WILMINGTON — An era will come to an end on June 30. After 43 years, through four bishops, Deborah Fols will retire as director of the diocesan development office. Her role as the chief fundraiser has helped the diocese maintain its wide-ranging ministries. That includes education assistance, Catholic Charities, cultural ministries, The Dialog and many others.
“The biggest part of development is marketing. You have to constantly tell the story,” she said. “To those who are most loyal, sometimes the story becomes redundant. But you have to continue to tell the story and remind people that the money is being put to good use.”
It’s not easy, “but it’s rewarding. As a development person, you have to learn how to have tough skin and understand that for every yes, there are 10 nos. So you can’t get discouraged. And you have to be very firmly committed to the mission.
“Development is sales, but sales for a real need.”
Fols started with the diocese in 1977 as a part-time volunteer, just the second year of the development office’s existence. The diocese had just purchased a computer, and Fols would come into the office in the evenings and input data into the computer.
She was hired as a secretary in July 1978, and in 1982 she was promoted to associate development director. A decade later, she assumed the top position, which she would hold for the next 29 years save for a stretch of about three years when she worked for a national consulting firm. That job took her all over the country working with other dioceses. She returned to the Diocese of Wilmington in 2009.
She learned a lot from those other dioceses, she said, and was able to bring that knowledge with her back to Delaware. But being on the road five days a week took a toll.
“I had jet lag. I missed my family,” she said.
The primary fundraiser for the diocese is the Annual Catholic Appeal, which launched in 1976 with a goal of $300,000. The development office has hit its goal each year except that one and one other, Fols said. Today, the goal exceeds $4 million, “but people are generous, and the money is put to good use.”
She and the other three people who work in her office had gotten through the major-gifts component of the 2020 appeal when the coronavirus pandemic hit. That closed churches, which is where most Catholics hear about the appeal and the work it supports.
That, along with an increasing number of organizations competing for donations and other factors, forced the development office to be more creative in the way it approached the appeal.
“You have to learn very quickly that in today’s world, even without COVID, traditional fundraising doesn’t always work,” she said. “Last year was a real tough year. We still raised over $4 million, but we didn’t hit goal.”
Fols grew up in New Castle and entered Saint Mark’s High School as a freshman when it opened in the fall of 1969. When her senior year came around, the principal was a familiar face. It was her brother, then-Father Thomas Cini, who is 12 years her senior.
“I came back my senior year, and Father (James) Delaney was no longer there, and Father Cini was. It was an interesting year,” she said.
At school, she could not call him “Tom,” and she received her diploma from him.
“We survived that,” she said with a laugh.
When she started working for the diocese, Father Cini was the episcopal vicar, “and he wasn’t so sure it was going to work out with the two of us in the same building.”
Fols did not grow up thinking she’d be making her career in development.
“First of all, I would have said, ‘What’s development?’ Secondly, I would have gone, ‘Oh, no. That’s not possibly true.’ As a kid, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. But it just worked out,” she said.
During her time as director, the diocese expanded the responsibilities of the Development Office after the bishops of the United States published a pastoral letter entitled “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response” in 1992. Fols said there was a push to provide stewardship services to parishes, so she began doing feasibility studies and consulting for capital campaigns for them.
She was not able to do this by herself. Her office currently consists of three other employees. They work on the Annual Catholic Appeal, parish services, Vision for the Future for tuition assistance, planned giving and other fundraising campaigns.
For the Vision for the Future, the diocese receives approximately 1,000 applications for aid each year. Fols and her staff have to examine every one of them to ensure that the most worthy applicants receive the assistance. This year, more than 360 students are receiving about $853,000 in aid.
At one point, the development office had seven employees. Fols is grateful for the work that those remaining do every day.
“They do a lot of work. They’re very, very dedicated. They’ll tell you that they don’t see this as a job, they see it as a vocation,” she said.
Fols, 66, plans on spending more time with her husband of 32 years, Rob, and their son Christopher and his wife, Brittany. She also will be working in her garden at her home in Bear, and she likes to cook.
She wants to spend more time with Msgr. Cini, who lives at Annecy Hall in Childs, Md., with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. During the pandemic, no visitors were allowed inside the facility, so they would speak to him through a window. Since the beginning of 2021, they have been able to be in the same room, but they have been distanced from each other and wearing masks.
She and Rob, a retired electrician, hope to travel to Europe, and she said her husband wants to visit all of the national parks in the United States. She’s also getting a dog; her last pet died almost three years ago.
“We are looking forward to spending time together and relaxing,” she said. “And it’s time. It’s time for new blood here.”