“We’re on a Mission From God”

“We’re on a mission from God” – Dan Aykroyd as Elwood Blues, from the movie, “The Blues Brothers.”

Some people involved in development for our schools today think, as the song goes, “It’s all about the Benjamins.”  “The Benjamins,” of course, are $100 bills that feature the face of Benjamin Franklin, as referenced in the hip-hop song by P. Diddy (when he was known as Puff Daddy).  Even though I have a folder with a sticker that proclaims, “It’s all about the Grovers,” (Grover Cleveland is on the $1000 bill), this creates the mindset that simply giving money to an organization is all that’s necessary for it to be successful.  Anyone in the non-profit sector (health care, arts organizations, charitable trusts, etc.) knows this is absolutely false.  So why are our schools being encouraged to simply “go out and get more funds?”  After all, if there aren’t kids in the school, all the funds in the world won’t have any effect.

Perhaps it’s because many of our school boards and advisory councils are populated with business people – community leaders in the sense that they are viewed as very successful corporate executives.  And what is the measure of that success?  If their company has had a healthy “bottom line,” or they personally know the executives of other such companies, then their business savvy is considered to be an asset, and bringing this expertise to the school board can make the school successful.  They can certain be the driving force of a school’s economic engine.

While this aspect is certainly necessary, there are two missing components – a Sense of Mission, and Openness Toward Cooperation.  In his book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins states that highly successful corporations he researched follow a pattern of organization he described as the “Hedgehog Concept.”  The leaders of these corporations were able to answer three questions about their companies, namely: “What drives your economic engine?” “What are you passionate about?” and “What can you be the best in the world at?”  These visionary individuals realize there is more to success than simply “raising more money.”

Development consultant Frank Donaldson says that to have a successful development program, people must be engaged in a mission.  This would explain why corporate revitalization in the 1980’s encouraged for-profit businesses to publish “a mission statement” to be the benchmark for their corporate activities and drive employee actions.  As Catholics, we are “mission” oriented.  It is what Jim Collins’ refers to as “a passion;” that “fire in the belly” that compels one to action.  It’s more than a “feeling;” it’s what educational psychologists refer as the conative learning domain…the desire to do more, to learn more, for a greater purpose.  For example, our Catholic schools have long held the tradition of academic excellence.  But what is at the root of that assertion?  Is it the fact that teachers are more dedicated to their students’ success?  Is it the smaller class sizes that allow for individualized instruction? Is it the safe environment our schools provide?  Is it the atmosphere of respect for God that is taught and talked about in our classes that carry over into daily life? Or are our children more socio-economically advantaged to be able to afford tuition?  Or are they better at taking tests?  Perhaps it’s all those things together that impact a child’s cognitive development.

It has also been said that Catholic schools have lower dropout rates, and a larger percentage of Catholic high school graduates go to college than public high school graduates.  While the reasons for this phenomenon have been thought to be the same as those associated with academic excellence, there are researchers that believe there is another force at work.  That force is the desire to learn more about a topic that was important to teacher that inspired a student, an event or experience that had a profound effect on the student, or an epiphany (what educational experts call an “aha” moment) that results in a life-changing mindset shift.  The change may not be logical, as could be expected from thought patterns associated with cognitive domain of learning, but is felt in the heart of the individual, giving them a sense of purpose and mission.

As Catholic schools, our purpose (what we are passionate about) should be to form tomorrow’s evangelists.  Perhaps a school can align its work with a particular work of the Church, such as the promotion of peace, or work to break the cycle of poverty.  Combining academic excellence with purpose creates a truly unique learning environment that is eminently marketable.  But people must “buy in” to the mission first.  An appropriate catechesis must be developed to explain why the mission is important (in your brochure or parent meeting/open house), an event to allow participants to become emotionally connected (a personal tour), and an experience where they can “learn by doing” (spend a day).  These three domains of learning (cognitive, affective and kinesthetic) can lead to the desire to become a part of the community.  While one responsibility of a Catholic school is dedication to academic excellence, the “financial” factor regarding its advancement efforts can be associated with good business practices, and its “ministry” element is inherent in its mission.

The third component of this necessarily Trinitarian model is Cooperation.  Many of our business leaders involved in our school boards are or have been the president of their own company.  Some of them have mastered the art of cooperation, realizing the importance of synergy, working together to bring a greater result than the sum of all parts.  After all, they are considered “community leaders,” and one of the hallmarks of community is caring for its members.  In the “hedgehog” model, this would be “what we’re the best in the world at.”  The Catholic Church believes in the Communion of Saints, which describes the uniting bond among ALL its members – past, present, and future.  But every now and then, there is the “lone gun” that is brought on board because they personally know how to get results, and get results fast.  A quick return on investment is great for the short term, but yields no long-term prospects for continued growth.  Bringing a person in such as this could cause irreparable damage to a board, causing those that know the importance of working together to be suddenly marginalized, then leave with the feeling that there is no respect for the work that’s gone on before them.  Parents, non-profit executives, parishioners and alumni must also be invited to participate to take advantage of their particular perspectives and talents.

Cooperative issues are not relegated to individuals, as there are organizations that demand exclusivity when working with our schools.  Schools and school boards must remember they are responsible for the successes and failures of their school, and consultative entities provide expertise that must be evaluated in light of a school’s long-term success.   It’s important to recall the five steps to making a decision as a Catholic community – Prayer, Discernment, Mutual Agreement, Mutual Responsibility and Openness Toward Reevaluation.  Simply to accept a recommendation from any source (person or entity) without further testing it goes against all five of these tenets.

Focusing on simply one aspect of the advancement spectrum can cause more problems that it solves.  Prioritizing, however, is a necessity.  Prioritizing infers the realization that there are multiple foci, and what happens in one area of development, retention, enrollment, asset management and marketing will affect another.  Advancement efforts provide an excellent example of Systems Thinking, as the actions one of the five key areas of advancement will affect the others.  St. Paul’s words to the Romans are words necessary to understand the mission that we have been called to: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom 8:28).

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006