25 Years Later: A List of Things We Have Learned

Terry Fairholm Terry Fairholm, President at Advancement Partners

This month, our company, Advancement Partners, celebrates its 25th year in business. Normally, we aren’t prone to looking back, but today, we'll mix a little looking back into looking forward. Here's a list of what we've seen and how we might apply what we’ve learned to our next 25 years.

This month, our company, Advancement Partners, celebrates its 25th year in business. It is an achievement we are enormously proud to proclaim. That's 25 years of serving Catholic education. When we kicked things off on April 1, 1996, we never envisioned this day. We couldn't, we were too busy just trying to get started and stay in business!

Normally, we aren’t prone to looking back. We are a very forward-looking company, always reminding our clients to advance, look forward and plan their future. For us, the quote from the late Satchel Paige has always been perfectly fitting: "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." But today, we'll mix a little looking back into looking forward. So here's a list of what we've seen and how we might apply what we’ve learned to our next 25 years.

1. In 1996, the president-principal model in Catholic high schools was much less prevalent than it is today. When we started, many principals did everything: ran the academics as well as the business operations of the school. Today, thankfully, that practice is nearly non-existent. High schools having both a president and a principal are the norm, although there are multiple models for the role of the president. The schools that work best – the ones that operate most efficiently and come closest to maximizing their philanthropic potential – have the president serving as visionary, leader and CEO and the principal as the COO and academic leader. School constituents look to the president as the leader and visionary, and before they make a gift or pledge, they want to feel confident in the president. The skills of a president are vastly different from the skills of a principal. One person should not do both jobs.

2. Today, Advancement has replaced Development as the term most schools use to describe their fundraising office. Titles have changed, too. Development Director became Advancement Director became Vice President for Advancement. Database Manager became Advancement Services Manager. Regardless of the titles, there is a much greater understanding of the importance of this office and its functions across all constituent groups – alumni, parents, faculty and staff. People "get it" better today than they did in 1996.

3. The advancement office is still the "catch all" department in a school for those activities that school leaders think are important but have no logical office or department in the school to run them. Things like Career Day, Grandparents Day, Parent Welcome Reception...these are all good things, with no logical office to execute them. They’ve been dumped into development, er, advancement since 1996, and they are still dumped there today. They may be important to the school, but they steal time away from genuine advancement activity.

4. Over the 25 years, the capital campaign has remained the largest and most cost-effective way for a school to raise money. Why schools don't do them on a more consistent basis continues to remain a mystery to us.

5. The evolution of data analytics and technology overall relative to the advancement function has been a major influence in how contemporary fundraising business is conducted. Database management and the use of analytics have become critically important in the implementation of each of the advancement-related functions – annual giving, major gifts and planned giving. Database management has evolved into what is now a skill position and requires competent personnel.

6. Phonathons were big deals back in 1996. They are virtually non-existent today. Land lines don't exist. Getting a volunteer to attend a phonathon is pretty impossible.

7. There was no social media when we started. There was no online giving. All development revenue came from direct mail, phonathons, face-to-face solicitation and fundraising events. Even though online giving and crowdfunding are growing at impressive levels, more Catholic high school development funding still comes into offices via direct mail than through social media and online sources. Oh, and people still write checks in greater numbers than give via Paypal, etc.

8. Back in the day, many, many schools generated significant revenue from old-school fundraising activities like bingo, raffles and chicken dinners. Those events dominated staff time and focus. Volunteers were actively involved and took their turn signing up to help out. Surprisingly, we still see schools implementing some of these things (well, not so much bingo), but reliance on this type of fundraising is disappearing, thankfully. It's really hard to get volunteers to staff the athletics snack shop or work the weekly bingo game. No one has that time anymore.

9. In 1996, the biggest reason schools shied away from taking on a campaign was because they felt they weren't ready, or their prospects needed more cultivation. Today, that is probably still the top reason. Fear of campaign costs has been and probably still is the #2 reason. Neither reason has ever made much sense to us.

10. The way we do business with schools is very different today. Back in 1996, it was not unusual for us to conduct 30 to 40 in-person major gift solicitations each month in a capital campaign. Today, that monthly benchmark is around 15-20 per month, depending on what month of the major gift phase a campaign is undertaking. Now we conduct solicitations in person, over the phone and via Zoom. There is more emphasis required on success at the very top of the campaign gift pyramid (the top 10-15 prospects).

11. In 1996, the head of a Catholic high school, whether that was a president or a principal, was most often a religious figure. Today, that is not the case.

12. Today, prospects ask many, many more questions before they finalize a gift or pledge decision. They want to see more data, want to know what the return on their investment will be, how a school will calculate their gift’s impact. They take more time to make a gift or pledge decision. It is much harder to execute the fundamentals of a campaign today than it was in 1996.

13. Planned giving rarely got any attention 25 years ago and even currently does not get the attention it deserves. Although PG gets more attention today, Catholic high schools must make it a priority for the advancement operation moving forward or another 25 years will go by with little results to show.

14. Over the course of our 25 years, we've witnessed some boom times (the late 1990s, 2010 through 2019) as well as some challenging economic times (the 2000 dotcom bust, 9-11, the 2008 recession, the 2020 pandemic). We've seen schools panic or pause during harder times. The ones that have thrived have either stayed steady and focused, or pushed boldly forward.

It's been a great run. We’re not done, of course, and we can see some significant challenges and opportunities up the road. We are sad to see schools close, but often, when we dig in to the reasons why, we are not surprised. We are also seeing schools growing and thriving: the ones that are adapting to current realities in the way they deliver school, for example. We see Cristo Rey schools continue to open across the country, and realize their model, while not for everybody, is more in line with where the Catholic high school market needs to be in this era.

To the 300+ schools that have chosen to work with us over this past 25 years...thank you for your confidence and for your continued commitment to the great cause of mission-based education. We look forward to working with all of you again!

Posted on: April 29, 2021

Terry Fairholm

Terry Fairholm


Terry has 32 years of development experience. He began his development career in 1986 serving as Regional Director of Development during the University of Notre Dame’s $450 million "Strategic Moment" capital campaign. He began his development consulting career in 1989 and founded Advancement Partners, Inc. in 1996.

Advancement Partners specializes in development consulting capital campaign management and strategic planning for Catholic secondary education and since its founding has worked with over 300 Catholic secondary education clients nationwide.

Terry has been involved in over 200 capital campaigns for Catholic education, numerous other advancement-related projects (annual fund, strategic planning, development assessments, interim development services, development counsel, board training) and has conducted over 3,500 personal solicitation calls. He is a graduate of Loyola High School (Montreal) and the Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, NH). He has earned both a BBA and MBA from the University of Notre Dame.

A contributor to national publications and a frequent speaker at national advancement conferences, Terry resides in Dublin, OH with Diana, his wife of thirty-three years; they have three sons, Mark (31), Bryan (30) and Curt (24). He is interested in golf, playing the guitar and physical fitness.