How JPII Newman Center overcame COVID, debt crisis to run a successful campaign


A few months into her new role as director of advancement with the St. John Paul II Newman Center, Susan Gnann knew she would soon begin preparing for a fundraising campaign.

“I looked at the debt service line item and saw a deficit of $742,000 on a $1.6 million budget,” Gnann said. “I saw that nearly half of our budget was debt. I knew I couldn’t talk to a donor about mission when their money wasn’t going to support our mission or a retreat. I knew we had to run a campaign.”

Faced with a $14.6 million construction debt, Gnann readied for the campaign by employing some basic fundraising principles.

First, she received approval from Fr. Dan Andrews, the pastor and director of JPII, to take the steps necessary to address the problem. She visited with top donors to clearly explain the financial challenges facing the new ministry center, located on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. With the blessing and support of key benefactors, the center hired the Steier Group to conduct a planning study to test support for a campaign.

However, as the review neared its end, she faced an unexpected obstacle when the country moved into COVID-19 lockdown, a challenge not found in a Fundraising 101 class.

“We talked with the archdiocese, some key donors and the leadership council,” Gnann said. “The decision to move forward was unanimous. It was difficult, but we are creative, and we figured out what we needed to do.”

Gnann worked on improving and expanding JPII’s database which was “ridiculously small.” Getting creative also meant virtual education and training sessions with volunteers to prepare them for their task of contacting major gift prospects.

It was also necessary to encourage benefactors, those willing, to witness first-hand the direction and support JPII provides college students as they grow in their faith, a journey that ultimately benefits the Catholic Church.

“I learned we had to get people there for Mass or dinner with me and Fr. Dan,” Gnann said. “One couple at a time. The people needed to see the place, to get a feel for it. It was important for them to sit around the dinner table, break bread and hear Fr. Dan’s vision.”

Fr. Andrews’ vision includes continuing to grow – the center has seen year over year expansion in many metrics including mass attendance, small group Bible studies and residence hall occupancy.

“This Newman Center has been an absolute gamechanger in our ability not only to reach students but reach greater numbers of students,” said Fr. Andrews. “The numbers don’t lie.”

But perhaps Gnann’s biggest challenge was the need to ask donors to consider a second campaign gift. When it opened in 2016, leadership told donors that JPII would be self-sustaining, but original financial projections proved incorrect necessitating a second ask.

“Donors appreciate honesty,” Gnann said. “And we were straight forward with our issues. I created a new pro forma and when I shared that new spreadsheet with our top donors, they really appreciated what our finances might look like in 10 years if we raise $9 million.”

Supporters expressed their pleasure with JPII’s new direction through some major gifts, including a $1 million gift and five additional six-figure donations. This support encouraged others to give and help drive the campaign over the low-end campaign planning study projection. Gnann gives much credit to the Archdiocese of Omaha for this reaction since it set the tone for success by making a significant gift to the effort.

“It was huge,” Gnann said. “If we don’t get that, I don’t think we get our top donor to give what he gave. The Archbishop (Most Rev. George Lucas) is so supportive and that makes all the difference.”

Campaign manager Andy Ryba of the Steier Group agrees the gift from the Archdiocese was a difference maker, but it was just a start.

“Fr. Dan was a key factor in the success of this appeal,” Ryba said. “He provided great leadership and was not afraid to ask for money. He and Susan are a good fundraising team.”

Appealing to the greater Archdiocese of Omaha community played an important role in the success of the campaign.

“I consider inviting someone to support this a great honor and a privilege and I am asking people to consider it that way, that we have a responsibility as members of the Archdiocese of Omaha to care for these students,” said Fr. Andrews. “This is our time as the people of this archdiocese. We are known as a people who get things done and when it’s time to build up the next great work, we show, again and again, that we not only respond but we respond with great enthusiasm.”

Gnann will continue to cultivate major donors while preparing for a June 2021 public kickoff which she believes will be successful.

“If you present an honest assessment of where you are, where you want to go, show the mission and action, many people will respond.”

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