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A Strong Mission Is “Magnetic,” Dowling Catholic High Discovers

February, 2010

Getting things right can take time, though the extra effort involved is almost always worth the wait. When Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, decided that a $28 million capital campaign was needed, its leaders spent a full two years on what Dr. Jerry Deegan, the school's president, calls a "visioning process."

To learn as much as they could about the school and its friends' expectations for it, the school held dozens of town hall meetings and on-campus receptions. More than 700 parents, alumni and neighbors attended the gatherings, which began shortly after the campaign, called "We Believe," was announced. The announcement, made at the school's annual pancake breakfast, which feeds some 5,000-6,000 residents of Iowa's capital city, took place in November 2007. By that time, Dowling Catholic had already raised $12 million toward its $17 million goal, which would complete Phase I of the campaign. (Phase II, during which the school hopes to raise $11 million, will continue until its goal is reached.)

Shortly after the initial $12 million was raised, however, the economy went into a tailspin and giving tapered off. Even so, by the end of 2008, the school had raised $14.8 million, and by January 2009, another $400,000 had come in. By December 2009, the goal of $17 million—and some $200,000 more—had been reached. The campaign has attracted 860 donors, of which 50% are alumni. Why they donated, school leaders believe, was no mystery.

A Deeper Understanding
As impressive as the numbers might be, the institution also emerged from the experience with a new and deeper understanding of its mission. And it is to this richer appreciation for their own heritage that Deegan and the school's development staff attribute much of their subsequent fundraising success. The school came out of the campaign rededicated to its original ideals, with a firmer sense of what distinguishes it from other schools in the area. As a result, it is poised as never before for future growth, and not only in terms of finances.

Formed from the merger of a girls' school established in 1887 and a boys' school established in 1918, Dowling is the only Catholic high school in Des Moines. Rather than see this as a competitive advantage, however, over the years the school had subtly downplayed its religious affiliation and, for years, was known simply as Dowling High.

Redefining Our Values
"We spent six months just redefining our values and rewriting our mission statement," Deegan says. "This took hundreds of hours of work and involved hundreds of people. And one message that came through loud and clear from all of our research was that, for our parents, alums and donors, our Catholic orientation was very meaningful."

The school's friends felt, and the staff agreed, that it should emphasize its religious affiliation, not only externally but also internally. "This meant incorporating it in everything we do," Deegan says. "We actually changed our name to Dowling Catholic [the former boys' school had simply been named Dowling]. We redesigned our school shield, and rewrote the chant we use at pep rallies and ballgames. We even added new statuary around the school. But these aren't cosmetic changes. They are central to our understanding of ourselves and the kind of education we provide. They remind us who we are."

Even the students seem inspired by the changes. "We have a retreat for juniors every year that is totally voluntary and costs $175," Deegan says. "Now seniors compete to lead it, and almost every student attends. The students are fired up, and so are we."

A lesson that Dowling Catholic learned that is relevant to any institution, Deegan says, is this: "When you have a strong and clear message, people will feel good about what you're doing and be attracted to it. It's powerful. It's magnetic, and people will invest in it."

A New Generation Steps Up
People will also recognize how important it is for them to do their share. "Our campaign theme is, ‘We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,'" says Michele Whitty, Dowling Catholic's development director. "The campaign allowed us to connect with a new generation of alumni and parents. We talked about ‘the contributions by those who came before us,' then we said, ‘Now it's your turn. It's time for a new generation to step up.'"

The development team didn't just talk, of course. The team established tangible goals for the institution and what it could accomplish. Dowling Catholic has always had a strong commitment, for example, to the use of technology in the classroom. Unfortunately, the physical plant had not undergone a major modernization in three decades. The needs were great: lighting, heating and cooling all required upgrades. "So did classrooms, which no longer reflected how teachers were really reaching," Deegan says. "They were not appropriate for the quality of technology being used in them."

A Turning Point
The development team and the school's Foundation Board wanted potential donors to understand the urgency of the situation and to make their experience as dramatic as possible. "It was important to the leadership team that prospective donors could visualize a future classroom so they could see the impact of their funding," Whitty says. "With money raised during the quiet phase, we constructed a Demonstration Classroom so prospective donors had the opportunity to experience the future of the school's teaching and learning environment. In three weeks' time, an old classroom was transformed and completely renovated to be state of the art, with a ceiling projector, Smart boards and new furniture."

To see this demonstration classroom, however, visitors had to walk through the old classrooms and over the old, well-worn carpets, and into a bright new room. They were duly impressed. "This was an ‘aha!' moment for them," Whitty says. "Over an 18-month period, 70 receptions were hosted and 760 people visited the demonstration classroom, and it was a turning point in the campaign."

Each generation has its giants, of course, and for Dowling High, it was the W.A. Krause family, founders of the Kum & Go convenience stores and service-station chain, which operates more than 430 retail outlets in 11 Midwestern states. The family also operates Liberty Bank, the fastest-growing bank in Iowa, with more than $1 billion in assets. Kyle J. Krause, president and CEO of Kum & Go L.C. and owner and president of Solar Transport, a refined-fuel transporter, is active on the Dowling Catholic High School Foundation Board.

A Great Start
"During the quiet phase, the Krause family gave Dowling Catholic a lead gift of $3 million," Deegan says. "This really got us off to a great start, and we could not be more grateful." Before the Krause gift, the school in its entire history had received only one gift of $1 million. After the Krause gift, three others of $1 million followed.

By the time the recession hit, however, the momentum Dowling Catholic had built early on in the campaign was difficult to sustain. "Realizing the last $400,000 was difficult," Whitty recalls. "People were understandably reluctant to give. Many potential donors were concerned about backfilling their retirement and college savings accounts."

That's when Dowling Catholic reconnected with Thomas W. (Tom) Thomsen, a Marts & Lundy senior consultant and co-leader of the firm's higher education practice group. Thomsen had more than 25 consecutive years of experience in fundraising and planning.

Thomsen had also been president of Des Moines' Grand View University, a private liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As such, he understands the challenges that religiously affiliated schools can face. Thomsen had helped Dowling Catholic earlier in the campaign, and he agreed to return.

A Campaign Within a Campaign
"Dowling Catholic High needed an injection of new energy, a fresh start," Thomsen says. "We had to create a new giving pyramid and view what was left to be done as a new campaign—a campaign within a campaign. Once the staff viewed it that way, the challenge before them seemed less of a burden. It was going to be hard work, but everybody agreed it could be done."

One reason the campaign could succeed, Thomsen says, is because Dowling Catholic had already done so many things right. "Because they had received pledges at a faster rate than they had expected in the early stages of the campaign, they were able to start the active construction earlier that they'd hoped," he says. "This enabled them to borrow less, which meant they could save money."

Good Buzz and Positive Energy
A second reason they succeeded is because so much construction had already been completed by the time the campaign within a campaign began. "At that point, nearly 95 percent of the renovations were complete," Whitty says. "Parents could already see how the fundraising and spending were benefiting their children's educations. There was already a lot of good buzz and a lot of positive energy. Strategizing on three targeted areas identified with the help of our consultant enabled us to better focus on realizing our goal and for everybody to feel positive about it."

The positive energy continues. Deegan says his own experiences gave him a unique perspective on what the campaign has meant to the school and the community it serves. He first came to Dowling Catholic High in 1972 as a teacher. He has spent most of his career at Dowling, but for four years he served as the principal of a high school in Kansas. Then, in 2000, he returned to Dowling Catholic as the first lay president in its history.

"I came back with the advantage of having seen how other schools do things, which gave me a new appreciation for Dowling Catholic, for what it has been, and for what it can become," Deegan says. "I'm a big fan of Jim Collins' book Good to Great, and I knew what a good school we had here. My motivation, with this campaign, was to make it a great school, and I firmly believe that is what it will enable us to become."


Senior Consultant & Principal
Detroit Lakes, Minnesota