Contributions to selected U.S. theological schools fell 6.4 percent in 1996-97 from the previous year while contributions to higher education as a whole climbed briskly upward, according to figures recently made public by the Council for Aid to Education in New York. According to David Morgan, the CAE's vice president for research and information services, an analysis of reports from eighty-three "core" seminaries showed gift increases for the period in fifty-two schools, decreases in thirty-one. Among the big losers, Morgan said, were St. Patrick's, Menlo Park, California, where gifts dropped from $20 million the year before to $600,000, Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, which dropped from $32 million to $11 million, and Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, from $11 million to $5 million. Morgan warned that sharp losses in gift income often represent not trends but simply out-of-the-ordinary large gifts the previous year that were not repeated.

In the midst of the general decline for theological schools, moreover, some schools did quite well. The table accompanying this article reports the numbers for the ten top U.S. seminaries in fund-raising as measured by total support per student.

In Trust interviewed the heads of the development offices at a number of those seminaries to find out how they did it. Here are some of the stories of their success.

"Good communication with our alumni is very critical to our success. We keep getting our identity and mission out to our alumni and to our broader community as a whole."

The details vary, of course from school to school. Some schools are in the midst of flourishing capital campaigns. Hal Todd at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, for example, noted that the school's capital campaign played an especially significant role in their success that year. For a few seminaries, foundation grants proved invaluable. According to Kevin Greenwood at Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio, foundation giving is typically crucial to their fund-raising efforts. For others, an institutional base provided critical support. Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, has consistently enjoyed strong financial support from local congregations, said EDS's Ellen Rockefeller. For all of these seminaries, the cultivation and successful courting of major donors has also been a key to their productive fund-raising programs.

More striking than the differences, however, were the similarities in schools' success stories. Three significant common threads were woven into the tapestry of each account. For these seminaries, a successful development program (1) involved a total team effort; (2) included a clear and frequent communication of mission and vision; and (3) embraced a strong annual giving program.

"Approach fund-raising as a total effort and do not focus on just one thing. Everything and everybody are involved. There has to be a team effort and not just individuals working separately," said Union's Todd. Rockefeller of EDS agreed: "Our trustees are 100 percent involved and we have strong alumni support." The entire development staff, the president, the board of trustees, and even students, faculty, and alumni were all engaged. Everyone had a critical contribution to make.

In addition to assuring a total team effort, clear communication with the support base was also crucial. Kevin Neevel at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan, said that in one sense there was no real secret to their success. "Western has a wonderful constituency base. We simply get out and meet the folks. The president believes strongly in being visible. We work hard to keep our donor base apprised of what's happening at the seminary and around the Reformed Church of America on a regular basis. When you combine that with a clearly stated vision and mission, the program works successfully." The Josephinum's Greenwood expressed a similar point of view: "Good communication with our alumni is very critical to our success. We keep getting our identity and mission out to our alumni and to our broader community as a whole."

At first glance, embracing a strong annual giving program may not seem critical to the overall success of a seminary fund-raising program. The support raised is usually small compared to capital campaigns, major gifts, and foundation grants, and the amount of development staff time devoted to annual giving is typically no more that 15 to 20 percent. But the role annual giving campaigns played in the development programs of these seminaries is an unambiguously central one.

"Annual giving," said Todd, "plays an essential role in our fund-raising efforts because that's the bedrock for building our program. Through annual giving is how donors first connect with us; we then cultivate a relationship with them and many, though not all, become major donors." He then added, "alumni are not our most wealthy supporters, but they are the most faithful."

Nancy Springer-Baldwin of Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, concurred. "We are a young school," she told In Trust, "and our development department has only been in existence for eight years. It has been a struggle for us to build a constituency. But a very important factor in our success has been the high participation of our alumni. Over 50 percent give to the seminary."

How do these seminaries run successful annual giving programs? They use both the mail and the telephone. Some emphasize one component over the other, but for everyone a mix of the two is essential.

Western's Kevin Neevel indicated that "annual giving plays a very strong role in our work and success, and direct mail is the best approach for us. Telemarketing is a lower priority." According to Neevel, they "are now trying to personalize their mailings as much as possible and to connect the ask amount with the individual's giving history." Direct mail also dominates the annual giving program at EDS. According to Rockefeller, their "annual fund brings in a lot of support. With well-written letters and an accompanying brochure, there is a good flow of information to our constituency." She added that they "once used a professional telemarketing firm, but the experience was not successful. Now students and alumni do the phoning, but direct mail is still most important."

On the other hand, the Josephinum's Greenwood said, "while direct mail works well, telephone campaigns do better. We do one telephone campaign each year, and seminarians, administration, and faculty members all participate. The phone conversations are very good. But it is ultimately the mix between the annual direct mail campaign and the telephone campaign that works best for us."

Springer-Baldwin indicated that for ETSSW the "phone campaign and direct mail campaign, in terms of productivity, are about a fifty-fifty split." They begin with a two-part phonathon. Most of their seminary students gladly volunteer to telephone constituents over a two-night period. Then all of their trustees take another night to make calls, especially to potential major donors. After the two phonathons are completed, a direct mail package is sent to everyone who did not make a phone pledge or who was not reached.

There are also times when a seminary is "blessed by surprises," as Springer-Baldwin put it, those times when a totally unexpected and unsolicited gift arrives. Those moments are truly blessed. But the success stories of these seminaries did not just happen by chance. They got everyone involved, they clearly and broadly communicated their mission, and they cultivated and engaged one of the most valuable and loyal assets any seminary has: its alumni support base.

Top Ten Fund-Raisers in Terms of Total Support Per Student
#of Full
Union (Va.)
St. John's (Mass.)
St. Joseph's (N.Y.)
Bethany (Ind.)
WTS (Mich.)
Northern Baptist (Ill.)
Payne (Ohio)
Josephinum (Ohio)
ETSSW (Tex.)
EDS (Mass.)
Statistics for 1996-97, Council for Aid to Education,
ranked by Total Support per Student
Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More