Reports to the Board of Trustees

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  • Saturday, January 12, 2019 9:04 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    NIA Report

     David Durant

    President, NOLS Instructor Association

    February 2019

    NIA Mission

    To communicate and advocate instructor views, and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school’s mission and values.

    At the end of 2018 we bid farewell to NIA President Sean Williams, who completed his second term on December 31.  I can confidently state that Sean left the NIA a larger, more professional, and more articulate organization than he found it.  He’ll remain involved as President Emeritus, but his designated leadership will be missed.

    It is my great honor to assume the NIA Presidency for the next two years.  I first came to NOLS in 2004 as a student on a mountaineering course in Patagonia.  Three days into my course, I told my mentor that I had decided to pursue a career as a full-time NOLS instructor.  In 2008 I took a Wilderness Upgrade for Medical Professionals and a Spring Instructor Course.  I took my Wilderness Medicine Instructor Training Course in 2011, and in 2014, ten years after my life-changing experience as a student on a NOLS Expedition, I was able to realize my dream to become a full-time instructor when I was accepted into the 50/50 Annual Faculty Program.

    What We Hear From Instructors 

    It has been my pleasure to serve on the NIA Board of Directors since 2013.  During that time I’ve interacted with hundreds of instructors around the campfire, in the classroom, and in NIA meetings from Driggs to Gabriels, Whitehorse to Tucson.  I am consistently impressed by our faculty.  I have found them to be very nearly universally passionate about education, wilderness, and supporting their students.  All of them could choose to tolerate less adversity, have a better work-life balance, and earn more compensation by working elsewhere, yet they choose NOLS each day.  

    In all of my conversations with instructors in my capacity as an NIA representative, two themes stand out overwhelmingly: Instructors worry about their precarious financial positions, and are seeking avenues through which they can participate in school-wide decision making.  These conclusions are borne out by the NIA’s data-driven approach.  In a poll question embedded in our 2017 Ballot, our membership selected “Calling for a stated long term goal of a living wage for all employees and a middle class income for Senior Faculty and Staff” as the most important thing the NIA could advocate for in 2018.  The year before, faculty voted for “Working to ensure that Instructors are represented at all Board of Trustees meetings.”

    Sean described this latter desire eloquently in his very first report here in February of 2015, when he wrote, “One of the most consistent ideas to come up in Branch meetings, and one which elicits the most excitement, is that of playing a larger role in decision-making at NOLS, of participating on committees and working groups, beyond simply answering surveys, filling out program evaluations, or having informal conversations with well-connected individuals. Faculty want to work to help make major decisions, and well-chosen representatives would be willing to put in the time to do so.”

    The Path Forward

    While conversations about compensation run the risk of becoming emotionally charged or divisive, we on the NIA Board are bound by the mission of our organization to pass on what we hear from instructors to the Board of Trustees.  Our intentions are to advise, not to demand; to collaborate, not to antagonize.  We recognize and are deeply grateful for the annual cost-of-living increases that have been made to the Faculty pay scale on a regular basis since I came to the school in 2008.  

    With that as our point of departure, we are in the late stages of revising an in-depth Position Paper that calls for NOLS to treat compensation as a long term strategic goal, rather than a year-by-year decision making process.   We believe NOLS should tackle this problem with the same good intentions and strategic foresight that the administration has brought to growing the NOLS endowment and placing the school as a whole on firm financial footing.  Our hope is that this paper, which will be released later in 2019, can be used to inform the next Strategic Plan.  It is our belief that setting an ambitious goal for a living wage will be essential to retaining a professional, well trained, and highly motivated instructor corps for the next 50 years.   

    Finally, we believe that an opportunity currently exists for the NOLS administration to build significant goodwill with faculty by addressing their widespread desire for greater representation in school-wide decision making.  From 1975 until 2014, faculty were represented by the NIA each time the Board of Trustees met.  From 2014 until the present, an NIA representative has only been invited to one Trustees meeting each year.  This recent development has not been widely publicized.  When Faculty learn of it, they are typically both surprised and disappointed.  The cost of including a member of the NIA Board - democratically elected by hundreds of their peers - at each Trustees meeting would be far outweighed by the sense of engagement in decision making this would give many Instructors.

    Changing of the Guard

    The NIA holds an election at the end of each calendar year to select Directors who serve two year terms.  We are particularly proud of this, as it is the only large scale democratic decision making process at NOLS.  

    For 2019, we are welcoming Clemencia Caporale and Paul Calver to our Board.  Clemencia, exclusively a Wilderness Medicine Instructor, is the third instructor from outside of the Expeditions pillar to serve on the NIA Board since 2014, when we held a referendum to open membership to all NOLS Instructors.  In addition to her viewpoint as classroom faculty, we’re excited for the geographic diversity that she brings to our Board as an East Coaster, representing some of the many faculty who rarely make the trip to hard-to-reach Lander, Wyoming.  Paul has a deep resume with NOLS Expeditions as well as in administrative positions in Headquarters.  He has already enriched our ongoing internal conversations with his historical perspective.

    My sincere thanks for the invitation to attend your February meeting.  I look forward to interacting with all of you there.  Please don’t hesitate to approach me with questions about the instructor experience and instructor priorities. 

  • Friday, October 12, 2018 10:53 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)




    OCTOBER 2018


    NIA’s mission is to communicate and advocate instructor views and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school’s mission and values.

    Like many others around the school, we on the NIA Board of Directors are wrapping up a busy summer season of working in the field, personal trips, and preparing for more courses in the fall.

    The NOLS Summit in May was an exciting time to gather with instructors and hear input across the school. This year’s summit generated discussion about topics that were both stimulating and challenging. At our Annual General Meeting at the summit, we were pleased to welcome more than 35 instructors to a discussion of priorities and goals for the coming year and a number of instructors becoming Lifetime Members. One notable outcome of that meeting was the decision to draft a plank on inclusion to add to the NIA’s platform, which is in progress now. The plank aims to support NOLS’ efforts at diversity, equity, and inclusion and

    demonstrate our support for making NOLS a place where everyone feels valued and respected.

    We look forward to having several NIA board members present at the upcoming Wilderness Medicine Staff Meeting, which will have taken place by the time this report is published, as we continue to support both faculty who teach only wilderness medicine courses as well as crossover staff. In that vein, we applaud the recent agreement between wilderness medicine and expedition Staffing departments to not de-prioritize instructors who teach wilderness medicine courses in the summer for first-round shoulder-season work.

    We look forward to seeing you all in Lander in October. Thanks, as always, for everything that you do for NOLS, to make all the magic that happens in the field and the classroom possible. The faculty have the deepest appreciation for your support.

  • Friday, June 01, 2018 4:31 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)




    The NIA’s mission is to communicate and advocate instructor views and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school’s mission and values. 

    The most important work for us at the NIA during the spring is preparation for the Faculty Summit, which will have already taken place by the time you read this report. We hold our Annual General Meeting, our largest meeting of the year, in Lander, on an evening during the Summit. In recent years this has been a good time to share with faculty members and others in Lander what the NIA has been working on over the past year, what goals we have for the coming year, and most importantly, to solicit input and feedback, both for ourselves, and to pass on to Headquarters as needed. Instructors now seem to expect a major NIA meeting to go along with the Summit, and we coordinate with the Summit organizers to find a time that will not conflict with Summit-related events. This year the meeting will be at the Lander Bake Shop, a convenient and fun location for those staying at the Noble or living in Lander. 

    The NIA has had significant turnover on our Board of Directors this year, with only a few Board members remaining who have been on the Board for four years or more. The current Board is highly engaged, organized, and motivated, and has particularly good representation among younger, newer instructors, and among instructors based outside of Lander. I view this as a positive change from years past, when there was a conception that membership on the NIA Board was only appropriate for very senior faculty members. We will have an almost completely new team in Lander for the Summit and running our General Meeting, with only one Board member present who was also present last year. This is an exciting time at the NIA, with changes in faces, personalities, and ideas. I am proud of the work our Board has done over the past four years, and simultaneously happy that we will now be showing new faces and providing new perspectives to our membership. We try to recruit potential Board members to create a Board with a balance of priorities and skills: age, seniority at NOLS, nationality and presence at various NOLS locations and pillars, organizing and management skills, continuity and experience on the Board, organizational knowledge of NOLS, and reliable motivation. The energy and confidence with which our new Board members have jumped into their roles speaks to a bright future for the NIA over the next few years. 

    After a several-year hiatus, we have re-launched the Flamingo Newsletter a one-page email newsletter we will be sending out to our members several times a year, with updates on NIA activities and information about what we have been doing to represent and support NOLS faculty and staff. The Flamingo Fund, our donation- and dues-based fund for projects to improve life for faculty and staff at NOLS campuses, has been busy recently, supporting the purchase of a small fleet of whitewater kayaks for staff to use at the Patagonia campus. (In the past, the Flamingo Fund was 100% donation funded. The flow of donations was quite low, so last year we decided to provide the Fund with regular cash-flow by directing 10% of NIA member dues towards it every year, making more projects possible). This was a nice story of a single instructor and NIA member, Mike Dooley, finding the support and funding to add an often-desired perk to life on the Patagonia campus, one that will also support instructor technical skill development in the whitewater and sea kayak programs. What began as a simple request for a few hundred dollars from the NIA to buy an old used boat grew in scope and ambition, and ended up combining NIA Flamingo Funds, individual donations, and Patagonia campus funding to purchase three high quality boats that will be available for faculty and staff to use on the excellent whitewater near Coyhaique, and all around Aysen (the Chilean province where our Patagonia campus is located). In addition to being fun, this will help Patagonia sea kayak instructors develop their skills in challenging conditions without having to organize a major sea kayaking expedition to the remote Patagonian coast, and should also help encourage NOLS river instructors to keep contributing their skills to the sea kayak program, by giving them an easy way to pursue their passion on world famous whitewater without having to transport a boat to Patagonia. 

    Good luck with the budget, and other topics at the June meeting! We look forward to seeing you all in Lander in October. Thanks, as always, for everything that you do for NOLS, to make all the magic that happens in the field and the classroom possible. The faculty have the deepest appreciation for your support. 

  • Monday, February 12, 2018 4:45 PM | Sean Williams (Administrator)

    the field faculty compensation survey

    background and methods

    As mentioned in the last NIA report, we spent part of 2017 continuing our efforts at data-gathering. Our hope was to build on the 2016 Lifestyle Survey to further improve our statistical picture of today’s NOLS instructor. In the pure spirit of data collection, and without a view to any change or new strategy at this point, we decided to brave the ever-fraught topic of compensation.

    As we all learned in last June’s meeting, it is challenging for NOLS to gather data on the compensation levels offered at organizations that we compete with to attract instructors, for the simple reason that most organizations don’t want to share that information, presumably for reasons of competitiveness. The most recent analysis of the industry conducted by NOLS (presented last June) relied, for the “field instructor” category, on information from 11 other organizations, seven of which were Outward Bound schools. We hoped to complement this information by looking in another direction for data:  to NOLS instructors themselves.

    Our intent was to build a statistical picture of the jobs that are actually attracting current NOLS instructors. To that end, we asked field instructors to fill out a 13 question survey in which they shared information about current or previous jobs they had held in the outdoor industry. We asked respondents to share information about as many jobs as they had held or been accepted for (we asked them not to include any they had only heard about, or not been able to get). As a result of this method, we could receive multiple responses from the same instructor, and in a few cases, we received multiple responses about the same organization. This provides a potential statistical advantage, in that our averages and medians better represent the actual influence of each competing organization on the “NOLS instructor job market”: the few organizations that are attractive enough to be used by multiple respondents clearly have a greater weight in pulling instructors away from NOLS, while others that only produced one respondent would appear to have a less than 1% effect on the market. We included questions about the individual’s current or most recent wage, the organization’s starting wage, the maximum possible field wage, the for- or non-profit status of the organization, and the currency that was used. We also asked respondents to compare the job in question with their work at NOLS in four terms: the level of technical skill required, the risk management responsibilities, the time spent with students or clients on a daily basis, and the breadth of past experience needed to get the job. Our hope with the last four questions was to learn not only how NOLS compares in terms of compensation, but whether competing jobs are more or less difficult than working as a NOLS field instructor.

    The obvious advantages of our method are the number of data points (107 jobs), and the guarantee that, by going directly to instructors to gather data, we are comparing jobs that NOLS instructors actually get and accept. The obvious disadvantage is that we rely on the accurate memory, and honesty, of the respondents. Since we have 107 data points, any individual data point that is not accurate has only a minor statistical influence on the results as a whole.

    profit status

    We made an intentional choice to gather data on for-profit organizations, in addition to non-profits. A common perception among field instructors is that it is easy to make more money guiding, or working for a for-profit company, than teaching (usually for a non-profit like NOLS). Because for-profit organizations have a different economic model that NOLS, and sometimes lack the sense of social mission that NOLS has, it makes sense to say that they can’t be compared economically. They do, however, clearly affect the job market, since 57 out of 107 responses to our survey, over 50%, were from for-profits. By asking respondents about profit status, we were able to analyze the numbers both with and without the for-profits included. We were happy to be able to include them, in order to better understand the job market, and also happy to be able to exclude them from analysis, in order to compare NOLS with the non-profit world alone.

    We expected to see a big difference here, with compensation levels much higher in the for-profit world. This was not the case. Average starting, current, and top wages were only 3.6%, 10.6%, and 8% higher in the for-profit than in the non-profit world. When for- and non-profits are combined, wages were 1.5%, 5.6%, and 4.6% higher than when for-profits were excluded. (The upper limit of pay levels is clearly higher in the for-profit world; our survey included nine responses with top pay levels over $400/day, all of which were from for-profits. This may partly explain the popular impression that for-profits pay much more, but this appears to be true only on the extreme upper end of the scale.) A more nuanced analysis, or more data, might be able to determine if the supposedly high wages available in the for-profit world do in fact affect specific populations of NOLS instructors (there could be substantial variation between skill types, for example, which our survey did not cover), but there appear to be enough low-paying for-profits to pull down the average.

    Since the differences were so small, this report includes only data only for the combined list of for- and non-profits. If you wish to consider numbers that exclude the for-profit world, you can just subtract 1.5-4.6%.

    nationality and currency

    Compensation ranges in the outdoor industry vary substantially among the countries NOLS operates in, and exchange rates obviously affect comparison with compensation in US dollars. We received twelve Canadian responses, and one each from Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden (as well as five with the currency unspecified, which we deleted). The Canadian data might present some anecdotal interest for the Canadian job market, while the other five, with only one response each, clearly have no statistical power in their respective markets. When these international responses are removed, US-only responses show compensation levels 0.7%, 2%, and 6% higher for starting, current, and top compensation levels.

    Since currency, like profit status, had less affect than expected, and since 86% of responses were from the U.S., the analysis below is based simply on the combined totals.

    comparing the nols wage

    NOLS’ compensation for field instructors varies substantially by position, seniority, season, and course type. Pay is 25-30% higher for the Course Leader, and about 10% higher for everyone in the summer. There are possible bonuses of $5-$23 per day for various course types and positions in various seasons. For purposes of comparison, we used the following pay rates as typical for NOLS:

    For Starting pay, we used the pay rate for an “Instructor” or “I” level instructor in the summer. This rate is $90/day. (Almost all instructors work one to three courses as an “I” before moving on to work as a Patrol Leader (PL), and most instructors work their first course in the summer. Off-season “I” level pay is only $85/day. The rare instructor who works his or her first course as a PL will earn $109/day in the summer.)

    Current pay is more difficult to compare, since NOLS’ 12 seniority levels (up to 500+ field weeks) and the various seasonal and position bonuses and rates make it hard to determine how much the “average” instructor is being paid. From last year’s Lifestyle Survey, we know that the median response for seniority was 30-60 weeks in the field (known as Intermediate Level), so we used this level for comparison. Some instructors at this level will work as CLs some of the time, and the most common instructor team has one CL and two PLs. So for comparison purposes, we used a number one-third of the way between Intermediate PL pay and Intermediate CL pay.  As for the seasonal bonus, we split the difference between summer pay and off-season pay. All of this gives a rate of $115/day.

    The top pay rate on the summer pay scale is $208/day. (Technically, an instructor with over 500 weeks in the field, working a few specific course types, could accumulate a number of bonuses and reach $260.50. Such a combination of bonuses is so rare as to be negligibly significant, and the vast majority of courses do not include these bonuses, making this number seem more hypothetical than realistic.) We can safely assume that such a senior instructor would CL most of the time, so we used the average of the Senior Staff Level 10 CL pay rate for summer and off-season, which is $203/day.  As we know from the Lifestyle Survey, only 9% of instructors have reached even 200 weeks in the field (Senior Staff Level 4), so such wages are far from most instructors’ likely career path.

    the results

    Enough explanation, here are the numbers. Figures are in US dollars per day.






    For starting wages, the industry median is 45% above the NOLS wage, and the industry average is 57% above. For current wages (our statistical “average” wage at NOLS), median and average are 40% and 63% above, respectively. For top wages, NOLS is 1.5% above the median, and the average is 21.6% above NOLS.

    Why is the top wage at NOLS slightly above the industry median, and closer to the industry average, while the current and starting wages are farther below? It could be because NOLS has been around for so long, and has retained a small number of instructors for decades. This has led us to establish higher pay levels, to account for the seniority of a relatively small number of individuals. Perhaps few competing organizations have instructors with over 500 field weeks, for whom they might choose to establish higher top wages. We have no way of knowing objectively if this is the case, and there could be some other explanation as well.

    For the four questions about the difficulty of work at other organizations, respondents rated the job in question on a scale of 1-5, where “3” was “equal to NOLS”, “1” was “much less than NOLS”, and “5” was “much more than NOLS”. Here are the average scores for each question (keep in mind that NOLS’s score is, by definition, 3).

    What level of technical skill is required, compared to NOLS work?:                             2.63

    How demanding are the risk management responsibilities compared to NOLS?:        2.72

    How much time and energy are you expected to devote to students/clients compared to at NOLS?                                 3.04

    How extensive must your professional background be to get this job?                         2.6

    It appears that, on average, slightly less technical skill, risk management responsibility, and professional background are required in the industry than at NOLS, and the devotion of time and energy to students/clients is about the same.

    Since we only asked current NOLS instructors to respond to the survey, our responses do not include information from those who have moved on from NOLS. This may skew the “current wage” data set slightly down: our respondents are reporting their wages either when they last worked at the organization in question (if they no longer work there), or currently (if they still work there, combining that job with NOLS), but no one is reporting wages at jobs they have held since leaving NOLS – presumably for a job that would pay more. We also asked for the year at which the respondent last worked at the job in question. We threw out responses from more than 10 years ago, but did not adjust the other responses for inflation or changes in the industry. This also might skew the average and median down slightly.

    At this point, that is all we know. As usual, I am eager for feedback on this survey and analysis, and especially for ideas about future NIA data-gathering efforts. I am looking forward to seeing you all in Santa Monica! Thanks for all you do for NOLS, and for your time and attention, both to myself and to past NIA representatives over the years.

  • Thursday, October 26, 2017 12:13 PM | Sean Williams (Administrator)


    It has been another successful summer for the NIA, with high membership, lots of interest from instructors in joining and learning more the NIA’s role at NOLS, and consistent positivity from instructors and members of the administration. Summer is the time when most NOLS faculty are in the field and many branches are busiest. For the NIA this is primarily a time to focus on our members, because this is the time when they are most available and most engaged with NOLS. That means running meetings, having conversations, recruiting new members, and making sure that instructors understand the key role of an independent faculty organization at NOLS. The NIA’s other tasks – long-term strategic planning, working with the NOLS administration to hash out particular solutions, gathering data to better inform NOLS’ strategic thinking, and putting energy into our own administration – can wait until the long NOLS winter. From late August to late May, when the snow is flying in the northern hemisphere mountains and fewer instructors are in the field, we re-focus on the longer term.

    Maintaining NIA membership, like recruiting students and instructors to NOLS, is a never-ending project.  Instructors move on from NOLS, and new arrivals have yet to hear that the school even has an independent faculty organization. NIA Board Member Ira Slomsky-Pritz led a successful membership drive this summer, moving the NIA’s membership back to 300. We also hosted an NIA meeting or information session for every IC, helping to make sure that new instructors have a clear resource for learning about NOLS’ leadership and decision-making, and that they feel that their voice is heard.

    Another focus has been learning more about the needs of our still-relatively-new body of members, NOLS Wilderness Medicine instructors. The NIA opened membership to this group in 2014, and about 20% of Wilderness Medicine–only instructors (i.e., those who are not also Expedition instructors) have since joined. Considering that few Wilderness Medicine instructors even knew what the NIA was before this, and that, like Expedition faculty, they are spread all over the world and interact with NOLS, as an organization, mostly through email and phone, we think this is pretty good progress. Four out of the thirteen current NIA Board Members are Wilderness Medicine instructors, and one is a Wilderness Medicine-only instructor, so we have had some insight from within about how the NIA might be most useful to this group, whose job, needs, and problems are in many ways very different from those of Expedition faculty. Anecdotally, Wilderness Medicine instructors seem more likely to choose to join the NIA when they learn about it for the first time or are reminded of it than are Expedition instructors. We speculate that this is because these individuals are less afraid to part with $20, more desirous of a deeper relationship with and sense of inclusion in NOLS as a whole, and more aware of the importance of professional associations and professional advocacy, given their connection to the highly professionalized medical field. The NIA is in the final stages of adding another “Plank” to our Platform, outlining our vision for the needs of Wilderness Medicine instructors. Many of these needs revolve around a sense that Wilderness Medicine and Expedition instructors are all NOLS faculty, and should have as similar an experience at NOLS as possible, given the obvious differences in our jobs. Some of these items are practical or procedural, for example, online systems for viewing and understanding contracts and pay stubs, and a payment cycle that ensures that instructors are paid before their contract is over. Other items are more strategic, or vision-oriented. We will be calling for eventually closing the wage gap between Wilderness Medicine and Expedition faculty, to strengthen the viability of instructors working in both pillars of the school, and on the  view that all faculty members at NOLS, despite their various specializations, should be equal.

    The NIA’s goals for the fall include brainstorming a way to gather good data on the compensation offered for fieldwork at other organizations, and finding a way to support NOLS’ marketing efforts by asking faculty to articulate the value of a NOLS semester. Enjoy Lander in October, and I will look forward to seeing you all in Los Angeles in February. Thanks, as always, for your time, and for everything that you do for NOLS.

    Sean Williams

    President, NOLS Instructor Association

  • Thursday, October 26, 2017 12:11 PM | Sean Williams (Administrator)

    NOLS Instructor Association Report

    Sean Williams, NIA President

    Spring, the slowest season for NOLS field instructors, has been humming along as usual at the NIA. We have held branch meetings in Patagonia and the Pacific Northwest and a women’s specific meeting at the Rocky Mountain campus, which included discussion of women’s progression to Course Leader and family planning for field instructors. The Annual General Meeting, scheduled for May 15th at the Faculty Summit, will include a presentation of the Lifestyle Survey results (as did the Pacific Northwest meeting).

    The NIA Board has continued to refine and organize our internal operations, spending time this winter organizing a clearer structure, with working groups and lead positions on key tasks, and instituting a regular budgeting process. We have spent considerable energy brainstorming and exploring new avenues for fundraising. Twenty dollars per member per year from 300-odd members does not go a long way in funding the kind of professionalism and productivity needed by the faculty organization for a school of NOLS’ scope. Hopefully the future will lead us to some solution; in the meantime, we will soldier on just as NOLS did for decades, with our strongest assets not located in the bank.

    We are continuing to explore options for another survey in the near future. One idea would focus on compensation received or offered at other outdoor-based organizations, while another is to find a way to use faculty voices to articulate the value of NOLS semesters whose enrollment has recently suffered. Yet another is to gather lessons from successful senior faculty about how to make a NOLS career work, to share with newer instructors in a statistical, rather than anecdotal, form.

    On a similar note, NIA Board member and NOLS Wilderness Medicine instructor Adam Baxter is exploring a pilot version of Morgan Dixon’s “Teach for America idea,” (although he thought of it on his own). The goal would be for NOLS to harness the industry power of its alumnus faculty to provide career assistance outside of NOLS for current instructors. Several contacts in the rock and alpine guiding industry have expressed interest in inviting NOLS faculty to “shadow” their guides or take on other apprentice-type roles, which might lead to a more lucrative and sustainable post-NOLS career for those instructors. Other organizations, which operate primarily in NOLS’ off-season, rely heavily on out-of-work NOLS instructors to staff their courses, and might be eager to establish this relationship more definitively. The NIA may be able to serve as a semi-formal clearinghouse or contact center for these career relationships, helping underemployed instructors to fill the gaps in their schedule and helping senior instructors to successfully leverage their NOLS experience into other careers. As discussed during the NOLS Branding Initiative, both of these outcomes could help expand NOLS’ positive presence on the market by ensuring a steadier supply of satisfied former instructors, the kind who move on from NOLS gracefully and happily and would be more likely to spread the word to potential future students or faculty. As with the NIA Mentorship program, the NIA may actually be in a better position than NOLS to fill this role.

    Finally, as in the past several years, we included a survey of priorities for the NIA to focus on in our 2016 Board elections. Voters ranked seven priorities in order of importance. The most chosen was “Ensuring instructors are represented at all Board of Trustees meetings”, and the third most was “Advocating for a salaried Faculty Chair to represent instructors at the EDT level” (the second most popular was “Championing continued increases to the travel reimbursement”). Inclusion of working faculty at the highest levels of NOLS decision-making is clearly a priority and an area of concern for instructors, and is a core element of the NIA’s philosophy of Faculty Engagement.

    We at the NIA have been working from the ground up to establish better conditions for such an outcome: educating ourselves and faculty members in general about how NOLS works and how and why decisions get made, so that their comments and contributions are better informed, and providing ideas, solutions, advice, and teamwork at the administrative level that is more than just advocacy for the faculty’s “interests”. There has been good success with this at the mid-level of administration (for example, I am on the Faculty Assessment Working Group, which could easily have been organized without a member whose primary role at NOLS is in the field). I believe NOLS is making progress in using the experience and knowledge of the faculty in school-wide leadership. I would be happy to hear any feedback and ideas on how the NIA and myself could be more useful to the Board of Trustees in the future.

    Thanks again for all your hard work, and for your eagerness to listen. I will be at the meetings in Alaska, which has been my NOLS home for thirteen summers, and is quite a special place. Looking forward to seeing you all there!

  • Friday, January 06, 2017 10:25 AM | Sean Williams (Administrator)

    NIA Report

    Sean Williams, NIA President

    January 4, 2017

    This report is devoted entirely to a presentation and very brief analysis of the results of our Field Faculty Lifestyle Survey, conducted from mid January to mid December 2016. As some of you may remember from my report a year ago, we conceived the Lifestyle Survey as a way to gather hard data about the financial, career, and lifestyle choices that NOLS faculty make in order to maintain and build their careers at NOLS. It is often said that working in the field is the best job in the world, in terms of the work itself. Creating the environment for exceptional student experiences, working with passionate, creative, and motivated colleagues, and being part of a truly unique global community makes for an incredible workday, every single day we are on contract. Among the faculty, it is also a truism that working for NOLS is quite difficult in terms of financial realities, job security, and career advancement. Anecdotal evidence and urban legends abound to demonstrate how this is so, and how individual instructors organize their lives with impressive ingenuity, in order to be able to work in the field. Our goal with this survey is to present a statistical picture of these realities. We would like to replace the myths and legends with data, and start to build a picture with numbers of how faculty members support the mission of the school, not just with their work itself, but with their willingness to arrange their lives for what is, by most standards, a very unusual job.

    I present the basic survey responses in the next two pages, followed by a few highlights of data points that I find particularly interesting or surprising. The survey consisted of fourteen questions with multiple-choice answers, covering topics related to seniority and longevity at NOLS, income, job security, career advancement, and housing situation. We have the ability to filter results based on the answer to any one question. I hope to be able to do this in real-time during my presentation, if needed, and am also happy to provide any of this information by email in advance, or to share the data in a spreadsheet form or a Google Forms widget, if anyone wants to pull specific queries themselves. The basic presentation is also available on the NIA website at

    I have opinions about every question on the survey, which I will, mostly, refrain from sharing at this point. I am more interested in gathering information, and in hearing the responses and impressions of everyone at this meeting, in order to build a more nuanced and informed opinion for the future. There is some inevitable interpretation even in the form of the questions themselves, and in any analysis, but my goal is to keep this as objective as possible. We at the NIA believe that NOLS needs an accurate, data-driven understanding of the faculty’s experience working for the school, and we offer these survey results as a step towards that.

    Analysis and highlights

    I believe the large sample size for the survey, 41% of faculty, presents a statistically significant picture to represent the body of faculty as a whole. Considering that NOLS faculty work by contract and are not obliged to fill out random surveys when not at work, we were very happy with the response rate, and we received an enormous amount of positive feedback from respondents about the questions themselves and the NIA’s interest in gathering this data. What follows, again, is simply a few highlights that piqued my interest; feel free to make what you will of the data itself, and to take issue with any aspect of my interpretation below.

    First, I am surprised by the large number of respondents with relatively little seniority (about one third had less than 30 field weeks, while measuring by years with the school, 27.1% had less than two years of experience and 52.4% had less than five years of experience). However, since more senior instructors are often offered more contracts, it is probably the case that more courses are worked by a smaller number of more senior instructors; for example, a single question data query reveals that for instructors with less than 15 weeks of experience, 63.5% worked 0-5 weeks last year, while of instructors with 100-150 weeks, 46.7% worked 5-15 weeks, 20% worked 15-25, and 10% worked more than 25 weeks in the last year.

    A large percentage of faculty worked only a few courses per year: 36.9% worked 0-5 weeks, which is one standard month-long course or section or a shorter course, and another 43.2% worked 5-15 weeks. Only 4.2% worked more than 25 weeks per year, leaving only 15.7% to work 15-25 weeks in 2016. Again, statistically, more of the actual courses will be worked by the instructors who work a lot in a single year, or to put it in another way, more student days will be with instructors who work more than a few courses a year than these numbers indicate. Regardless, it is very clear that only a small proportion of NOLS faculty work in the field on anything like a full-time basis, or even on a significant part-time basis.1 This is born out by other responses; for example, 61.9% of respondents report that their current work balance at NOLS is less than 25 weeks per year, plus another job. Only 3.5% work more than 25 weeks per year, and only 0.7% work more than 25 weeks per year and also hold another job. Income statistics present the same picture: 54.9% of respondents receive only 1-25% of their yearly income from NOLS fieldwork, and only 6.9% of respondents earn all of their income from fieldwork.2 86.1% of respondents report that they have more than one job.

    Despite the fact that most instructors work relatively little, and bring in a relatively small proportion of their income from NOLS fieldwork (only 26.3% receive more than 50% of their income from fieldwork), a higher proportion, 41.1%, report NOLS fieldwork as their top work priority, with another 45.3% rating NOLS as their second work priority. It seems that NOLS’ importance in many faculty member’s lives and career priorities significantly outweighs its contribution in terms of amount of work or income. 

    We included several questions about housing, non-job income, and total annual income, in order to build a picture of how other financial arrangements contribute to the yearly maintenance of our “statistical instructor.” Clearly, even making conservative spending choices and willingly adopting a simple lifestyle, a certain amount of money is required to maintain a person throughout the year, and since most faculty members work so little for NOLS, only a small part of that money comes from NOLS in most cases. A common technique among faculty members to reduce spending is to eliminate what, for most households, is the largest yearly expense: housing. Indeed, 38.9% of respondents either lived at NOLS branches, camped, and traveled, or stayed rent-free with friends or family last year. Only 27.3% owned their own home, and of those, rather impressively given the young average age of NOLS instructors, almost a third owned without a mortgage.3


    1  What constitutes “full-time” fieldwork is unclear. Annual Faculty Position instructors must work 25 weeks to qualify for group health insurance at the ¾ time rate. Eligibility for retirement contributions, which begins at 200 weeks in the field, is calculated using a 10-hour workday, which would equate to about 28.5 weeks per year; a more realistic 14 hour workday would equate to 20 weeks per year.

    2  Respondents were asked to consider in-town or Wilderness Medicine work as separate jobs.  13.6% of respondents combine fieldwork with in-town or Wilderness Medicine work, and 8.4% combine both of these with a third job in addition.

    3  This seems to be a little higher than the national average, which itself is boosted significantly by retirees, of whom there were presumably very few in this survey.

    An impressive 56.7% of respondents enjoyed income from non-job sources such as investments, gifts, family support, or living in a rent- and mortgage-free home. This is an especially notable number, considering that this type of income is typically under-reported. While 17.3% of respondents received less than $1,000, 17.6% enjoyed $5,000 - $25,000, and 5.3% benefited from more than $25,000. Even $5,000 is quite significant, considering that the upper levels of attainable income from fieldwork are in the $20,000s or low $30,000s. This combined 22.9% of respondents would likely have an easier time living with an unpredictable income source such as NOLS fieldwork, while still feeling secure and enjoying some of the consumption and spending habits expected by most Americans. They may also have the freedom to avoid committing to other jobs in order to take last-minute NOLS contracts, thereby taking advantage of opportunities and advancing their NOLS careers more rapidly.

    One way or another, an impressive proportion of faculty manage to live on very little money, wherever it comes from: 34.7% have an annual income of $10,000 - $20,000, another 22.9% rely on $20,000 - $30,000, and 7.6% squeak by below the poverty level with less than $10,000. 8.7% are comfortably above $50,000, and 26% are squarely aimed at the middle class, with $30,000 - $50,000.

    The take-home point from these income responses, to me at least, is that our “statistical instructor” is simultaneously creative, willing to make sacrifices, and lucky, in finding the financial support and strategy to make a NOLS career possible. Whether it comes in the form of free housing, no housing, simple living, family wealth, or a lower priority second career that produces more income, all of this constitutes an indirect form of support for the NOLS mission. Our statistical instructor also pulls all this together despite being in a state of some confusion about his or her career: 31.6% report struggling to build a long-term career, and 20.1% report having no idea where their careers are going. The good news is that, adding the struggling 31.6% to the 33.7% who believe their NOLS career is going well and has excellent long-term prospects, and leaving aside the 14.5% who see NOLS fieldwork as only a short-term interest, 65.3% see themselves to be in for the long haul with NOLS. 29% hope to work for NOLS for their entire working life, and another 16% are going for at least another 10 years. However, if the past is any indication, they may change their mind: only 17.7% of respondents reported working for NOLS for more than ten years already, and according to Director of Field Staffing Marco Johnson, only about 20 field faculty out of 694 total, or 2.8%, have worked in the field for more than 25 years.

    These are the points, with, hopefully, a minimum of interpretation, that seem most relevant to me. Please feel free to get in touch if you would like me to pull any specific queries (it only takes a few seconds) or if you would like the data in a spreadsheet, or access to the Google Form in order to make the queries yourself. We are eager to continue the survey in 2017, and I would very much appreciate any feedback. We could change the questions slightly, add new questions, eliminate questions that don’t seem useful, or use a different surveying and data analysis tool. I welcome any suggestions.

    I look forward to seeing you all in San Antonio, and especially to learning from anyone who has more statistical skills and training than me about how to improve this survey in the future and make the data more useful and accessible. Thanks for taking the time to read this longer-than-usual NIA report and for being willing to take a hard look at the numbers.

    Sean Williams


  • Monday, September 05, 2016 8:59 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    5 September, 2016

    Sean Williams

    The NIA has enjoyed a busy spring and summer, as has become the norm over the past few years.  Our Board Members and Branch Representatives kept themselves busy with a string of branch meetings all over the world, and with the regular recruitment of new members.  The “Lifetime Member” category is especially popular, with 47 faculty members so far motivated to put $200 towards supporting the NIA.  Considering the income level of our faculty members, this is an impressive long-term commitment towards involvement with NOLS.  

    Faculty ideas and concerns are consistent, with income level and job security always near the top of the list.  Although this is nothing new, I would be remiss in omitting from my report that this feedback is ongoing.  As NIA President, I have put a lot of energy into grasping NOLS’ long-term strategy and budget.  Based on this, and on conversations with EDT members and with you all on the Board,  I feel confident telling faculty members that although major changes in these areas don’t seem likely in the short-term, there may be some hope in the long-term.  Faculty usually seem heartened when they hear this.

    With a view to more short-term changes that might make faculty members’ working lives easier, the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, the NIA has had some success helping Staffing and HR to investigate smaller changes and improvements in efficiency that would be good for everyone.  The faculty travel reimbursement process is now easier to understand, and we have seen some motivation to improve the time-frame and documentation requirements for these reimbursements.  Paying for expensive airline tickets in advance is a major financial commitment for many faculty.  Jeff Buchanan has helped in investigating a way to avoid contract domestic faculty having to pay taxes on their travel reimbursements (salaried faculty or those traveling internationally do not have to).  Rocky Mountain Assistant Branch Director Andy Blair and the IT department have looked into improving wifi in the Noble, possibly by taking advantage of HQ’s new direct link to a faster fiber optic system (this seems like a minor detail, until one considers that faculty traveling to work for NOLS, often without a permanent home, depend on the internet to organize their lives and communicate with far-away friends and family, and must do all this while they are not in the field).  The NIA has also donated funds directly to make small improvements around branches, including a bicycle for PNW staff and faculty to make the short ride to town, and a kitchen knife rack, food storage containers, and a bike pump in the Noble.  

    Three NIA Board Members enjoyed a productive meeting with Education Director Liz Tuohy about the Training aspect of the current Strategic Plan. We discussed, among other things, the difficulty that faculty often have in seeking out feedback and owning their own need for improvement when job security is such a pressing concern, and when staffing decisions are based more and more on performance rather than seniority.  In short, it can be hard to admit that one is anything less than excellent, and to ask for mentorship and coaching for improvement, when one is afraid that one won’t get another contract if anyone finds out that one made a mistake.  This is especially paradoxical, given that NOLS instructors, as a whole, are passionate about improvement and deeply committed to doing what we do well.  It seems that success in training and in improving faculty performance is tied to faculty members’ feeling that they are supported by the school, including with job security, when they are continuing to grow.  Lack of job security may act as an unintentional inhibitor of good mentor ship and honest communication about work.

    The Branding Initiative has been a big topic of discussion for faculty since it was announced at the Faculty Summit.  I am happy to report that faculty, for the most part, are enthusiastic about the results so far.  Faculty understand the need to improve NOLS’ marketing performance.  It is very clear to most instructors that the problems we experience with job security are directly tied to fluctuating and unpredictable enrollment patterns and to the seasonal enrollment differential.  Most faculty understand, as Valerie Nguyen of Wolf and Wilhelmine pointed out in her Faculty Summit presentation, that marketing is not just about “selling ourselves” or convincing students to sign up for courses, but about our own ability to understand our identity and communicate it to the world.  I have heard nothing but good things about W & W’s impression of our identity.  Faculty often used to say that NOLS taught three things: leadership, environmental studies, and outdoor skills.  This maps very well onto W & W’s idea that we “embolden people to step forward into uncertainty” (leadership), and that our values are “the wild” (environmental studies) and “our elite skills” (outdoor skills).  Adopting this language would mean that we have gained a more eloquent, compelling, and precise way of saying what we already sort of knew about ourselves, but couldn’t quite express.  This seems like exactly what we hoped for in a new brand.

    Faculty have, in general, a reserved opinion about the new naming conventions and potential new logo; something like, “wait and see, it can’t hurt.”  My impression is that faculty hope to see more come out of NOLS’ willingness to make changes in marketing than the aesthetic and semantic changes proposed thus far, as important as these are and as positive as they seem to be.  Harnessing the potential of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of current and former faculty members might be an important future step.  After all, faculty members have the most in-depth and detailed grasp of what goes on in the field and classroom, and have spent the most time (in many cases, cumulative years of our lives) being immersed in the NOLS experience.  Brainstorming and experimentation in this area, maybe even some risk-taking, seems like a worthwhile investment of resources in the near future.

    I am also happy to add that I was personally very impressed, as was everyone who has heard it so far, with W & W’s “bonus” feedback for the school as a whole, and with the administration’s willingness to have this shared openly, in such a schoolwide setting as the Faculty Summit.  I understand that there is a detailed, text version of the eight points of feedback laid out, which I have not seen.  From the oral summary, the most memorable part by far is that we are expert problem-solvers and risk-managers in the field, but basically too comfortable in town.  This resonates deeply for virtually all faculty members, I believe for most branch staff, and for at least some in HQ.  NOLS is certainly a values-based organization, and it feels important for those of us working directly with students that the values we share in the field are echoed in the way NOLS operates as an organization.  Being willing to take risks, make changes, set aggressive goals, and push to meet them is something that any successful NOLS student learns, and that faculty practice every day.  Translating this to a global organization of NOLS’ scale, granted, is not straightforward, but I suppose that is what W & W was trying to get us to think about.  It sounds like the question, for NOLS as a whole and for individuals with their responsibilities within the organization, is, how are we to be emboldened to step forward?

    I am looking forward to seeing you all in California in February (or to someone seeing you there, since I will be running for re-election in December).  At that point we will have concluded the first year of our Field Faculty Lifestyle Survey, and I hope to have as much analysis of the results as time and my statistical ability allows.  I am writing this from an internet cafe in Bajawa, Indonesia, on the island of Flores, where Summers and I are having sort of an adventure honeymoon (we got married in August).  Suffice it to say that this is not the best place from which to direct anything, even such a 21st century internet-based organization as the NIA, but I will be home in Vermont (and also in Patagonia) in the fall and looking forward to some details and projects that summer fieldwork, a wedding, and travel have put on the shelf.  

    Thanks for all your energy and hard work,

    Sean Williams

    NIA President

  • Tuesday, August 16, 2016 11:23 AM | Sean Williams (Administrator)

    NIA User’s Guide to the June 2016 NOLS Board of Trustees Report

    People of the NIA:

                Here is a short list of highlights from the June Board of Trustees meeting report, held in Park City, Utah.  These notes are based on about three hours of intense reading, and represent my guess of what might be most interesting and relevant to NOLS faculty and staff.   At this point, the NIA is invited to and represented at only the February Board of Trustees meeting.  My hope is to pass along some interesting points and provide a little interpretation of these important documents, to promote the NIA’s goal of Faculty Engagement and make sure we know what the leadership at NOLS is thinking and talking about.  A big focus of the June meeting is the budget for the next fiscal year, so that is the major focus of this report as well.  Paraphrasing of the report is in normal type, my interpretation or explanation is in italics.  The complete report can be found in paper at all branches, usually somewhere in the office, and online at:

    -       Sean Williams, NIA President

    Review of the minutes from the February meeting:

    -       Finance report: there was a discussion of reducing NOLS’s savings goal from 3% to 2.5%.  This means that rather than budgeting to save 3% of total revenue in order to build cash reserves and fund very large projects, NOLS would aim to save only 2.5%, i.e. spend a little more each year on all expenses.  The reason would be because we are now cash rich and may not need to continue building reserves at the same rate as in the past, and instead need to fund ongoing priorities like marketing and compensation.

    -       Our very healthy cash reserves (see below) may someday become a “quasi-endowment,” in the form of long-term investments with specific guidelines for when they are to be sold and spend.  This would be to avoid looking cash-rich during the coming new funding campaign.

    -       The trustees discussed some questions about NOLS’s pricing and tuition.  We have documented a slow erosion in students from lower-income households.  We may need a change from cost-based pricing towards more market-based pricing; how does pricing achieve our goals for education and for diversity?  Can we do more to encourage certain demographics to enroll on certain courses with more strategic pricing?  Scholarship availability has dropped 5% for average income students, in order to to prioritize lower-income students.  We need clarity on what socio-economic range we hope to help with scholarships: the lower ranges who would never consider a NOLS course otherwise, or the middle ranges who might find it just barely out of reach.  Marc Randolph encouraged thinking about price elasticity - tuition levels that change as enrollment and time to the course start date changes (like the airlines).

    -       Discussion of the “Pete Calhoun philosophy” (after Trustee Emeritus Pete Calhoun, who was present at this meeting: the 2-9 problem.   Our product is great, a 9/10 or higher, but our national recognition is very poor a 2/10, worse than we deserve. We need to put more resources in to improve this recognition and thus to increase enrollment and be able to be more flexible/creative with tuition and scholarships.

    Finance report

    -       NOLS has good “expense management” - this is the process by which we make realistic budgets and strive to meet them, and make cuts or avoid growth in expenses when necessary.  This feels painful and tedious at times, but has helped us to reach the secure financial position we now enjoy.

    -       Long-term cash trend: NOLS has been in the black since 2006.  Before this time NOLS often operated with nothing in the bank except for student equipment deposits - i.e. if all of the students had chosen to not buy anything in the issue room, NOLS would have not been able to pay its bills.  As of April 2016, we have $11 million in undesignated cash (this means it is technically available to be withdrawn and used for any purpose at any moment, although it’s unlikely we would spend it all in one place), $5.5 million in board-designated savings for program research, meeting our insurance deductible, and in case of a business downturn, and $2 million in short term stock investments, and $5.5 million in a board-designated fund for the purchase of long-term assets (like property and buildings at branches).  In the past two years, NOLS has moved $6.2 million out of its cash reserve, into the endowment, the short term investment above, and the long-term asset reserve, plus paid gain shares.  The point of all this is that NOLS has a lot of cash, and is saving it strategically for clear purposes.

    -       Endowment is at $33 million, which is over a third of our total assets.  It has grown by 50% in four years, ⅔ from gifts and ⅓ from board designations (from NOLS’s income).  The release to operations, now about $1.2 million, is set at 4%of the endowment’s size.  This amount covers about 3% of our operating expenses, and 29% of it is designated for scholarships.

    -       The budget process begins in January, and is based on a Director-level discussion of NOLS’s goals and needs, and projections for enrollment.  As the budget is created, it changes as enrollment predictions change.  It is finalized by the Board of Trustees in June.  The fiscal year begins in September and last through August.  This means, for example, that the 2017 budget, for September 2016 through August 2017, is based on a prediction of revenue from estimates of enrollment made in January 2016 and revised in March and June of 2016, way before most students actually enroll in the courses to be run during that fiscal year.  In short, and as contract NOLS instructors know all too well, it’s hard to make a budget when your income fluctuates unpredictably.

    -       Notes about enrollment for purposes of the budget: the average course length is 3.5 days shorter than in 2013.  This is bad for the budget, as our total income depends more on student days than total student numbers, and our costs per day are higher for shorter courses.  Enrollment is currently not meeting the strategic plan goals of 2% annual growth for summer and 2.5% growth for fall/spring.

    -       Investments made so far toward strategic plan goals: IT, marketing, and Director of Education.

    -       Large project for this year is the Lander Distribution Center.  This will be expensive, but is necessary to free up space in HQ and make the distribution of goods around NOLS globally much more efficient.

    Budget 2017 details:

    -       For Expeditions, Wilderness Medicine, and Custom Education, revenue is budgeted to be about 50% higher than expenses, as it was last year.  Another line item, called “Other program” includes the Risk Management and Education departments, for which revenue is about 50% of expenses, which are $3 million.  $7 million of expenses is “Administration” (this is much of HQ, such as Admissions/Marketing, Finance, the EDT, but not Risk Management or Education, and not branch administration, which falls under the “Operations” line).  Of total revenue, Expeditions are budgeted to bring in $23 million, or 59%, WMI is 16%, Custom Education is 10%, annual giving is 5%, and the endowment release is 3%.  Total Development costs, i.e. fundraising costs, are about 30% of Development” income, i.e. the endowment and annual gifts. 

    -       In the big picture, wherever revenue is higher than expenses, that excess goes to support another area in which revenue is lower than expenses.  The latter areas, such as administration and “program” costs, are areas which are needed for the school to function or to meet its goals, but which do not directly bring in much revenue.  Ideally, these areas operate in a lean and efficient way, just like revenue-producing areas such as branches or WMI, so that the benefits they bring are worth the expense involved.  Excess revenue over the entire year is saved as cash, sent to the endowment or other asset accounts based on a schedule set by the Board, or distributed as gain share (the equivalent of “profit” at NOLS).  Comp is 55% of expenses,  broken down 40/60 in/town vs. field.

    -       The budget proposes that we finish fiscal 2017 with net assets of $81 million.

    Admissions and Marketing

    -       There is a clear trend in semester enrollment, down 10%.  Within that, international semester enrollment is down 36%, domestic is up 15%.  Total student days are down 2.6%, although student numbers are up.

    -       Air service to Riverton will be change from Great Lakes to a charter service called Denver Air Connection - from $99 each way, without TSA or baggage check (allow lots of time to connect in Denver).

    -       NOLS gets several Americorps alums using their Americorps scholarship for courses.  NOLS will match Americorps’ scholarship so that these students will be able to enroll on a semester, not just a short course.


    -       We have achieved a 10% reduction in carbon footprint per student day (including staff travel, not including student travel to course).  Our goal was to achieve an absolute reduction, but our absolute carbon footprint has stayed flat. 

    Students and Studies:

    -       Labor compliance: New federal law to pay overtime to salaried employees earning less than $50,440 was scheduled to take effect in July.  This affects 91% of NOLS middle managers, so these individual’s’ schedules will need to be adjusted to make sure they work less than 40 hours/week most of the time.  This is a logistical problem for NOLS, because our workplace model often requires in-town staff to work more than 40 hours per week, but potentially an advantage if improves work-life balance and retention for these staff.

    -       New research is being conducted, in connection with a graduate student from Yale University about sense of place, and with a University of Utah researcher about whether outcomes for Gateway Partner students are the same as for other students.

    Alumni and Development:

    -       The next major fundraising campaign will probably begin in September.  It will begin with the “quiet phase,” and will later be more clearly defined and enter a phase of more direct fundraising.  The goal may be to raise around $30 million (about the size of the current endowment, or about 40% of NOLS’s total current assets).

  • Friday, February 19, 2016 1:56 PM | Sean Williams (Administrator)

    Report to the NIA from the Board of Trustees meeting

    Delray Beach, Florida, February 12-13 2016

    Sean Williams, NIA President

    This report is meant to serve as an overview of what I found to be the highlights of the Board of Trustees meeting, from an NIA and NOLS faculty perspective.  The formal minutes will be published in the next official Board of Trustees report, compiled by Kathy Dunham and published around the time of the June Board of Trustees meeting.  As usual, I attended the Students and Studies Committee meeting and the Staff Committee, so I have no report from the Risk Management, Marketing, Alumni/Development, or Finance Committees, as they run concurrently, or from the Governance Committee, which concerns governance of the Board itself and is attended only by the Trustees and John Gans.  

    The Students and Studies Committee meeting was very well-attended by about half of the Trustees, and included several topics that are important to instructors, including the work of the new Education Department, the challenge of ongoing (post-IC) training for NOLS faculty, and the idea of staff retention as an overarching strategy.  NOLS education director Liz Tuohy first presented the recent work of her new department.  Trustee Emeritus Pete Calhoun pointed out, quite insistently, that NOLS already does a very good job of “education,” as evidenced by the consistently high level of student satisfaction we produce, apparently an average 9.2 out of 10 on Course Quality Surveys. We fail abysmally, however at broadcasting that success record to the world at large.  His point was that we should be putting even more energy into marketing, since education is already a strong point at NOLS.  Liz, Scott Robertson, and a few current Trustees argued that the work of the Education Department is to better articulate, understand, and communicate what we are already doing well, and that this effort of better school-wide self-conception should actually help in our marketing efforts.

    Liz then solicited input from the Trustees about how to effectively train current faculty to integrate the ideas and offerings from her Department.  She pointed out that NOLS’ Instructor Course is the envy of the industry for the depth of training it provides before the new instructor starts work, but that we have relatively little ongoing training for current instructors, aside from a few hours in each briefing period and various optional seminars.  However, we have consistently very good results from a model which basically trusts CLs and senior faculty to informally mentor newer staff and each other on each course, with relatively minimal guidance at the program and school-wide level.  This works well in general, but occasional training gaps are a concern.  The philosophical question is whether to continue trusting this model while trying to fill the small gaps, or to re-invent the model in some way that would include more ongoing formal training for NOLS instructors.  It was pointed out that institutionalizing more formal training would probably require paying instructors for the increase in training days.  Chairman Emeritus Michael Schmertzler made a strong case against being too heavy-handed in pushing new training and expectations on senior staff, who usually have a high opinion of their own teaching effectiveness and skill at their jobs.  “Training” for senior staff, he said, needs to be in the form of gentle mentorship or the transference of ideas for people to get excited about, rather than lists of new expectations and without direct ties to assessment.

    The topic then came up that the current model for ongoing training, of relying on the mentorship that happens in the field, requires the maintenance of a pool of senior staff and would thus benefit from improvements in staff retention.  Trustee Annie Morita, who has just joined the Board and works for Dreamworks Animation in California, gave an enthusiastic overview of the success of her company at making staff retention an overarching goal that served to unite the organization and create an exceptional level of staff loyalty and longevity.  She emphasized that this was not the result of a few separate policies, but an integrated strategic approach.  It involved attention to quality of life for staff, mobility within the company to maintain engagement and novelty, positive mentorship and training to make staff feel valued even when they had not performed as well as hoped, as well as a commitment to providing the best compensation in their industry.  Trustee Ethan Meers pointed out that in his field of investment banking, providing newer employees with a clear possible route to the top of the business is a key motivating factor, and that NOLS might do well to make career possibilities more clear to faculty and staff.

    The Staff Committee meeting was very small, with only two Trustees and four staff members, but this provided space for honest and engaging discussion.  Progress on the Morehead Survey recommendations was discussed, including in-town staff Merit Pay, as was a planned 1.6% compensation increase for next year, and the problem of providing competitive compensation for NOLS’ IT department.  This is apparently a persistent problem, as several of our Strategic Goals rely on major improvements in IT.  Young programmers tend to come to work for NOLS, benefit from a few months of training and practice, then leave for much higher-paying jobs in the for-profit sector.  

    There was also some discussion of progress on the US Instructor-in-Training program, and staff diversity goals in general.  Trustee Morgan Dixon pointed out that our diversity goals should include socio-economic diversity, not just racial and ethnic diversity.  She was very clear that in her mind, the very low job security available for most NOLS faculty is a huge barrier to improvements in staff diversity.  This gave rise to an interesting discussion of her experience at Teach for America, which employs teachers for only two years, and then puts enormous resources into career assistance after their teachers finish working there.  This has contributed to a situation where Teach for America now has tens of thousands of “alumni teachers” cheering it on, providing marketing and guidance, and actively changing mainstream education in America through the positions of power they’ve reached outside of Teach for America.  She wondered if NOLS could learn from this “distribution” model: rather than recruit, train, and attempt to retain staff, we might also actively “distribute” former instructors to take on important positions in alternative education and in the outdoors.  This would both cement NOLS’ place as a leader in the field, improve marketing, and provide prospects of jobs and careers to instructors, which NOLS is not able to provide enough of on its own.  There was good discussion of how such a model would have to be vastly adapted to function at NOLS, as retention beyond 2 years will always be our goal.  From the faculty perspective, where job security is such a huge concern and where “what to do after NOLS” is often an unsettling question, this was an inspiring idea, and a great example of the creative and outside-the-box thinking that the Trustees are able to provide.

    The Board meeting itself, in which all the Trustees and staff sit around a huge table and comment on presentations given by Committee heads, was also full of interesting tidbits and intelligent discussion.  Here are a few highlights:  the branding engagement with the Wolf and Wilhelmein firm, which will cost $250,000, was discussed, and it seems clear that this firm was the obvious choice among its competitors for the attention they gave to NOLS, the commitment they seemed to express, and also the youth and creativity of its partners.  This seems like a lot of money, but it represents a strategic investment in NOLS’ future, to help solve the problem of flat enrollment and help us better communicate the value of a NOLS course to the wider world.  If it works, it will be worth it.  

    There was a vigorous discussion of NOLS’ scholarship systems and diversity goals, a topic to which the Trustees are passionately committed.  Trustee Don Kendall has been crunching data to show a history of student’s household income based on their home ZIP code, which unfortunately shows a slow but steady concentration at the upper income ZIP codes, and an erosion of students from lower-income ZIP codes.  This should be a “yellow flag,” i.e. a slow trend that needs attention in the long run, either through better scholarships or changes in NOLS’ pricing structure.  There was also a discussion of the philosophy around scholarships: are they meant to raise the numbers of very low-income students, who couldn’t dream of a NOLS course otherwise, or also to raise the numbers of middle-income students, to whom a NOLS course is barely out of reach?  We don’t seem to have a consistent strategy on this.  Course pricing strategy was also discussed: will we ever move toward dynamic pricing, like the airlines, i.e. charging more for close to full courses, and offering discounts for far-in-advance enrollment, unpopular courses, or last-minute holes?  This would increase revenue from students able to afford whatever they wanted, and increase availability of lower-cost courses for students who could be more flexible. Or, could we have a sliding tuition scale, or much higher tuition combined with much larger and more widely available scholarships?  There was no consistent opinion on these questions.

    Ten minutes were allotted for the NIA presentation.  I gave a brief overview of the NIA’s record-setting membership and last year’s activities, and of our efforts to set up a Mentorship program, which have seen great success in gathering Mentors, but little success in motivating potential mentees to contact them (see  I offered support to any big ideas to improve job security for instructors, and raised Morgan Dixon’s Teach for America idea (which had already been discussed in the General Meeting) as an example.  I also outlined a suggestion for a potential Faculty Chair position, which has been a popular topic in NIA meetings, emphasizing the need for independence from the NOLS hierarchy and lots of field time for such a person to convincingly represent faculty.  Finally I shared the NIA’s goals in our Lifestyle Survey (, which seemed to be supported by the Trustees and the EDT.

    Even more than before, I was impressed with the Trustees’ intelligence, hard work, and commitment to NOLS.  I am more and more convinced that they provide an absolutely essential roll at NOLS, of big picture, strategic thinking that is creative and informed by their varied and impressive experiences.  They come up with ideas that would be unlikely to arise from within NOLS.  They also work very hard, and are really nice and fun to talk to.

    Thanks for reading this far, and for caring about the leadership work being done in this part of the NOLS family.  Feel free to address questions or comments to  

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