maryland. I was sitting in the makeshift office I’d set up in my guest room, feeling a little bored, when my landline rang. The voice on the other end was fellow business officer Terry Armstrong, calling with good news: there was finally money for us to start the association we’d been talking about for years.
Before that call, professional development for independent school business officers happened largely as a volunteer-produced sideshow at existing independent school conferences. This sufficed when the job of the business officer was relatively simple. Even then, the role entailed oversight of banking, accounting, personnel, transportation, facilities and food service.
By the 1990s, all these areas were getting more complicated: government regulations (e.g., AHERA, HIPAA, the form 990), health insurance, tax-exempt bonds, and more issues cropped up, with no apparent end in sight. We business officers were feeling a little desperate to figure it all out.
I hung up the phone and weighed my options: I could continue to advance my golf goals in the wilds of Maryland, or I could dive into this brand-new, risky and exciting idea, and try to make it work. I chose the second option, and I haven’t been bored since.
An Open Road
By 1998 Terry Armstrong had convinced 23 business officers to commit to founding the association. These individuals gathered in a drafty conference room at the 1998 NAIS Annual Meeting. In that room, it was clear that everyone was ready to invest in the future that we had brainstormed on cocktail napkins over the years in hotel bars. Each of the founding schools agreed to pay $3,000 for up to three years to get what we boldly called the National Business Officers Association off the ground.
At this point, we had seed money, an annual budget ($69,000), a slate of founding members, and enthusiasm. But what were we actually going to do?
At the time, business officer Will Hancock was working at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, where the school was doing some interesting work with a new-fangled thing called the Internet. Will said we had to start a listserv. Business officers would be able to post a question about any aspect of their job, and others on the listserv would see it and could answer. “Give intel to their competitors?” I said. “They’ll never go for it.”
They went for it. What I saw was astounding. Suddenly, this group of people, who felt isolated because no one else at their schools understood their work, was connected overnight to hundreds of others with the same complicated set of responsibilities. We were building a community. Business officers shared their solutions, their spreadsheets and their contacts with anyone who had a question — even their direct competitors. The openness and generosity were remarkable.
Every Day an Experiment
The early days of NBOA were like many start-ups. We were making things up as we went along. When a need arose, we experimented with a product to meet it. We felt gratified when these experiments turned out to serve the people we cared about — the business officers. We felt electrified when our offerings were able to affect so many motivated, dedicated and capable professionals — and subsequently the students in their schools.
Within a couple years, we had established a national magazine, a national award for distinguished business officers, and a national conference. At the inaugural conference in the year 2000, which we then called Symposium, there were 125 business officers in the room, the largest gathering ever up to that time. It still takes my breath away to think about that moment. That was when we all knew that this little experiment would succeed.
When I look back at those humble beginnings, I see that four pillars — generosity, community, knowledge and pride — have defined NBOA since its inception. Twenty-five years later, NBOA is going strong, and these four pillars are still visible everywhere in its work.
By 2010 when I stepped down, NBOA had grown to over 700 member schools from that original 23. Our annual meeting attendance had increased from 125 to 400 attendees with 40 corporate sponsors. Net Assets had moved from something akin to a church newsletter to a professional 24-page publication mailed out four times a year. We’d even published a book detailing all that a new business officer needed to know to succeed. We had webinars twice a month, in-person conferences four times a year, and an established identity. We were truly providing actionable knowledge for those who worked in the profession.
When I look back at those humble beginnings, I see that four pillars — generosity, community, knowledge and pride — have defined NBOA since its inception. Twenty-five years later, NBOA is going strong, and these four pillars are still visible everywhere in its work. Together staff and members have created something we couldn’t dare to count on at the beginning, but worked every day to make a reality: a future. I know it will be a bright one for NBOA going into its next 25 years.