The Art of the Ask

Stewardship and generosity abound during the pandemic. These Catholic schools put students first and manage development with ingenuity.

In 2020, the national narrative on the future of Catholic schools during the pandemic leads with historic levels of closures and mergers. It also features reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling to recognize the need for inclusion of faith-based schools in parent choice programs. At this uncertain time, calls to #SaveCatholicSchools are intermingled with reports that the crisis could help spark more innovation in alternative ways to manage Catholic schools.

In midsummer, among Healey partner schools, the news includes plans to resume in-person learning. Plans are underway in Boston (based on the initial return-to-school guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), the Twin Cities and Wilmington, DE.  

Given this backdrop and a projected “new normal” that shifts daily, how do schools innovate in their development efforts? How do they remain mission-driven and donor-centered in their fundraising? How do they continue to build and forge relationships with current donors and prospects?

“We have a community that loves and supports the school and a Principal who keeps development at the top of his mind and calls often to collaborate. Our Advancement Director does all the heavy lifting to take our approach to a new level.”

Brian Kehner Chair, Development Committee of the Board, St. Mary Magdalen School (Wilmington, DE)

Building Successes Over Time

Development is a continuous cycle in which the school identifies and qualifies prospects, cultivates, solicits and stewards. It is both art and science. The “ask” connects the prospect’s interests with the school’s mission and needs. 

In 2019, St. Mary Magdalen School (Wilmington, DE) had used Annual Fund dollars for teacher training, computer upgrades and renovations, including playground mulch. In 2020, some funds may be redirected to provide financial aid for families in need due to COVID-19 along with technology upgrades and training required for virtual learning.  

St. Mary Magdalen School (Wilmington, DE) raised $120,400 in this year’s Annual Fund — $40,400 more than its goal of $80,000. The school’s beyond-textbook approach to development staggered opportunities to commit and give throughout the year. These included:

  • Lead Gift Event, The Power of One, raising $17,000
  • Fall Appeal, a letter campaign to the school’s parish community, raising $11,135
  • NCEA Day of Giving, raising $35,557 from over 200 donors
  • Bulldog Bold Appeal, an email campaign sent to wrap up the virtual school year, raising $6,550 

In May, the school’s Board of Specified Jurisdiction voted to redirect Annual Fund dollars as needed to support families impacted by COVID-19. While the Board hopes to continue to apply some funds toward teacher development and facility and technology improvements, it is prepared to evaluate requests and adapt its original plan if necessary.

“We conducted a survey about our virtual learning initiatives and other issues related to how families have been financially impacted by COVID-19,” said Brian Kehner, who chairs the Development Committee of the Board. “Our community is a key asset of this school, and we don’t want that community to change because of the pandemic. We don’t want even one family to have to leave because of the financial impact of this crisis. While many families in our school community are not currently experiencing financial difficulties, others may need tuition support.” Through morning announcements and in weekly news updates, Patrick Tiernan, Principal, has reminded families to reach out confidentially if they have a need.

Going Virtual

At the St. Jerome Classical School (Maplewood, MN) Party with a Purpose, Craig Fiedler, Director of Advancement, introduced a welcome greeting from Christine L. Healey, President, Healey Education Foundation. Healey shared her joy in having visited the school recently and invited others to join her in “investing in the future of those beautiful students.” St. Jerome’s students are also featured in the “thank you” photo at the beginning of this story.

As they swiftly transitioned to virtual learning, some schools also planned, promoted and hosted virtual galas this spring to meet or exceed their development goals.

Staff and families of St. Jerome Classical School (Maplewood, MN) had gone into overdrive to roll out a distance learning plan combining electronic platforms with a bi-weekly drop off/pick up of paper-and-pencil materials (achieving 95% socially-distant attendance). They also delivered over 800 meals a week to families and connected daily via Google lessons and classes, texts and emails.

While delivering on its educational promise, the school also raised $89,628, including a generous matching gift of $30,000 from the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence (CSCOE), through its casual, spirited virtual fundraising event. Party with a Purpose: Better Together yielded 61 silent auction bids, 126 donations and 449 YouTube views.    

“This was a truly one-of-a-kind event! We had such a blast hosting this fundraiser virtually,” said Craig Fiedler, Director of Advancement. “Of course, we would have loved to celebrate and gather as a school community, but in so many new ways we were able to connect with friends and families across the nation to spread the mission of St. Jerome Classical School far and wide. What an amazing blessing. We are incredibly grateful for all our benefactors who made this possible.”

The virtual Road to College Gala featured the reflections and hopes of scholars at Mission Grammar School (Roxbury, MA). With an enrollment of 235 students, growing to 300, Mission Grammar was the first school in the city of Boston to offer an infant, toddler and elementary program under one roof. Over 90% of children at school are students of color, and over 70% of students come from low-income families.

In managing its transition to remote learning, Mission Grammar School (Roxbury, MA) factored in its unique approach to social and emotional supports, as reported by Boston Schools Fund. Simultaneously, the school undertook a $2 million campaign, partnering with The Lynch Foundation, which offered a $1 million match during the Road to College Gala

Benefactors’ support provides continued revitalization of the St. Alphonsus campus, including five additional classrooms and a STEM room as Mission Grammar grows enrollment and welcomes scholars and families from St. Patrick School in Roxbury. The funds also cover costs for construction of a playground and tuition scholarships.

“We have an opportunity to serve more families by expanding the school’s capacity, and fundraising is a critical component of that. We can’t add more students without addressing the physical structure,” said Jack Harrington, Board Co-Chair, Mission Grammar School. “One of our key roles is to demonstrate to funders that their money is going to good use, that this is a positive thing for the entire greater Boston community.” Harrington has a long history of caring about kids, including through support of Home for Little Wanderers and Children’s Advocacy Center of Suffolk County. “Families need safe places for children to go and learn, and Mission Grammar offers a safe and welcoming learning environment,” he said.

At Mission Grammar’s Road to College Gala, during which other Mission Milestone Awards were also announced, Boston Schools Fund received the Community Partnership Award. In thanking fellow supporters, Will Austin, Chief Executive Officer, reminded them: “We’re at a very, very critical time in education in our country, specifically for Catholic schools. Supporting Mission Grammar now means generations of more families will have access to this great high-quality education.”

Leading through Connections

Harrington was described by Ali Dutson, former Principal and newly named President of Mission Grammar School, as “a wonderful human being, a business and community organizer with a political perspective and a Rolodex 10,000 miles long.” Connections have had a meaningful impact at Mission Grammar, as Dutson, the Board and other supporters continue to leverage relationships like that with the Yawkey Foundations, which made a $250K commitment to the school. Harrington is already leveraging other connections to help the school with marketing initiatives and to grow the new Board of Specified Jurisdiction.

This work with the Board will have far-reaching influence for Mission Grammar. In her new role as President, Dutson will focus on connecting with supporters already engaged, with new donors who’ve invested in the school through the capital campaign and with area colleges and hospitals. “All of this is about deepening partnerships, for giving and enrollment, so that we become the lead choice for families in the area.”

“We are at our best when challenged to be adaptive. Yet most of our 'asks' happened before COVID and the calls for sustainable transformation through the Black Lives Matter movement. Even more families could be saying, 'This is the place I need to be.' So as we work to bring the highest quality education to as many scholars as possible, we'll lead from our place of strength. And we'll continue to foster relationships beyond our walls.”

Aliece M. Dutson President, Mission Grammar School (Roxbury, MA)