The Power of Movements in Catholic Fundraising

William J. Acton William J. Acton, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners

People today are responding to these kinds of asks that are bigger, bolder, and beyond our corner of the world.

I am blessed with the world's best grandchild, a nearly 2-year-old boy named Will. Like most kids his age, Will fights hard to assert his independence in each and every way. "No, let me, let me!" is an oft-used phrase for almost any activity: cutting up food, putting on shoes, or carrying any item from Point A to Point B, no matter its size or weight.

And while he fights for this independence, Will is also striving to collaborate – to work together. Before you get all hot and bothered thinking I'm bragging on a two-year old, let's be clear: collaborating is very different from, yes, sharing (something we still need to work on). Will likes to be part of the group, part of everything that is happening, part of any genuine movement that might be taking place. His quest for independence is closely tied to this need for collaboration. This was never more apparent to me than witnessing his enthusiasm in joining (sometimes leading) others on New Year's Eve in announcing the ball drop count down ("Ten, One, Two, One, Seven…Happy New Year!!"). While his count down moment came courtesy of a YouTube video played at 6:00 pm by his mom and dad, his passion and group joy for making this big announcement en masse were real, nonetheless. Of course, he then watched and rewatched the video and made the countdown multiple times, including several more times in the days after. Not sure we ever got that countdown right, but the ball always dropped, so…

Perhaps Will's second most popular declaration – right after, "Let me, Let me!!" – is "C'mon guys!" a phrase he frequently barks as he marches around the house inviting any and everybody to follow and join him on his route to Who-Knows-Where. Doing things together is an important part of a toddler's world.

But working together, towards a common goal, is not only a priority for toddlers. It's a critical component to so many successful ventures: businesses that depend on employees working together to achieve their goals, athletic teams, orchestras…and the list goes on. Collaboration, partnership, shared effort…call it what you will, working together has long been a necessity in so many arenas.

And now…it's starting to become THE Thing in the fundraising world.

It used to be that so much of philanthropy was fueled by challenge. People stepped up and gave money in response to a challenge: perhaps a natural disaster or the need to build a new dormitory or address homelessness. Challenges were presented by the nonprofit to the funding community…and the community, in turn, was challenged in multiple ways to meet them.

We've all heard of the Challenge Gift – where one donor or even a group of donors steps up with a large donation and challenges the funding community to "match" that gift with their own generosity. So much of charitable giving has been built on such tried-and-true approaches as "giving back" or, "meet the challenge and help us double our dollars." These approaches have been phenomenally – predictably – successful in for so long. But over the past few years we've seen a shift in the way genuine philanthropy is responding to the emerging priorities of non-profits.

Philanthropy today is responding to movements – to joining, collaborating, being a "part" of something bigger than just one person, one gift or one immediate cause. People of a true philanthropic nature are more interested in collaboration and impact than they are in just their own gift. It's as if donors are waiting to hear something like Will's call – C'mon guys! – before they finalize a giving decision.

This doesn't mean we are ending the days of needing a “lead gift.” Schools and other charities need leaders, and leadership starts at the very top of a gift pyramid, whether that be $10,000 or $10,000,000. But lead donors are only OK with leading as long as there are passionate others who will follow their lead. Part of the reason those challenge gifts work so well is because those who offer the challenge gift – I'll match every new donation, dollar for dollar, up to $25,000 – want to launch the movement, inaugurate the collaboration.

In addition, in philanthropy, as in toddler games, both leaders and followers want to be a part of something “bigger,” something which will have impact on the world beyond our neighborhood or the times we live in. They want to be a part of a movement, a trend, part of what's happening today, part of a global "big thing" that is compelling, urgent and relevant. Will knew full well that the New Year's Eve countdown he was asked to lead was for something much bigger than the norm. And he wanted to make sure that everyone joined in the countdown, although it was hard to guess which number would come out of his mouth next.

So what does all of this mean to those of us raising money? Especially for those of us in Catholic education with students in need of increased financial aid, facilities requiring renovation and upgrades, and teachers requiring increased support and compensation? It means that when we ask our leaders to lead…and our stakeholders to join them…that we ask them to join hands and support something much bigger and bolder than just our little school.

Previously, when we asked people to give to our schools, we told them what we were doing was changing lives. Today, that message needs to be that, through our work, we are changing the world.

Sounds crazy, right? But it's true. A well-educated class of Catholic school graduates can change the world in powerful and dare-I-say much-needed ways. Never has Catholic education been more important than it is today. And when we ask people to support financial aid, we are asking them to consider the difference far beyond the individual student who gets the first benefit of their generosity. When we ask them to give to renovate our campus or build our endowment, we are asking them to ensure our mission which is, simply, to make the world a better place.

People today are responding to these kinds of asks that are bigger, bolder, and beyond our corner of the world. They are responding to appeals to “join” leaders in their support, “pool” their gifts to make a larger impact…collaborate and join rather than step up to the challenge.

Who would have thought that today's best-practice fundraising strategy can be found in the behavior of a two-year old? Well, probably all of us. So, c'mon guys, join the movement and change the world through your advancement programs.

Posted on: March 20, 2024

William J. Acton

William J. Acton

Senior Partner

A graduate of Loyola Academy (Wilmette, IL) and the College of Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), Bill has over 30 years of hands-on experience in organizational advancement, strategic planning, board training and capital campaign management. Prior to beginning his consulting career in 1993, he worked in development for Loyola Academy (running its alumni and annual giving programs) and then for Cardinal Bernardin at the Archdiocese of Chicago, as the first Director of Development for archdiocese’s four-school seminary system and then as the first Director of the Cardinal's Annual Appeal.

Over the past 22 years, Bill has specialized in capital campaign management, major gift solicitation, strategic planning and development operation re-engineering. Partnering with school leaders, he has personally engaged in over 4,500 major gift solicitation calls ranging from $5,000 to $10,000,000.

Bill lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife Sheila. They are members of Old St. Patrick’s Church (Chicago, IL) and the proud parents of two adult daughters, Mary Alice – a development director at a Chicago Catholic grade school – and Margy, a Chicago-based sports physical therapist.