The Conversation: Advancement Through a DEI Lens

Summer 2020

By Rebecca Scherr

When Jenn Salcido the-conversation-(1).jpgstarted at Mirman School (CA) in 2016 as the director of marketing and communications, she audited the school’s admission data, primarily to spot demographic trends and gather insights about the school’s reputation in the greater Los Angeles area. Overwhelmingly, she learned that families heard about the school for highly gifted children through word of mouth. Applicants and, thus, enrolled students came from a handful of ZIP codes, and many applicants said they had heard of the school through current or former families in their network. That led to an exploration, in partnership with Connie Chiu, the school’s director of inclusivity and equity, and Brad Barry, director of admission and enrollment management, of census data of school-aged children in the neighborhoods surrounding the school. They found that communities 15 minutes away—within reasonable driving distance of the school and more representative of the city’s demographic diversity—were vastly underrepresented in the school’s student population. “If we’re not reaching these communities who we call neighbors, that’s on us,” Salcido says. “We have a huge responsibility in advancement—we’re involved in fundraising, communications, donor relationships, and alumni relations because we believe in the institution that we’re trying to build. If we are educating the next generation of students for this complex society, it’s a moral obligation that we continue to fight for diversity and equity, particularly given the history of independent schools in America.”
In this edited exchange, Salcido and her colleague Noah Kaufman, director of advancement, discuss the critical partnership between diversity and inclusion work and advancement, and how they’ve started to implement changes in their program, which admits students in the top 1% of intelligence norms.
Noah Kaufman: We often talk about why we need to look at our industry best practices: Traditionally, much of our energies in fundraising are devoted to the people who have the ability to make the biggest impact on our philanthropic program. At Mirman—and at most independent schools—the reality is that the wealthy donor constituency is predominantly white.
Jenn Salcido: But the reality is that there are a lot of people of color who have amassed wealth and resources despite all the barriers, and there’s a reason why white people in this country have accumulated the wealth that they have versus people of color. There’s an income gap in independent schools just as there is anywhere else, and people tend to divorce the reality of why their wealthiest donors are all white from what they’re working on.
Kaufman: Right, and when I started at Mirman six years ago, and especially as Mirman grows in its commitment to prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusivity, it became an internal struggle to be successful in advancement through proven methods while questioning whether those methods were inclusive. If we start to rethink our approach to advancement, there are benefits to listening and engaging constituents out of that conventional pathway to fundraising success.
Salcido: Our colleague and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Connie Chiu, talks a lot about unpacking the history of independent schools and how these institutions have been part of the problem of creating these inequities from the very beginning.
Originally, independent schools grew out of the results of Brown v. Board of Education; people wanted a way to opt out of segregation mandates and into communities they regarded as a “better fit” for their students. Mirman wasn’t around then, of course, but it still applies today in that in our case, our mission is to educate highly gifted children. Inherent in that are some big issues around identification of gifted students and who is historically underrepresented in that community. While we might have a slightly more diverse student body than the average independent school, we are a school with very few black or African American students. We have very few Latinx students. If we’re really doing what we’re supposed to, reaching all the gifted learners who could unlock their potential here, why is our population so off from the
diversity we’re surrounded by?
We can’t expect to solve these problems doing the same old stuff with the same old voices. You have to have the right people around the table, and that goes for your professional staff. That goes for your parent community and for your donors.
Kaufman: That’s a good example of our struggle—as we explore the launch of our next capital campaign, we recruited our trustees, and one of those trustees was chair of this specific committee charged with assembling our volunteer structure. We went over rosters and thought about the structure of the committee and who we might select based on who they know, and at the end of the exercise, we discovered that they were all white women.
And that trustee really challenged us to think about what message we’re sending if we build a committee that didn’t include other perspectives. We had to ask ourselves what different perspectives to bring to the conversation. Traditional advancement thinking—thinking that targets specific segments of a community without peeling back the layers to see all the problematic assumptions built within the system—is not going to cut it if we are trying to build and reflect an inclusive and equitable community.
We’re also just beginning to explore how to see advancement work through a lens of diversity and inclusivity and equity. We know that there are folks in our community who don’t necessarily show their wealth by what they give to the annual fund or who have connections to people and programs that could benefit our students and our mission. We would miss all those opportunities if we didn’t start asking ourselves these types of questions—who are we missing around this table, and what might we learn from their perspectives?
Salcido: And fundraising is only one piece of the puzzle. We’re also regularly talking about our messaging—who are we talking to? How are we talking to them? We’re still struggling with this. I think what has been special about our team and our connection across the administration here is that we’re willing to ask these questions and look under those rocks, so to speak. Another thing that’s important to talk about is breaking down silos and getting people to work together. That’s been one of the most valuable aspects of our work. We talk a lot about allies and accomplices, and shifting from ally, which is a passive supporting role, to accomplice, an active role where people with privilege risk it.
Kaufman: Something that we had to realize as an advancement team, and I had to realize personally as the advancement director, is that this DEI work is for everyone. It’s so easy to say to our faculty and staff, “Everybody is in the advancement department.” We say this a lot when we appeal to our teachers and to other administrators to be ambassadors and advocates for the school. But what has been less obvious is that DEI work is also the advancement person’s responsibility—we are all responsible for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion at our school. It takes a lot more courage and proactivity to get out into the school community and think about what your responsibilities are to the school related to diversity, inclusivity, and equity and how it relates directly to your work. These are not separate issues—they are one in the same.
We talk about the importance of community, and that’s really expressed in the types of our events. We realized that our free events aren’t so free. One might assume that the school carnival or our party book program is something that everyone can enjoy. But the reality is that these events, which are parent-organized and intended to raise money for the school, cost families money for games, food, or entry.
We have to work with our parents to change the model to be more inclusive and have more access when it comes to events that advancement doesn’t completely own. We partnered with our parent association to put on events that the school pays for, and that’s the type of event that anyone who is a parent at our school can come to regardless of their ability to afford a ticket. We also have to look at our events that are truly free—such as the back-to-school barbeque—and see how we can make it a fun and enjoyable experience for everyone.
Salcido: And we also looked at how we are inviting them to these events. Just this year we changed all of our language to encompass more family structures. For example, we have same-sex parents in our community. How does it make them feel when they read about stuff that’s for moms or dads only? We have gender-nonbinary students. How does it make them feel when pronouns are not reflective of their identity? Nothing is too big or too small to examine.
Kaufman: A big change we’ve made is related to our donor leadership reception, which is also common practice for advancement at independent schools. We thank our donors at any level through direct mail and through phone calls or emails throughout the year, and if you give $5,000 to the annual fund you get invited to a nice dinner with the head of school.
It wasn’t very inclusive to have a small party just for the donors who showed their financial capacity to that extent. So, we introduced an annual giving celebration for anybody across the entire school community who gives a gift of any amount to annual giving. And we all got together and had a celebration and recognized that their participation is also worthy of recognition and appreciation.
Working in advancement, we can’t turn off the idea that the independent school system and traditional methods of advancement have inherent bias in them. Recognizing that and partnering with people who are willing to do something about it is how meaningful change can happen.

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Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.