How some Catholic schools are mobilizing donors through dialogue
State College, PA – The landscape of Catholic education in the United States has changed dramatically since the mid-1960s when enrollment was at an all-time high. A major financial transition came with the collapse of vocations to the religious life, requiring Catholic schools to increase tuition in order to replace nuns, brothers and clergy with paid laywomen and laymen who now make up 97% of Catholic school teachers. Enrollment in Catholic schools also declined as more families moved to suburban areas and began sending their children to public schools.
While ebbs and flows have occurred, and pockets of growth exist across the U.S., many Catholic schools continue to face financial stress. Between 2000 and 2013, 2,090 Catholic schools in the United States closed or consolidated, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
As traditional fundraisers, like hoagie and magazine sales, fall short, Catholic schools are seeking new ways to raise money to support the mission of Catholic education.
Financial pressures hit home in 2010 for western Pennsylvania’s Bishop Carroll Catholic High School. The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had just made the school, and two other Catholic high schools, independent 501(c)3 organizations, each run by its own board of directors. In addition to a decrease in Diocesan funding, the school lost an annual gift of more than a quarter million dollars from a corporation that was supporting the school through Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC), which provides funds to qualifying private schools for need-based tuition assistance.
After 50 years of providing a Catholic high school option to families in seven area school districts, Bishop Carroll’s board knew they had to act to improve the school’s financial outlook. Annual giving had leveled off and funds generated from business donors through EITC were down.
In 2011, on the recommendation of an alumnus, the board contacted Affinity Connection, a firm specializing in direct marketing for non-profits and alumni-interest groups. The alum had experience working with the company as part of another alumni organization and knew that it measured two key metrics: donors and dollars, both of which Bishop Carroll needed.
“At the heart of how this school ended up thriving is courage,” said Greg Woodman, CEO of Affinity Connection. “This group of board members and administrators decided to take control of the school’s future. It took a lot of courage to embrace something that was new to them in marketing and development: outsourcing the solution.”
“We were very concerned,” said CEO Jerry Stephens, a 1970 graduate of Bishop Carroll whose wife and daughters also graduated from the school. “We were struggling to keep our website updated and to put out a few alumni newsletters, which weren’t generating anywhere near the support we needed, but we were all dedicated to making improvements.”
It was evident to Woodman and his team that what Bishop Carroll needed was to shift their focus from the school to the people who could help secure its future—alumni, families, businesses, friends of the school, and local Catholic parishes.
“When we met with their board of trustees and CEO, there was a real sense of urgency,” recalls Woodman. “I remember telling them, ‘sometimes you have to slow down to hurry up’ and worrying they might not have the patience for the process we knew they really needed. Fortunately, they did.”
Ultimately the school signed on with Affinity Connection for an integrated marketing audit that would result in a 12-24 month plan. Affinity Connection’s team spent three months interviewing and surveying a list of the school’s key stakeholder groups, including the board, administrators, teachers, coaches, alumni, donor segments, parish priests, parishioners and others, with a series of open-ended questions about Bishop Carroll’s distinct, long-term impact on students, families and the community and what it had done to gain and/or lose donor support over time.
An analysis of responses revealed a critical finding: stakeholders were concerned that Bishop Carroll was veering from the four pillars of its mission statement—educating students in spirit, heart, mind and body. In particular, alumni and donor support had decreased due to the perception that the school’s strong academic and faith-based components had become less prominent than extracurricular activities.
“Interestingly, responses from recent alumni and current parents, as well as from teachers and administrators, indicated that BC’s commitment to its mission was perfectly intact,” said Woodman, “the shortfall was simply in communicating to alumni and donors about the school’s strong faith community and high-quality academics. As the school exceled in extracurricular areas—often covered by local media—messages about other successes and achievements were being overpowered.”
Armed with this insight and hundreds of positive personal testimonials from alumni, parents and families, Affinity Connection’s team built a direct marketing program that emphasized a balance on all four pillars of Bishop Carroll’s mission statement. The program also ramped up the frequency with which the school communicated to donors and prospective donors from within its stakeholder groups, and added elements of personalization to recognize whether an individual is a current or previous donor, or has never made a gift.
Within a year, dollars to the annual fund more than doubled thanks to new donor participation and increases in gift amounts from previous donors. Participation in the EITC program grew business donations to more than three times the previous year. The board and staff have stuck to the program and results have continued to improve. Bishop Carroll recently embarked on a major capital campaign to complete facilities improvements on its campus. The school is also enjoying an uptick in enrollment in its 2015-16 freshman class.
“The last four and half years of engaging donors on a more meaningful level have been based on understanding their point of view,” said Woodman. “It sounds simple, but many non-profits find surveying their donors and other stakeholders to be frightening or too risky. I keep coming back to it, but it takes a lot of courage to seek honest feedback, and it took patience for this particular group given their situation. Not to mention trust—when Bishop Carroll called us, they were looking for an answer; they partnered with a firm who said, ‘we don’t have the answer, but we know exactly where to find it… in the hearts and minds of the people who love your school.’”
“We’re in a good groove now,” said Stephens, “and our working relationship is very much a partnership. Our staff is able to focus on what’s most important—fulfilling our promise to our students and families.”
With its success at Bishop Carroll, Affinity Connection has built a team to support more Catholic schools; currently five additional schools have signed on as clients, including St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pa., a Catholic high school that opened just 4 years ago in 2011, and several elementary schools.
Affinity Connection is a State-College-based direct marketing firm that specializes in these fundraising tactics for schools, including private and public, and local, in Pennsylvania and across the country.
We partnered with Affinity Connection at a time when engaging more alumni and more people in our community was absolutely critical to our success. Our Affinity Connection team helped us start a dialogue with our donors to better understand their point of view, and to create communications that motivate giving. We’ve increased alumni participation and donation levels, and developed significantly more relationships with business and community supporters. As a result, we’re on the road to 50 more years of providing a Catholic high school education to all students and families interested in reaping its benefits. Our partnership with Affinity Connection has played a key role in getting us here.Jerry Stephens, CEO and Class of 1970
Bishop Carroll Catholic High School