Home Education and Careers At Catholic schools in Diocese of Wilmington, growth comes from strong culture...

At Catholic schools in Diocese of Wilmington, growth comes from strong culture and ‘a hunger for what we are doing’

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Catholic school adminstrators gather for a workshop at Saint Mark's High School June 20. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

MILLTOWN — Class was in session for school officials from around the Diocese of Wilmington at Saint Mark’s High School on June 20.

They gathered for a daylong advancement seminar that addressed the challenges facing Catholic schools in enrollment and development. It was organized by the diocesan Catholic Schools Office and the director of development for the diocese, Sheila McGirl.

The day began with a keynote address by Brian Brogan, who has a long career in finance and organizational psychology and who is an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He delivered a talk entitled “Culture Affects Everything.” Culture, he said, is an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior.

Brogan suggested that school leaders address the culture of their institutions through surveys, feedback and interviews. They should be employee-centric, “which means that’s where you start.” Metrics are important, he continued, but they should not be the starting point of measuring an employee’s value.

Thomas Sonni, the founder of Greater Mission, which assists Catholic schools with enrollment and development, addresses Diocese of Wilmington school officials at an advancement seminar on June 20 at Saint Mark’s High School. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

The steps to building a high-performing culture, he said, include defining a vision, setting standards, selecting the right people, educating about culture, and leading by example.

“All this has to do with trust, communication and transparency,” Brogan said.

Brogan’s three things he advised the group to take from his talk were getting to know their teams, through retreats, assemblies and opportunities for growth. Make sure the right people are in the right spot. Second, identify areas of commonality and establish collective goals. He suggested a five-year theme for schools that builds on this from year-to-year. Lastly, he said to establish and strengthen trust and autonomy with their teams.

Thomas Sonni, the founder of Greater Mission, led the session on enrollment and admission. Greater Mission, based in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., offers services to schools and other organizations on strategic planning and board development.

Sonni said when he thinks about enrollment, messaging and method come to mind. He said schools need to focus on their core mission.

“We don’t have the fire for the mission,” he said. “We seem to have lost it or not focused on it as much.”

He suggested the school leaders find strength in God. Do they send that message to parents, children and alumni, he asked. How do they spread the message? How do they compete with free alternatives to Catholic education?

“Getting that story told is part of your message strategy in the game plan,” he said. “There’s a hunger for what we are doing.”

He used Saint Mark’s High School as an example of what happens when a school focuses on the mission. The school had suffered years of enrollment declines that were unsustainable in the long run. But the school refocused on its core mission, and enrollment has grown substantially and continues to do so.

The story is critical for families and donors, Sonni said. Catholic schools, he continued, can have a life-changing impact, and its alums can share that impact with others. The message is to ask families, how many people can your children affect?

Sonni also talked about the power of prayer in Catholic schools. It is part of what distinguishes them from other choices. Schools, he said, can help stem the departure of people from the faith. He asked how visible students are in the parishes, and he asked how schools are asking parents to share the message. Parents, he said, are the schools’ best advocates.

One of the principals in attendance asked how she could stoke the fire at her school. Sonni responded that everything comes from our relationship with Christ. He suggested the school hold retreats as one way to accomplish that.

Multimedia marketing is a way to reach prospective families, Sonni said. He said schools should use videos to tell their stories. There are also mapping tools available that show where families with school-age children live; schools could have events in these neighborhoods.

Financial planning and fundraising are important, but it is also key to not get caught up in numbers and forget the people who benefit from aid.

One of the afternoon sessions covered cultivating major and legacy gifts. Presenters Christopher Polito and Andrea Gonce of CCS Fundraising asked school leaders about what they are doing that they could invite potential donors to and whether students are integrated into these events. If they have sponsored scholarships, are the donors invited to meet the students who benefit from their generosity? Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publishing and educational firm, presented to the group on marketing and communications.

Polito and Gonce talked about finding prospects for major gifts. Schools may not have prospect research, but it is available, they said. Gonce said sometimes, donations originate with a hunch.

“If we’re having discussions with them, we’re getting to know them better,” she said. “Finding a prospect for me is listening to others.”

St. Mary Magdalen principal Patrick Tiernan said smaller donors might be willing to donate much more. Approaching them the right way is critical.

“You’re not going right for the ask. You’re talking about the school,” he said.

Gonce said one of her clients had a donor who gave $200 a year who eventually gave $6.5 million to a school. Schools can run wealth screenings, but those are not the “end all and be all.” It is important to ask questions of a board of directors and others, she said.

She also recommended adding grandparents to lists of potential donors. They tend to be incredibly generous. Schools, she said, should add a line for grandparents’ contact information to their normal collection of information.

Gonce said winning strategies in cultivating benefactors include inviting them to an event, asking them to help and giving them small tokens of appreciation. It is important to test the ask.

“You’re presenting the case,” she said. “They’re almost writing their ask. You’re framing the ask during the conversation.”

Polito said the “ask meetings” are his favorite. By this point, the preparation is done, and both sides know it’s coming, and a lot of times, he’s asking if the donor wants to go to the next level.

“It’s an opportunity not only to get a win, but to build momentum for the next one,” he said.

He said school officials should know what they are asking for — a specific purpose or fund, or general scholarship, etc. Present the case, verbalize and clearly articulate the request with a specific number, then give the potential donor time to consider the request.

Polito and Gonce also talked about legacy gifts in which people leave money to a certain cause upon their death. Many people have money and other assets they will no longer need. The diocesan development office is ready to assist schools with this aspect of fundraising, they said.

But one thing stands out above all else, Gonce said. “The number one rule — people can only give if they’re asked.”