Story by Kathy McPherson
Independent schools are part of Chris Farr’s DNA. He grew up in Connecticut, where his parents served on the faculty of South Kent School for 40 years, and he has taught, coached and held administrative positions at independent schools for all but five years since graduating from Middlebury College in 1988.
“I've been around independent schools most of my life, and I've had the opportunity to visit many, many campuses along the way,” said Farr, who was recently named Durham Academy’s Director of Philanthropy. “There are some schools where you just step on campus and you know that it's a special community. It's not about the buildings, it's not about the athletic facilities or the science centers and all of that. It's about the people. And I had that feeling when I visited DA, I could quickly tell.”
Farr comes to Durham Academy from his alma mater, South Kent School — a boys boarding and day school with grades 9–12 and post graduate — where he served on the board of trustees for six years and then as chief advancement officer for five years. Prior to that, Farr spent 20 years working in fundraising at The Shipley School, a pre-K through grade 12 coeducational day school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
He helped South Kent prepare for its 2023 centennial celebration and was instrumental in securing the two largest gifts — $5 million and $7.5 million — in school history. At Shipley, Farr was director of development when the school raised more than $50 million in its largest-ever campaign to support facilities, endowment and programs.
In addition to his work at South Kent and Shipley, Farr taught English and coached soccer, hockey and lacrosse at Trinity-Pawling School in Pawling, New York; spent three years with a Philadelphia consulting firm raising money for nonprofit clients; and worked for two years in fundraising for The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“Chris is the most relevantly prepared philanthropy leader we’ve seen at DA in decades,” said DA Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner. “He’s been an independent school teacher, coach, advisor, parent and leader of two development teams.
“All that experience combines with Chris' personality — kind, calm, warm and down-to-earth — to make him the mentor and coach our Philanthropy team needs, wants and deserves,” Ulku-Steiner continued.
Farr said DA’s mission statement “to prepare students to lead moral, happy, productive lives” was a primary reason he was drawn to the school.
“The mission of the school resonates with me very personally, because leading a moral, happy, productive life is really the way I try to lead my life. That hit me very strongly and it made me want to investigate Durham Academy much more deeply than I may have otherwise done.”
As Farr got to know Ulku-Steiner, he saw a head of school who “is obviously a very passionate educator, deeply committed to both the students and the faculty and staff who work with him. That is very important to me, the strong leadership at the administrative level, but also at the board [of trustees] level. Upon my visit [to DA], I was able to meet with the board and they were terrific. I want to be at a place that has very strong board leadership, very collaborative with the administrative team.”
After completing his work at South Kent in May 2022, Farr took time off to re-energize.
“I've been doing this [fundraising] work for about 30 years now, so I took a few months off,” Farr said. “My wife and I knew that we wanted to move down south at some point when we left South Kent. We didn't know where. I have a passion for construction — I actually built houses while growing up and during the summer — so I got our house ready during that time to put it on the market. … It did exactly what I hoped it would do. It created a sense in me of getting back to what I do best and what I love to do, which is to be a part of a community like DA and help it grow with its goals and its aspirations.”
Farr will begin his tenure at DA on March 20 — just in time for DA Giving Day, set for March 28 — initially working remotely and part-time. He will be working full-time by April 15 and will be working in person as soon as possible. “I wish I could start tomorrow. I can’t wait to get down there.”
He and his wife, Liz, a fundraising consultant with the Chicago firm Grenzebach Glier and Associates, were in Durham this past weekend to house-hunt.
Farr said his wife frequently travels for business, but when she is home “we love to relax with our two Labrador retrievers, Mabel and Greta. Mabel is a silver Lab, Greta is a black Lab. I have two boys who are both grown. Henry is 25, Keagan is 26. They live in Philadelphia where they grew up, and are out of college and employed there. … Liz and I, in our free time when we're not playing with our pups or seeing our boys, love to play golf together.”
They are looking forward to the year-round golfing opportunities that are abundant in this area, and Farr is excited to be working with DA’s Philanthropy team.
“They are just a group of remarkable people who I'm looking forward to getting to know better, working with and collaborating with,” Farr said. “They've done a terrific job, through a lot of transition in that office, to get DA to the point that it is and so close to the end of the campaign," he said, referencing Beyond The Threshold, which is funding the transformation of the Middle and Upper School campuses.
Thanks to the generosity of the DA community, DA Philanthropy has raised more than $26,250,000 toward the Beyond the Threshold goal of $30,725,000. The campaign will conclude in June 2024.
"I would be remiss if I didn't compliment [the DA Philanthropy team] on what has clearly been a pretty remarkable effort across the board,” Farr said.
Ulku-Steiner was not surprised when Farr’s references “confirmed that he is a team-builder, an investor in professional growth, a leader who prefers lifting up others. Chris is someone who understands and loves the core work of independent schools: building communities that build capable, compassionate, courageous human beings.”