January 19, 2007 – Austin Diocese Tops $80M; Total Nearly Doubles Early Fundraising Goal

Austin Business Journal – by Jenny Robertson ABJ Staff

Less than a year after announcing its first-ever capital campaign, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin has almost doubled the amount it hoped to amass from the huge fundraising effort.

The diocese formally launched the campaign last March, with a goal of raising $45 million to help fund its rapidly growing fellowship. To date, the group has received more than $80 million in pledges.

The local diocese used fundraising techniques that are proving successful around the country, according to industry experts. And they say the Austin group’s effort represents a larger return to broad fundraising campaigns among Catholic institutions.

After conducting an initial feasibility study, church leaders quietly began the campaign in January 2006 by asking for large leadership gifts, receiving several million dollars in donations. The diocese then started a pilot phase with seven of its parishes to determine whether its fundraising targets were realistic.

Quickly, the pilot groups almost doubled their collective goal.

“From that point on, we knew that this campaign was going to be a huge success,” says Scott Whitaker, director of stewardship and development for the Austin diocese, which covers 125 parishes.

The diocese spans 25 counties and more than 20,000 square miles. Between 1990 and 2003, the area’s Catholic population has grown twice as fast as the overall Central Texas population.

That’s left the diocese with major needs.

But prior to the campaign, the group’s operating budget paid only for day-to-day expenses, Whitaker has said. The new money will fund four main areas: seminary education for new priests, Catholic education, Catholic charities and accommodations for priests’ retirement.

But a large chunk of the funds will go back to the parishes themselves to pay for construction, debt reduction or endowments, Whitaker says — and he attributes much of the campaign’s success to that sharing system.

The campaign involved a sort of rebate for local parishes. Each had a target goal, and the diocese returned 20 cents of every dollar in that number back to the parish. For every dollar exceeding the goal, the diocese gave 80 percent to the parish.

With the original $45 million target, the diocese had planned on returning about $8 million to local parishes. Under the expanded $80 million amount, parishes will receive somewhere around $30 million.

Dan Conway, president of Dallas-based RSI Catholic Services Group, says such rebates are a relatively new feature of Catholic capital campaigns, popping up around 2000. But they can prove extraordinarily successful, he says.

“Tip O’Neill used to say all politics is local,” Conway says. “Well, all church is local. People experience their church by and large in their parish. It’s important to draw them out to see the larger need, but they can see it more clearly if there’s a link between the parish and diocese.”

And large campaigns on the part of a diocese sometimes stalled smaller, individual church campaigns, says Paul D’Alessandro, president of Florida-based Harvest Development Inc., a fundraising consulting firm.

Rebate systems “are a way of being equitable,” he says. “All the parishes have needs.”

Following the church’s sex abuse scandals and the economic downturn after Sept. 11, 2001, many dioceses shied away from large fundraising efforts, Conway says, into a “self-imposed hibernation.”

But giving to efforts such as annual appeals remained steady, he says. And now many dioceses are contemplating or starting large campaigns again.

“If we Catholics have learned anything in the past five or six years, we’ve learned that Catholics are faithful and committed in spite of mistakes that are made by their leaders,” Conway says.

In fact — much as in higher education or health care — fundraising is becoming a way of life among religious institutions, D’Alessandro says.

“We have a saying in our company,” he says, “you’re either in a campaign, or you’re planning for one.”