Over his 25 years as a development and marketing consultant to Catholic parishes and schools across the United States, Frank Donaldson has boarded enough jets to go platinum several times over in his frequent flyer programs.
“My theory is ‘pack light’ because you never know when your luggage is going to make it,” said Donaldson, the founding director of the Institute of School and Parish Development (ISPD), reflecting on the estimated 2 million Delta Sky Miles he has flown since 1989 in helping dioceses, churches and schools in 32 states create strategic plans for the future.
And then, there is summer, when “every-man” joins the “business pro” in an impromptu airline tango.
“Usually, I can spot the guy with the tennis shoes, hitting everybody who has an aisle seat,” Donaldson added. “One of my pet peeves is this: Why do you have to take your suitcase out of the overhead bin and roll that thing down the aisle, knocking into everyone? Just pick it up.”
Even though schools are out for the summer, Donaldson’s dance card rarely remains empty. He recently returned from a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, where he is helping three high schools and the diocesan Catholic schools office.
Ties to New Orleans
While 80 percent of his consulting business is out of state, Donaldson has worked closely with several entities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. One of his first projects was assessing the Catholic Schools Office in 1989 and discovering a need for a full-time public relations and marketing officer. He has worked through the years with Archbishop Rummel High School, Ursuline Academy, the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Resurrection of Our Lord School and the former Our Lady of Lourdes School in New Orleans.
Donaldson completed successful capital campaigns to build new churches in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Genevieve parishes in Slidell, and he is in the midst of another church campaign at Most Holy Trinity Parish in Covington.
On the school side, ISPD is working with St. Scholastica Academy on a $2.5 million campaign that will fund a new student assembly center, including a new gym. The Archdiocese of Mobile hired ISPD to direct a $9.5 million campaign for a new Catholic high school in Baldwin County, and $7 million in pledges have been received.
This month, Donaldson began partnering with Regina Haney, executive director of the Boards and Councils Department of the National Catholic Educational Association, to develop a long-range plan for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. He and Haney present about six webinars a year to Catholic school educators.
‘25 Lessons’ coming
Topping it all off, Donaldson is writing a book, “25 Lessons Learned in 25 Years of Catholic Consulting,” which should be ready for the 2015 NCEA convention in Orlando, Florida.
“It keeps us busy,” said Donaldson, a 1963 graduate of De La Salle High School.
Donaldson said the success of any Catholic school can be boiled down to two words: “Leadership and vision.”
“If you’ve got a vision and the leader shares that vision and is able to articulate it in a clear way, you can succeed,” Donaldson said. “You’ve got to have a vision and a written plan that has been created by people. A lot of times you run across a situation where the plan has been created by a few people, and that just doesn’t work. Our mission statement as a company is that we bring people, process and ministry together to build the kingdom of God.”
Quite often the success of a church or school plan relies on getting people on the fringes to become more actively involved, Donaldson said. In any church, he said, about 30 percent are involved, 30 percent uninvolved and 40 percent “actively disengaged.”
Annual fund needed
One of the most important lessons Donaldson has learned in his quarter century of advising schools is the importance of the “annual fund,” which is designed to cover the gap between the cost of a Catholic education and the tuition paid. For virtually every Catholic school, the amount of tuition charged does not meet the true cost of education, especially because the days are long gone when religious women, at extremely low salaries, made up the bulk of the faculty.
Today, as a matter of justice, lay teachers require much higher salaries, even though the money they make falls far short of their public-school colleagues.
“When an elementary school has an annual fund, for many schools it is the first time where parents and alums are asked to give and they don’t get a candy bar or mulch for the garden in return,” Donaldson said. “We invited three gifts in a capital campaign: prayer, service and financial participation. The annual fund is the single most important development and philanthropic dollars that a Catholic school can receive.”
Explaining the ‘gap’
One of the first tasks a school faces is to honestly and clearly lay out for parents what its true costs are and how it spends the money it receives.
“It’s probably the most neglected subject by our schools,” Donaldson said. “That’s not a criticism but an observation. We don’t do a good job explaining the difference between what you pay in tuition and what it actually costs to run a Catholic school and how that gap is made up. Breaking that down and showing families and benefactors becomes a really key piece.”
“One of the things we’ve got to get used to is the fact that the old model of funding Catholic schools with tuition and some fund-raising events is antiquated. You still want to do fund-raising, of course. It’s almost ludicrous to think that a model that used to work years ago when the classrooms were filled will work now.”
Most Catholic high schools have some kind of annual fund that bridges the expense-revenue gap, Donaldson said, but more elementary schools are moving in the same direction. A properly executed annual fund for a high school should bring in between $200,000 and $600,000.
The key to an annual fund’s success is building relationships with students, parents and benefactors, Donaldson said.
“What if a school could take its president and principal, some really strong board members and strong parent leaders and form six or seven teams of two people who could meet, eyeball to eyeball, with every family at the school every year?” Donaldson asked. “They could basically talk to the parents and say, ‘Here is what it costs to educate your child, and here is what you are paying. The ‘X’ amount of the gap needs to be made up. In what ways could you contribute?’”
Donaldson said the contribution for a lower-income family might be a work-study program for the student or some kind of parental involvement that would help the school.
Some dioceses have instituted “cost-based” or “needs-based” tuition.
“Families that have the means are asked to pay the full ride, but those who can’t afford it can look to other ways to see what they can do,” Donaldson said. “Maybe it’s in-kind professional services.”
Schools also need to strengthen their development initiatives to generate more revenue beyond tuition and fund-raising, Donaldson said.
“I would ask this question: Does a Catholic elementary or high school have a vibrant list of financial leaders, someone who can contribute $1,000 or more a year to the annual fund?” Donaldson said. “The school has an obligation to do everything it can to build up its resources, through its annual fund and financial leadership.”
Parochial schools also usually receive support from the parish because Catholic education is a major ministry of the parish. Donaldson said the Diocese of Wichita has worked out the finances for a “tuition-free” Catholic school system.
“Every child in good standing who wants to enroll in a Catholic elementary or high school can attend free of charge,” Donaldson said.
With the improvement of the public school system in the metropolitan New Orleans area since Katrina, Donaldson recognizes that Catholic schools face stiff competition for parents’ money.
“The thing we have that sets us apart is our Catholic identity and the ability to make sure we stand, first and foremost, as a Catholic school that teaches Gospel values,” he said. “Our kids have the opportunity to worship on a regular basis and to daily be involved in prayer, service, outreach, retreats and campus ministry programs. It’s holistic education that allows academic preparation along with spiritual preparation. That differentiates us from any charter or public school. We’ve got to sell that more.”
Elementary schools, in particular, need to be more aggressive and creative in “enrollment management,” he said. That means finding built-in opportunities to market their nurturing, spiritually enriching environment with young parents – even as early as baptism.
“Baptism is an obvious point of entry for all kids,” Donaldson said.
One school came up with an idea called “Bearly Recruiting.” When a child is born and then is baptized, a fourth-grader sends a handwritten note, along with a teddy bear, to the family. That process is continued every year on the child’s birthday, with notes and letters inviting the family to pre-school open houses.
“Those kinds of things are very effective,” Donaldson said. “We can build relationships.”
Baptisms, confirmations and weddings – and the well-attended liturgies of Christmas and Easter – are also time for a parish to reach out to a family that may be uninvolved and welcome them with open arms, he said.
“So many times we will baptize this child into the body of Christ and then do absolutely nothing,” Donaldson said. “Once a parish and school buys into this, the floodgates open.”
Sometimes simple vigilance will go a long way in getting people to engage and stay involved.
“There are so many people who don’t get involved, and when you ask them, they say the one reason is they have never been personally invited,” Donaldson said. “We ask them to sign up and they say they’d love to do this, and they sign up and nobody ever calls them back. I’ve heard that thousands of times. The ability to have that communication infrastructure is critical.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.