Some of the hundreds of the faith-based and private schools I visit with each year invariably tell me, “We’re in trouble,” which usually means financial difficulties may cause them to merge with another school or close their doors.

When closure happens, it leaves many “holes” – in the lives of the students who have made friends there, in the lives of the families who have supported the school, and in the life of the community itself.

Specifically for Catholic schools, I have long-held the belief that the closure of a school is the first step to closure or merger of the parish.


The presence of a school indicates the presence of the next generation of the faith community. When that disappears, families moving into the area who desire a faith-based education for their children will usually seek out a parish that has a school associated with one. Even if they move into a neighborhood that’s within another parish’s territory, they’ll attend Mass where their children attend school. That’s why it behooves every school to be associated with a group of parishes, and not just the one where they are located. But that’s a topic for another day.

Those “we’re in trouble” financial difficulties usually come from two sources:

1) Declining enrollment, which, upon further analysis, is not completely an “enrollment” problem, but a retention problem.  Every now and then there is a dip in the number of “initial grade year” students (for instance, K in an elementary school, or 9 in a 9-12 high school), but schools significantly engaged in marketing and with an effective enrollment process in place are still seeing attrition occur as students progress through the higher grade years.  If a K-6 school has 4 siblings enrolled, and the oldest matriculates to another nearby school for 7th grade, and that 7th grade is part of a K-8 school, chances are very good that all 4 students will leave the K-6 and go to the nearby K-8 school.  I know this because I saw it happen – frequently.

By the way, this leads to another phenomenon.  There are schools that are merging, and using the different campuses of the merged schools in different ways.  For instance, if two schools merge, both buildings may not close.  One may be used as a PK-4 facility, while the other is a 5-8 facility to take advantage of a different structure of classes with different scheduling, subject-specific teachers, and STEM-focused curriculum.  Interestingly, if the structure mirrors that of the local public school district, and, if it happens to be a high-performing public school district, what do you think will happen, especially if parents haven’t been included in the discussions?  Keep in mind that when it comes to faith-based education, most parents value “community” as well as “convenience,” and taking their children to only one location checks both of those boxes.

While the pedagogy may be spot on to split the grade levels, most parents don’t know what that word means and why it’s important to educating their children.  If it looks like the public school and functions like the public schools…well…you know what comes next.

2) The failure of all parents of current students to pay all their tuition they are obligated to pay for their children to attend this “privileged environment” of learning. That phrase, “privileged environment,” comes from the document on Catholic education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium by the Bishops that make up the Congregation for Catholic Education. In its entirety, the quote reads, “The Catholic school participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out” (1998, #11).

It’s not an “entitlement,” and costs are associated with privileges, because with privileges come responsibilities.

And “responsibilities” are where the problems really begin.

Because no one wants to accept responsibility today.

Schools usually blame the economy and changing demographics for their woes. But when you consider the most prosperous decade this nation has ever seen was the 1990’s, and faith-based school enrollment still declined and led to mergers and closures, those reasons don’t hold water.  Interestingly, there were also huge influxes of faith-filled people in the South and Southwestern areas of this country during this time which had so many students that they needed to build more schools.  Unfortunately, the cost of building a school was out of the question for many of these people who were not in an area that was thriving economically.

Parents need to take responsibility for their actions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” For the past 2 decades, the parents of students in faith-based and private schools have been members of Generation X. They’re “The ME Generation.” They take responsibility – but their first priority is themselves. They act based on how something will affect them personally. One of their mantras could be, “As long as I don’t get involved, then everything’s fine,” or perhaps, “I fail to see how this situation involves me.

That mindset has changed for elementary and high schools, as a new generation of parents, the Millennial Generation (sometimes called Generation Y) has been enrolling its children in faith-based and private educational environments for the past  twelve years.  What was thought would be a change in that “me” mindset to an “us” mindset has come to pass; unfortunately, the expectation that it would be the same kind of “us” from previous generations…and that’s not the case.  Today’s “us” is better described as “like us,” or, as some demographers have called it, the “me me me” generation.  They take no responsibility; in fact, it’s your responsibility, as the leader of an organization, to remind them of their responsibilities.

Usually, when a school is in desperate need of a quick influx of revenue, a fundraiser is held. Fundraisers are short-term, significant responses to an emergency need. The problem is that fundrasiers and fundraising in general is now a way of life for schools. Parental mindset is one problem; reliance on fundraising is another. There are also three other problems, which is the topic of an upcoming Tetrahedronics article.

Speaking of three, there are things that a school can do right now to solidify its financial foundation – namely, retain the students currently enrolled, ensure that current parents can fulfill their payment obligations, and be good stewards of financial aid funds awarded to current families with a tuition structure that makes sense for today.

Schools can fundraise to fill the financial gap, but it’s not enough to just ask for people to contribute money through a fundraiser or an emergency appeal. That will get you through the year, but not provide a foundation for future growth and success. Most schools and boards look at it as “the first step,” rationalizing that they need to get over this hurdle first, so that they can develop a plan for where to go. Unfortunately, I can point to two recent examples of schools that raised $300,000 and $600,000 respectively for one year, only to find out they needed even more for the following year.


Current parents STILL didn’t fulfill their tuition obligations!

If your school isn’t in this position yet, then “Now is the acceptable time” to put those processes in place to ensure long-term success and growth. Hire an advancement director – even for an elementary school. This is not a position that can be tacked on to a current teacher’s responsibilities, as it’s a person who will spend most of their time outside the school, making connections with these 5 groups: Alumni, Businesses, Community Members, Dedicateds, and Everyone Else. It’s pretty easy to remember those groups, as they start with the first 5 letters of the alphabet.

Each of those groups have 2 subgroups – donors and prospective donors.  Some colleagues believe that the “D” should be for “Donors” instead of Dedicateds, but you can have alumni who are donors and who are not donors.  If you have just a “donors” category, they you’d have to have sub-categories of alumni, business, community members, and…well…then things get strange.

Many schools have an Annual Appeal as the basis of their Development efforts, and as a first step to move from Fundraising to Development, which one group has defined as “The meaningful involvement of people in your mission and vision for the future.”  Frank Donaldson and the Institute for School and Parish Development includes the terms “mission” and “vision” in this phrase, which is very important. Many organizations look to “the mission” as central to development and advancement, and there are many definitions of both of those words in use today. Some even think they’re synonymous, even though they aren’t. “Vision” is important for long-term sustainability, since, as Scripture tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

What happens during the Annual Appeal? A letter is crafted and sent out to EVERYONE on the mailing list.

Easy, right?


You actually need TEN different letters to correspond to the ten groups/sub-groups we just mentioned. They don’t have to be completely different, but the message must be personalized to emotionally (not logically) appeal to each of those 10 groups. Here are the distinctions of the five main constituencies:

Alumni – Individuals that have graduated from your institution. Some schools incorrectly put parents of alumni in this group. Parents of alumni go in the “Dedicated” category.

Businesses – Those businesses in your community and outside your community that have a connection or a possible connection to your school. What happens if an alumnus owns a business? The alumnus’ personal address goes in Alumni, and their business address goes in Businesses. “But then they’re getting two mailings, and we want to save as much money as we can and avoid duplication.” If that’s the thought that just went through your mind, stop right now, leave this page, and go find something else to do. In the past 20 years, parents have changed, technology has changed, society has changed. If you’re still believing in holding one open house a year, and sending out one packet of information to a parent and hoping they enroll their child, you’re still doing things as you did 20 years ago. You can’t continue to do that and expect to succeed today.  Similarly, if an alum that owns a business doesn’t want to receive two letters, let them tell you which one they want to receive, rather than only sending them “one” solicitation member.  Then thank them for the assistance they provided.  They’ll feel good about having input into the decision.

Community members – There are people in your local community that support your school because they value its presence. They know that young children in the school indicate that the area is vibrant and growing, and want to keep it that way. In this same respect, community members/prospects could be the entire remainder of the general population in your local zip code. This should answer all those questions about “Who should be on my mailing list?”

Dedicateds – These are your Parents of alumni, staff, board members and others that are dedicated to the mission and vision of your school. The Dedicated/prospective donor list should be the smallest list you have, since Dedicated are typically supporters of your school, so the Dedicated/donor list is your “go to” place for leadership gifts.

Everyone Else – You have to have a catch-all category for folks that live outside your zip code area, and those contributions that come to you from out of the blue.

The framework is pretty simple; the execution takes a lot of work. And this doesn’t even include planned giving.

“What about grantwriting?” is usually the next question that’s asked, since foundations are out there with money for non-profits, right?

Sure. If you have a special project that requires funding and will have a positive return on investment, go for it. Air conditioning for the school; energy-saving lighting; a science lab – these are all great “case” statements. However, since a budget usually needs to be included in your proposal, if you’re not collecting all your tuition from all your parents, no organization is going to put good money toward bad finances.

Remember, with God, all things are possible. Doing it is easy – said no one, ever.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2024