Consider a troubling disconnect:

➤ Theological schools increasingly rely on gift income and therefore need expert fundraisers.

➤ People assume that the president of an educational institution is an experienced fundraiser and that board members are selected because of their ability to "give or get."

➤ Yet most presidents lack confidence in their fundraising, and board members think they were selected for reasons other than their giving prowess.

Great Expectations: Fund-Raising Prospects for Theological Schools By Sharon L. Miller, Anthony T. Ruger, and Barbara G. Wheeler

New research from the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education confirms the sobering news. "Seminary trustees as a group believe that their fundraising ability and personal giving capacity were among the least important factors in their selection," according to the Auburn Center's new research study, Great Expectations: Fund-Raising Prospects for Theological Schools, which was published in August 2009.

The trustees surveyed considered their "expertise" and "religious position" as the most likely factors in their selection. Other studies by the Auburn Center have shown that trustees are insecure — even ambivalent — about fundraising for their institutions. Even presidents are uncertain fundraisers, with a full third reporting a lack of confidence in their fundraising skills. Behind this lack of confidence is a perceived ­­­lack of skill and experience in raising money.

Drawing on development data reported to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and on focused case studies of 16 institutions, Great Expectations identifies several challenges and opportunities that theological schools face in supporting and sustaining their missions.


Lack of development expertise. The lack of fundraising skill and experience among presidents and trustees is a serious hurdle to a successful development program. Trustees surveyed seemed more comfortable as advocates or cheerleaders than as fundraisers. Presidents who come directly from the academic world often lack fundraising experience, while those who come from church positions tend to take a pastoral approach to raising money that sometimes detracts from a focused cultivation of the most promising prospects.

Low visibility. A lack of visibility is a challenge to recruiting theological school board members and donors. A 1999 report by the Auburn Center, Missing Connections: Public Perceptions of Theological Education and Religious Leadership, found that seminaries are largely invisible in their communities and known mainly to those with some connection to the school. Making the case for support of a theological school is hampered when the school is unknown even by its own neighbors.

Small size. Even small liberal arts colleges usually have multiple development staff with particular areas of expertise, but few seminaries operate with that level of staff support. According to the Auburn Center report, half of all seminary development offices had fewer than two full-time-equivalent managers and two full-time-equivalent support staff. These limited professional resources make the role of the president even more crucial in cultivating donors.

Donors with modest means. Most colleges and universities cultivate and depend upon financially successful alums for support of the schools' operating and capital needs. But most seminary graduates earn modest salaries and lack the financial means for significant support of their schools.

Seminaries must depend on other sources. In 2006, for example, graduates accounted for only 10 percent of support to theological schools, while "other individuals" contributed 42 percent. At many schools, too much staff time is devoted to alumni relations, when time would be better spent in cultivating bigger donors or in setting up planned giving programs.

Anthony T. Ruger, senior research fellow at the Auburn Center and a coauthor of the study, points out that changing income streams — declining church support and increasing support from individuals — represent a "fundamental strategic shift in how schools and boards have to view their fundraising responsibilities." According to Ruger, the boards of most seminaries have already evolved from largely clergy boards to broader-based boards of church and community leaders. And denominational schools, like their nondenominational counterparts, have realized the importance of cultivating individual donors.

"The bad news is, there is a lot more work to do," Ruger says. "Raising money from individuals is very hard work: Determining who can really help you, introducing them to the seminary, providing information about the school — its mission and purpose — offering meaningful experiences at the seminary. And presidents are absolutely indispensable to the effort. They don't like to hear that. They have trouble making time for that. Boards must help presidents make the time, learn to delegate, reduce committee work, enlist a development coach, if necessary — whatever it takes to give the president the room to develop new friends for the seminary and to spend time with established supporters of the school."


Theological schools do enjoy several fundraising advantages over colleges and universities:

Religion's strong appeal to donors. Surveys indicate that half of all Americans and a third of Canadians financially support religious organizations. In 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that donations to religious organizations constituted 75 percent of total charitable giving. Seminaries occupy fertile ground for developing strong cases for support to capitalize on this reservoir of good will toward religious causes.

Close relationships. A seminary's small size can be a fund-raising asset. It is easier to get to know potential donors and develop meaningful one-on-one relationships with them in a smaller institutional setting. And just as donors can enjoy easier access to the president, school leaders can devote more time to understanding a donor's interests, values, and giving priorities. And donor gifts can have a greater impact in a smaller institution.

Big gift = big effect. Unlike multimillion-dollar gifts to colleges and universities, large gifts are rare in theological education. But when they happen, their impact is huge. A few million-dollar gifts represent pocket change to a research university, but gifts this size can transform a small theological school's future.

Donors and advocates

Successful fundraising in theological schools is a team effort, to be sure, and trustees are essential members of the team. The Auburn report notes that "they serve as important bridges to others in the community. All trustees should be able to present a thoughtful case statement for support of their institutions to family, friends, and colleagues." Even with a lack of confidence in their fundraising ability, board members can introduce new friends to the school, invite them to events at the seminary, and host events in their homes.

Development staff, in turn, should help board members find a fundraising role in which they can thrive. And board members should set an example through their own giving. While many theological schools rely on board gifts for their operating and capital needs, the Auburn Center reports that only 15 percent of theological schools received contributions from all board members in the year 2000. Only 32 percent of trustees provided for their schools in their wills. And Auburn research found that many long-term board members were never approached about making a bequest to the school.

All trustees are not created equal, nor are they equally suited to the development task. A solid development program will, however, find appropriate roles for trustees as both donors and advocates of theological education.

Questions for boards

In the Autumn 2007 issue of In Trust, Rebekah Burch Basinger wrote:

Boards can add real value to their school's development program at every stage of the fundraising cycle. Such boards are careful to develop policies that safeguard the integrity of the development program. They know the importance of setting goals that are appropriate to the giving capabilities of the school's constituency and to the staffing of the development office.

Board members in these places are first in line with their own generous gifts. And they are more likely to be involved in inviting others to support the school.

How does your board measure up to these wise practices?

♦ How is the president's role in fundraising specified? How is the president's fundraising performance measured? In what way can the board support the president in improving performance in this area?

♦ Are there specified expectations for board giving? How are new members apprised of these expectations before joining the board? How is the board's own giving performance evaluated?

♦ What opportunities do board members have to become familiar with the case for supporting the school? How does development staff plan with the president and key board leaders how best to draw on board members' contributions — talents, networks, and time — to support fundraising efforts?

Great Expectations: Fund-Raising Prospects for Theological Schools By Sharon L. Miller, Anthony T. Ruger, and Barbara G. Wheeler

Free copies of the report can be ordered from the Center for the Study of Theological Education at (212) 662-4315 or by e-mail at The full report is also available online here.


In Trust membership benefit

More on the board's role in fundraising can be found in the Autumn 2007 issue of In Trust. 

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