Advance to Go!

Emma Jones arrived as Advancement Director at SIS in October 2018. The brief was clear: establish an Advancement operation at SIS that would, amongst other things, develop and execute fundraising initiatives to help make the most of the School’s new premises at Tomteboda. 

And then it all changed…

Emma sat down with us to reflect on her time at the School so far, and in particular the steep learning curve that came with applying her Advancement skills to securing Norra Latin when the Tomteboda proposal fell through.

Emma Jones, Advancement Director (left), and Marisa León, Director of SIS (right), ‘receive the key’ to Norra Latin on the day the School signed a 25-year lease agreement.

Why did the SIS feel the need for an Advancement team back in 2018?

I think the idea had been on the table for quite a few years. The Board was aware that although it might be unusual for a school in Sweden to have an Advancement Director, it’s not unusual at all in the world of international schools that strive to provide more than just the curriculum essentials.

You arrived within a couple of months of Director Marisa León so it was a time of great change for the School. In the midst of that, what were the first signs that Tomteboda might not happen?

Uncertainty was probably the first clue. When I arrived the prevailing attitude was that there was a ‘done deal’ in place – that plans and responsibilities had been agreed between us and the landlord. But then it began to feel like the goalposts were being moved. That seemed strange to me considering we were supposed to be so close to signing the contract.

Was this negotiation brinkmanship, lack of clarity, or misunderstanding?

It’s hard to say. On our side we had a committed Board progressing the project, but perhaps we lacked detailed expertise in property management and development. Whether we were just naive or the landlords felt we were rich pickings it became apparent that we were at cross-purposes on a number of issues.

Also, late in the day we discovered other development plans for the area that included a large volume of student housing which would have substantially altered the character of the neighbourhood. 

What we took away from this was the need to recruit experienced and expert advisers for any future negotiations we might enter into.

So Tomteboda falls through, and suddenly it’s not the job you came to do. How did you regroup in the light of that?

Obviously the search for premises would need to resume, and the Board and the Senior Leadership Team were immensely responsive and supportive, and quick to recognise the need to adopt a new strategy. 

The Board and Director felt that as I had been party to many of the discussions, and understood our requirements, they should invite me to play a role in that process. And of course it’s useful that I’m a Swedish speaker when sitting in those meetings. But it also became clear that while many aspects of the process might fall outside the Advancement brief, there were core Advancement activities that would give us the best platform to move ahead.

We knew we would need to reach out to different parts of the local community to further our interests – politicians, property agents and developers, companies, neighbours of any potential premises – and would need to explain who we were, what we were looking for, and the contribution we make to Stockholm. I realised we had no suitable materials to tell our story, and what we did have had traits of elitism and exclusivity in its presentation – which would not play well in Sweden. On a practical level, much was not always fit for purpose in a digital age.

So we set about re-branding, calling in experts to help develop our new identity and redevelop the website. We involved all sections of our community to develop a visual identity and tone of voice that really expressed the warmth, inclusivity, and community spirit in the school, rather than echoing the character of a British public school. 

This would give us the toolkit to make sure that decision makers in Stockholm knew about us, and knew the right things about us.

So the hunt for premises resumed. How did you end up taking such a leading role in the process?

Well, it was clear that to move forward the School would have to do a lot of relationship building with the local community in terms of getting people on our side on a number of fronts. For example, we would need to figure in the thinking of people in the real estate arena, have credibility as a prospective tenant, be understood and recognised in the political sphere, and have goodwill among the Stockholm community generally. Misunderstanding or resistance in any of the aspects could easily scupper a prospective deal.

Advancement is exactly about doing that. I may have started as a novice in terms of the property market, but relationship building is something that is in my professional blood. I was happy to take on the role, knowing I had the trust and support of the Board, the Director, and the rest of the SLT, and could call upon the expertise of external consultants to advise us.

How do you begin to find premises that are suitable for a school? 

It’s perhaps obvious to say – but that is the key challenge. People would often remark on how as a result of the pandemic office blocks were becoming vacant and that space was available, but spaces that can realistically be used as schools are much scarcer. School buildings are governed by particular regulations that go into fine detail on things like access and mobility, even before you get on to chemistry labs and other specialist facilities. Many landlords might not want to entertain a school because of the high wear and tear on the building. And of course, every application would require planning permission for change of use, so it’s not practical or cost-effective to pursue many avenues simultaneously. And there are serious tax implications for landlords depending on what type of school they might let out to. 

That’s why we decided we needed to do things differently and commissioned a firm of external consultants to assist with the property search. It was also decided to commit my time as required to coordinate the project within the school, rather than relying on the part-time availability of Board members, who for all their determination and enthusiasm are not able to dedicate themselves full time to the task.

What sort of factors influenced your brief to the consultants?

There were a number of considerations we had to put front and centre: one campus for the whole school or more than one site; city centre or outside the centre or in the suburbs; whether to rent, buy, or own and build. Secondly we had to consider the staff. International  Schools can draw families into their catchment area if positioned in the suburbs, but staff are a different matter. We have a high level of staff retention and service compared to many other schools, and choosing a site say to the north would not sit well with staff commuting from Södermalm or beyond. Our attitude was always that we would consider a move to the suburbs but any premises would have to have the ‘wow factor’ in abundance, would have to be spectacular, to warrant consideration. Anything that we did become aware of was three to five years down the road.

In the end we think we have the best of both worlds – a spectacular premises in the city centre. It doesn’t give us a single unified campus, but if you look around central Stockholm a suitable building, big enough for the whole School, close to T-Centralen, and likely to become available in the near future – it just isn’t there.

So with Norra Latin, who courted who? Was the landlord looking for a new tenant or did we put out feelers?

Norra Latin was, and still is until the end of this year, running as a hospitality and conference venue. Business like that struggled during the pandemic so I think the landlord, just as a matter of prudence, was keen to know if there was demand out there, and we got to hear about this through our consultants. But the initial discussion was very much exploratory rather than an explicit opportunity.

It was a very sensitive process even reaching an initial Letter of Intent stage. The building is owned by the Swedish Trade Union movement, strong adherents of the Swedish cultural instinct to shun elitism and privilege. It was important to tell our story clearly and persuasively: that SIS operates within the special parameters of the Education Act which govern international schools and is a not-for-profit foundation so is not lining the pockets of shareholders. Indeed, by catering for international families coming to Stockholm we are servicing and driving economic growth in the city, and with that comes jobs.

Leasing a premises for a school isn’t like leasing an apartment. There’s no advertised rent, the list of must-haves and would-likes must be enormous. How do you even begin to work through a negotiation like that?

Luckily a lot of the work that had been done for Tomteboda remained relevant to discussions about Norra Latin. We had a lot of material on what the School wanted, assembled in consultation with teachers and admin staff  – though that wish list amounted to around 25m2 metres. As is usual in situations like this, the negotiating parties were bound by confidentiality agreements, and one had to be mindful that there was an existing tenant, so we asked our consultants to consider how those thoughts might be translated to the Norra Latin site.

One thing I’m clear on though, is that we would never have secured the lease on Norra Latin were it not for our not-for-profit status. Other schools, other organisations were interested, but being a non-profit organisation was an important factor in our success.

And it’s a building with a treasured heritage – that must present its own particular challenges…

It certainly does. Though built as a school in the 1880s the fact of the matter is that if we were to persuade the planning authorities to allow us to change the use from conference centre back to a school, there are no shortcuts because of the heritage. A school that opens today has to meet today’s building standards and requirements as if it was new-build. It has been very tough to get that through. Lighting, acoustics, accessibility standards all have to be met. To give one practical example, the disable toilets which are there are not big enough to meet current regulations. Any change has a knock on effect.

And just to add to the mix, while the building regulation requirements are supervised by the city authorities, the heritage aspects of Norra Latin are overseen at a regional level to protect its listed building authenticity. I have a deep interest in cultural heritage and as soon as I heard Norra Latin mentioned in our context I recognised the rich opportunity it presented. But it came as no surprise that there exists a 333 page document, produced some years ago, cataloguing every significant detail in words and pictures – right down to the cleaning cupboards!

It sounds expensive…

The landlord will bear the cost of converting the premises for use as a school. The work and cost involved is one factor in agreeing a 25 year lease – a remarkably long time by most leasing standards, but a timespan that warrants the investment by the landlord, and provides long term certainty for SIS as we continue to grow to meet demand.

With all those details to be worked out – precise plans, the logistics of relocating other parts of the School to that site, the landscaping, and the finite timescale, how will the School go about managing that colossal task?

There will continue to be a steering group for this project though the emphasis will move now to practical implementation and logistics. Members of the Board will continue to sit on the group and we will continue to use the services of our specialist consultants who are experienced in these matters. We need to manage the process diligently and allow input from all our stakeholders as it progresses. Everyone can have a say, just not at the same time!

Will you continue with the project?

I’ve lived and breathed campus issues since I arrived at SIS, and built up a lot of knowledge about these matters, so I will of course retain a deep interest. But it’s time for me now to ‘get back to the day job’ of fundraising so we can make the most of this opportunity. 

But isn’t the cost budgeted in the project? Why is more money needed to provide basics?

Our landlord has committed to providing a space that meets the requirements for operating a school. We were also able, with the help of our experienced advisors, to negotiate a significant pot where we can designate how it is spent. The basics are provided through the fees families pay and the monies we receive from the Swedish state. That means we can have great teachers, spaces that meet regulations, and a good healthly working environment. But people demand more of international schools. Through fundraising, we can provide the resources that take us over and above the basic requirement so that we not only teach the curriculum but do so in a way that inspires our students and enriches their experience in school.

I’m excited to get to work developing the SIS Spirit Fund, so we can see the impact it can make around the School.

The official signing: (Left to right) Lage Jonason, Chair of SIS Board, Jahn Henry Lovaas, SIS Board member,
Annika Nilsson, Chair of AB Folkets Hus Board, Lars Sandberg, CEO Banfast

If I work in the School, what impact is Norra Latin going to have in day-to-day in my life?

For everyone who works here, teacher or non-teacher, Norra Latin will put SIS firmly on the map. You won’t have to explain anymore that we’re not IES or another entity – we’re SIS the school at Norra Latin. It will give an increased sense of pride that we have the credibility and kudos to secure the long term lease. It will make us even more appealing when it comes to attracting new staff. And everyone, in the School will benefit from the new campus site. Our Primary School will continue to be focused on Johannesgatan, but students based there will also often be able to enjoy the new outdoors spaces, expanded learning commons, and other facilities that Norra Latin will bring. I’m as impatient as anyone to get started!