Public Purpose and Town-Gown Relations | James Wickenden | 5 Min Read

Independent schools along with private colleges and universities are given a 501(c)(3) classification by the Internal Revenue Service. Basically, the designation means that those institutions classified as such do not have to pay taxes. This is a huge benefit that the leadership of some non-profit institutions might consider as justified and feel entitled to special consideration. At the risk of stating the obvious, an attitude of entitlement does little to enhance a relationship with those in the community who are not affiliated with the institution and might become resentful of the 501(c)(3) privilege. Thus, to counter this understandable reaction, the leaders of those non-profit organizations might give serious consideration to the creation of programs or opportunities that would provide benefits to families who live in their communities. The purpose of this article is to identify possible initiatives that might be viewed positively by the leaders of these institutions. 

Because there is so much variety in the communities where non-profit institutions exist, the following list of potential options may not be viable for all independent schools. However, what independent schools should consider is what could be done to demonstrate to the leaders of a community that the school is appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of a given town, suburb, or city. Thus, the following potential list of options is designed to encourage Boards of Trustees and Heads of School to give creative thought to instituting programs or policies to demonstrate their appreciation for being a member of a given community. 

A few potential options for an independent school (particularly those in a non-urban community) are as follows: 

  1. Access to Athletic facilities: Demand for facilities is based on athletic season and daily schedules. Stated another way, there are times during the year and the day when some of the athletic facilities are not being used by those affiliated with your school. If such is the case, one might want to partner with the local public schools and private clubs to provide opportunities for the athletes to have more access to well-maintained facilities. These might include playing fields, field houses, hockey rinks, and pools. For private organizations, the school might consider charging a fee for usage that is, in the eyes of the club officials, outweighed by the availability of facilities.
  2. Invitations: Assuming that all communities have some political structure, it might be wise for the Head of School to invite the political leaders of a community to have an annual meeting to discuss what might be done or initiated that would be beneficial to the citizens of the community as well as to the students who attend the independent school. In addition, these meetings could also address concerns that both parties have with respect to how certain issues should be handled. It is much better to make a concerted effort to resolve problems than to let bad feelings fester.
  3. Governance: If the Head of School and the Chair of the Board of Trustees are committed to creating a meaningful relationship with the community in which the school is located, it might be worthwhile for the Board to create a standing sub-committee on Community Relations that would brainstorm the initiatives the school might take and/or address problems that may not have an easy solution.
  4. Coaching community organizations: At a boarding school, the faculty and their families are usually offered housing. Some of those faculty members that live in the school’s residential facilities may have children who have special athletic, artistic, or musical interests are interested in participating in different teams or programs sponsored by the community. If such is the case, it might be wise to “encourage” the parents of these children to become involved in community organizations that address those interests.
  5. Used Athletic Equipment: If the independent school is located in a community where the financial resources of the public school are limited, it might be worthwhile for the Director of Athletics at the independent school to work hand-in-glove with the Superintendent of Schools to fill a need if the public schools could use athletic equipment that is no longer needed.
  6. Adult-learning programs: Former or current teachers might be willing to offer instruction in their field of expertise to help local citizens improve their skills in writing, public speaking, learning a new language, becoming proficient in statistics, etc. Granted there would be a cost for this, but it should not be onerous. The offerings might be included in the town’s adult education program.
  7. Use of a non-denominational chapel: Not all independent schools have a chapel. Furthermore, not all independent schools have a non-denominational chapel. However, for those schools that do, consideration could be given to providing the community with access to the chapel to enable families to participate in services, and hold weddings or funerals, consistent with their religion.
  8. Museum for both local artists and students: Not all students are artistic, but everyone has some level of creativity. If an independent school is located in a town that does not have a museum for artists to display their works, it might be worthwhile for the school to designate a space that would be controlled by the Chair of the Arts Department, where both students and the local citizens could display their works — and possibly sell them.
  9. Giving local musicians the opportunity to play in the school’s orchestra: If an independent school is located in a comparatively small community, it might be worthwhile to consider having an orchestra composed of both students and musicians from the community. This is done with university orchestras, so why not consider this on a smaller scale for a school orchestra? Granted this would have to be managed by the school, but the Conductor of the orchestra would be responsible for evaluating the musical skills of the participants. 


Comprehensive suburban schools educate about half of America’s 16 million high school students. Another 4.5 million go to urban high schools. Some 3.5 million attend rural schools. A half a million go to private high schools. And a few hundred thousand are homeschooled. Clearly, independent schools are a breed-apart. Granted, some struggle mightily to survive, but others are blessed with significant endowments and magnificent facilities. Students who attend these schools are fortunate. Those who don’t attend these schools but wish they could are envious. Parents who live in the communities in which these schools are located may have ambivalent feelings about non-profit institutions. To change those feelings from being ambivalent to becoming positive requires the combination of the Chair of the Board and the Head of School to take the initiative to narrow the gap between those who are incredibly fortunate to those who are simply envious. Thus, more attention by these leaders should be given to developing a robust community relations program.

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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