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At Culver, Strong Tradition Results in Generous Alumni

When the Culver Academies’ Black Horse Troop and Equestriennes paraded in front of the reviewing stand at last January’s presidential inaugural parade in Washington, D.C., they exhibited a degree of poise unusual in high school students. Their dignified restraint called to mind the admonition of the anonymous football coach whose team got too exuberant in victory. “Now, boys,” the coach said. “Act like you’ve been here before.”

Culvers’ equestrians can act like they’ve “been here before” because they have. Their appearance at President Obama’s festivities marked the fifteenth time they’ve marched in inaugural parades, which underscores something else about Culver: how quickly, under the right circumstances, traditions can be established.

The Culver Academies, after all, are little more than a century old. Founded as Culver Military Academy by Henry Harrison Culver in 1894, the college preparatory school and summer camp, which went coed in 1971, has emerged over the years as one of the most respected institutions of its kind in the country. Located in Culver, Indiana, with an enrollment of more than 790 students, the school has also established itself as one that inspires great loyalty—and generosity—in its alumni. Graduates include pharmacy magnate Jack Eckerd, actor Hal Holbrook, and baseball executive George Steinbrenner. One alumnus who proved especially generous in recent years was the late Frank Batten, founder of Landmark Communications and The Weather Channel, who, when he died in September, possessed a net worth valued at $2.3 billion.

Their gifts and those of thousands of others have made By Example: The Campaign for Culver one of the most successful campaigns in prep school history. Publicly launched in October 2004, the campaign had, in three short years, surpassed its original goal of raising more than $200 million. When it was clear that this goal was not ambitious enough, the Culver Education Foundation’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to raise its goal to $300 million. By September 2009, this goal had also been surpassed. Only Phillips Exeter Academy—which, since it was founded in 1781, has had a hundred-year head start—has raised more in one campaign.

Lasting Impact
While immensely gratifying, this generous response is not totally surprising to Culver officials. Over the course of the campaign, they came to realize what a lasting impact the values the school engendered in its students have had. The outpouring of support, they discovered, reflected the gratitude of highly successful men and women who feel their Culver experience prepared them for that success in life, as well as in their chosen profession.

“Thinking back on their lives, they realize they were at their very best when they were at Culver,” says Head of Schools John N. Buxton. “It was here that, both challenged and supported, they developed confidence. They learned to be leaders, as well as followers. They credit Culver with shaping their ideals during that crucial transition from adolescence to adulthood.”

One such alumnus, The Weather Channel’s Batten, class of 1945, never forgot one of the life lessons he learned at Culver. Placed in command of one of the school’s barracks, Batten was determined to win school honors for the young men in his charge. But, looking them over, he realized they were neither gifted enough academically to compete for the School’s Academic Bowl nor gifted enough athletically to win the Athletic Trophy.

“So I decided my guys had the best chance to win the Austin Trophy for precision drilling,” Buxton recalls Batten telling him. “Then I discovered that the three most popular boys in my unit just couldn’t march, and I had to tell them that, for the good of the company, we couldn’t use them. I had to explain the importance of sacrificing for the good of the whole. It wasn’t easy, but when we marched, and every heel touched down at the same time, we all realized we’d done the right thing.”

Cutting-Edge Programs
Culver abounds in such memories. “Everyone associated with Culver becomes a historian of it,” Buxton says. “Everyone you talk to understands the ethos of this institution, and they love telling about its traditions and its lore. It is because our traditions are so strong that we can also have cutting-edge programs—in technology, in entrepreneurship, and in global studies, for example. These programs succeed precisely because they exist within a tradition-rich culture.”

These traditions were set in place by the founder and his family, which made its fortune selling Home Comfort Stoves. For much of the school’s history, it was a proprietary school, and its alumni were not asked to contribute to its support. “They were told that they would never have to give to Culver because the family would always take care of it,” Buxton says. “Of course, the Culver family was incredibly generous, but over the years, as the institution grew, fundraising became necessary.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that a development office was created, and by the late 1990s, when Buxton became Head of Schools, its financial situation, while stable, needed attention.

“When I was asked about the finances, I said, ‘You have excellent programs, but you don’t have enough endowment to run them,'” Buxton recalls. “Culver wasn’t fully capitalized, like St. Paul’s, where I had been. St. Paul’s had an endowment of something like $400 million to run programs that were a good deal less ambitious. Here, our endowment was about $140 million, with a great deal more programs to fund. Even with very careful management, we still had to draw about $10 million a year from the endowment to pay for programs that we were improving.”

Scientific Support
With Marts & Lundy’s counsel, Culver undertook a fundraising program as ambitious as its other programs. Culver was one of the beneficiaries of the firm’s “capacity analysis” services, in which its analytical solutions group uses prospect ratings—a history of the institution’s fundraising efforts that draws on the interconnections among prospect pools, staff sizes, and campaign goals to offer gift forecasting for different fundraising programs over time.

“Culver asked if we thought they could raise $100 million to $150 million,” says Michael F. Sinkus, a senior consultant with Marts & Lundy. “We looked at their situation and said they could raise $200 million or more. Once they’d reached that goal, Culver asked if we thought they could raise another $100 million. We were cautious but decided that if they used challenge grants, yes, that was possible.”

That’s when Batten, who had just sold The Weather Channel, re-entered the picture. “We told him what we were trying to accomplish,” Buxton says, “and his response was amazing.” In December 2008, Batten made a gift of $20 million to establish the Batten Fellows program, to help ensure competitive salaries and professional development opportunities for Culver faculty members. But more than that, establishing the Batten Leadership Challenge, he pledged to match up to $50 million to build the school’s endowment. When Culver matches the grant, Batten will have committed more than $100 million to his alma mater.

“We have already managed to raise $30 million of the $50 million, and we did so from October 2008 to October 2009, meaning [we did it] during the worst economic climate of the past 80 years,” Buxton says. “We have three months to raise the rest, and I have no doubt that we will be able to do it.”

Not for the Faint of Heart
Fundraising is not for the faint of heart, Buxton says. “It is especially difficult to ask for money in the teeth of a recession,” he explains. “But when you know your institution has served people well, it is okay to ask. I won’t say it didn’t take a lot of calls before we realized that people will still give, but we did come to that realization, and the faith we placed in our alumni has been well placed.”

Culver represents a good investment, he emphasizes. “People will bail you out if they feel sorry for you—once,” Buxton says. “But they will always invest in success. You just have to make sure you tell them what your successes are. And we feel good about Culver’s successes, so we feel good about asking people to give back.”

Sinkus considers this attitude on the school’s part to be a matter of simple realism. “Everything aligns here,” he says. “Culver has a strong sense of its mission. It is proud of what it has done for its alumni, and its development staff is incredibly hardworking. Once you have those elements in place, and there is scientific support for what you hope to accomplish, you really can reach what can seem like impossible ambitions. You can do more than you think. Consultants are famous for saying what you can’t do. What we did at Marts & Lundy was offer scientific validation and ask Culver to keep an open mind about what the real possibilities before it were. They did all the work.”

Big Challenges
True to its culture, Culver attributes its success to its donors. “It’s part of our philosophy,” Buxton says, “that if you put big challenges before the students, and support them as they attempt to meet those challenges, they respond well.”

And they remember how, as students, they rose to those challenges. In late September, Buxton met with the CEO of a major Midwestern company who had just suffered a heart attack. “He asked me to meet with him, and when I did, he told me that this scare he had been through had led him to decide three things,” Buxton says. “He was going to call his kids every day, he was going to write a letter to his granddaughter every week, and he was going to endow a program at Culver, which had done so much to develop his character and his leadership skills. Then and there, he made a $2 million commitment. He was happy, and because he was happy, his wife was happy.

“Even so, she said, ‘I still don’t understand why you would give $2 million to a high school.’ And he said, ‘Culver’s not just another high school.'”


Michael F. Sinkus

Senior Consultant & Principal;
Leader, Higher Education Practice Group

Hilton Head, South Carolina