Nada Djordjevich is a consultant and writer with more than 15 years experience working to strengthen schools, communities, arts, and environmental organizations. As the Executive Director of Gibson & Associates, she raised more than $35 million in state, federal, and private grants for nonprofits, school districts, and institutes of higher education. A history major at UC Berkeley, Nada Djordjevich’s undergraduate thesis focused on the intersection of culture and politics in modern life. At Harvard University, she received both a teaching credential and a master’s of education with an emphasis on administration, planning and social policy.
Nada Djordjevich has had rich and diverse work experience including serving as the Director of Auxiliary Operations for Teach for America and as an academic dean for Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth program. Nada Djordjevich taught history at the Packer Collegiate Institute in New York City, and writing as an adjunct faculty member at City College of San Francisco. Her experience in educational web design led her to a position as the website manager for Clif Bar & Company. There she developed employee profiles, created online newsletters, and worked with web designers and advertisers. Recruited to work in school reform, she led a team of consultants that advised 40 schools and 6 schools districts throughout California. Based on the successful outcomes in improved student achievement for these districts and school sites, she was selected by the California Department of Education as 1 of only 26 individuals qualified to lead District Assistance Intervention Teams (DAIT). From 2013 to 2017, she also led the evaluation of a 29 million dollar Race to the Top District grant in California.
A member of Bay Area Women in Film and Media, Nada Djordjevich has been active in the arts community for more than a decade. She co-founded a successful online literary magazine and has received honors and awards for short fiction and screenplays. She was selected to perform at the 2017 Litquake Literary Festival in San Francisco, and was a finalist for the Boulevard magazine’s 2016 emerging writer’s contest.
An outdoor enthusiast, she loves trail races and recently completed a 400-mile weeklong bike-ride along for Cycle Oregon. She is a member of several nonprofit organizations that promote an active lifestyle including the SF Bicycle Coalition, and the SF Tri Club.
How did you get started?
I have always been interested in research, writing, culture, and policy. Before and after graduate school, I worked in a variety of education, policy and tech settings including public television, nonprofit organizations, and schools. While working in a contract position as a web manager, I was recruited to serve as consultant for schools designated as “in need of improvement. Within a five-year period, I supervised or worked individually with dozens of schools and local education agencies. Soon my work expanded to conducting program evaluations of federal and state programs including National Science Foundation grants. I also began to write partnership grants involving higher education, community agencies, and school districts. My client group expanded to include museums, local governments, and nonprofit organizations.
What inspired you to start your business?
I have been inspired by Paul Gibson, the president of Gibson and Associates, to develop innovative strategies to support diverse public agencies. My career enables me to support teachers and students with on on-the-ground resources obtained through grants and partnerships, and to help city agencies and municipalities identify and implement successful programs, and support effective policy and management through formative and summative evaluation. I apply a diverse set of skills including research, writing, data analysis, and teaching to promote educational equity, public health, the environment, and expanded access to the arts. I feel very fortunate in my career choices.
How do you make money?
I work with multiple clients and support them to be more successful. Often the agencies and organizations I work with are under economic duress, and so my job is to provide cost-effective services that provide a high return on their investments. We have always tended to have high ratio of returning clients, as there’s a cost-benefit for the agency to continue working with someone who understands their organization, their protocols, needs, and systems.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
Since I began this career, we have always had work. It is often more cost effective for organizations to hire me to do their work than to do it themselves, both for the speed at which I can accomplish it, and also because the nature of my work often requires the outsider’s perspective. For grant development, strategic planning, or evaluation, it is often inefficient to complete the work internally.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
When I first started working in education reform, while I had strong academic credentials, and had been both a classroom teacher and administrator in a variety of settings, I was still young. At one site, I felt that experienced educators were suspect of my capacity based on my youth, and my lack of direct experience teaching the population that they were serving. It was very important for me to help the educators recognize that we shared the same goals, and that I not only valued their collective knowledge and experience, but could complement their ideas with research and experience gained from working at other types of schools and school sites. To build trust, I talked with teachers in the staff room during lunch, walked with them on the yard during recess, observed their classes, and attended faculty meetings. I developed empathy with many of their concerns, and together we created a plan that was meaningful and one that they implemented. I am happy to say that this school was selected as among the top 10 most improving schools in the Bay Area, and for two years had an Academic Performance Index growth rate that far exceeded the state average based on state assessments.
How did you get your first client?
I was recruited to work in school reform by the president of Gibson and Associates. There was new legislation in California that provided money to for schools and districts to hire outside consultants and I had a range of teaching, administrative and research experience that made me seem like a good fit for this work.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
My clients appear to value transparency and communication, but not over burdening them with additional activities and communication. I think that this approach, while not a marketing strategy per se, is what has led to returning clients. My style is to communicate my steps along the way and share my plans and drafts. I am hired to take things off busy plates and I need to know that I am meeting their goals and outcomes, so that they can be more efficient.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
Recently, I was called by an agency I had tangentially worked with and they asked me to work with them again. The agency does a lot of wonderful work within the community, and their call to me was based on the recommendation of a local civic leader. While I thought it would be wonderful to work with them, the reality was that I was too busy, and I needed to redirect them to other individuals with relevant experience. It’s always hard to turn down opportunity to do meaningful work, but it’s very important to give each client the time needed.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
My work has always been about building on the collective knowledge of the clients I work with and capturing their voices and perspectives. As an undergraduate and history teacher, I learned how to incorporate multiple sources of data to tell stories, from primary sources, statistics, journals, and cultural artifacts. In more than fifteen years of applied research, grant development, and program evaluation, I have learned how to frame collective ideas and data to help clients develop an informed strategic and successful approach.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
There is a wonderful moment when a client receives a grant that you wrote, but the most satisfying moment happens about two years later, when you realize the impact of the grant. For example, I wrote a STEM grant that resulted in multiple positive outcomes – including student affinity (particularly girls) for engineering, and a 75% experience in collegial behaviors experienced by teachers. I wrote a high school grant that resulted in a 70% growth rate in post-graduation college attendance after five years. I wrote a Math partnership grant led to increased teacher content knowledge and decreased student achievement gaps. These results are very satisfying.
What does the future hold for your business?
My work encompasses so many levels of systems change and is responsive to changes in political administrations that it is difficult to anticipate the new directions. Lately I have done a lot of research on how to address the teacher shortage that I am incorporating into strategic plans with three of my clients. I am also engaged in research on supporting STEM education in elementary schools. And, ongoing I am engaged in various arts advocacy projects. As for my personal writing career, I will be reading a short story for the Litquake Literary Festival in San Francisco in October, and my screenplay, Common Ground, will have a staged reading in the next few months as well.
What are you most excited about?
In California, there has been a significant increase in public funding of the arts. In 2016, California was ranked near the bottom (40th) of all state funding and so we have a ways to go to catch up, but as of June 2017 our governor has just permanently boosted the arts budget. Research has pointed to the importance of the arts for cognitive and social-emotional development. I see this as quite an exciting development, as this investment will likely lead to all kinds of long-term changes in education policy, museum education, and arts activism, as well as to improved student outcomes.
If you could give advice to someone starting out what would it be?
I am a great admirer of journalist Studs Terkel, and several years ago, I had the good fortune of hearing him speak in conversation with Dave Eggers at UC Berkeley. His book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” is still relevant today even if many the jobs that he writes about no longer exist. He has several quotes in it, but I believe that this last quote best captures my thoughts, “Work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread. For recognition as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying… We have a right to ask of work that it include meaning, recognition, astonishment, and life.” I hope that everyone finds work that can provide them with “meaning, recognition, astonishment and life.”