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Improbable though that seems, that was the experience of Colleen Peterson, the chief fundraiser for Holy Name School in Omaha, Nebraska. An inner-city Catholic elementary school, Holy Name, like so many of its brethren, has seen a radical change in its mission since it opened in 1918. Today it is a state accredited inner-city grade school, K-8 that also offers preschool and daycare. More than half of its 200 students are minority, representing more than 16 cultural heritages; 45% are not Catholic. Currently 68% of students participate in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. It defines its goal as “to provide children a faith-filled and values-centered education, regardless of income.”
But serving that population is expensive, and in spring 2009 Holy Name was facing a $1.2 million budget, a $300,000 deficit, and an even bleaker future. Even if she could raise the funds to cover that amount, Peterson recognized that it was only a stopgap solution. So she set up a meeting with one of Nebraska most generous philanthropists. (Spoiler alert: It’s NOT Warren Buffett!)
A couple of years earlier, Peterson had met Pete Ricketts and his family at the school’s Lenten fish fry—billed on the school’s website as “the best fish dinner in town.” Ricketts was a high-powered businessman, civic-minded and devoutly Catholic. Peterson invited him back to the school to participate in Read To Kids, an annual event at which corporate leaders and others head to a classroom to read to the students, as well as talking about their own careers and the importance of their education. Mr. Ricketts had read to a class, but he had also expressed interest in the school.
With that in mind, Peterson approached Ricketts. “We had been so successful for all of these years under a typical Catholic school model,” she explained. “We needed a fresh perspective to see how we could realign our work to meet the current deficit, increase enrollment and continue to serve the students and families of the neighborhood and the city of Omaha for years to come.” For Peterson, making that “ask” took a lot of courage.
“When I first sat down in his beautiful office I could hardly breathe,” she recalled. He waited politely. “I dove in and told him our story explaining that it would take more than a contribution to put the school back on solid ground.” This got his attention and the conversation led to the development of an advisory board for Holy Name School. Ricketts agreed to help find a half-dozen people to serve on the board. “He felt strongly that the school should not close,” Peterson said.
The new advisory committee members all had one unusual item on their CV: They had to have faced going “belly up”; know how to survive—and prosper. Peterson, meanwhile, worked to raise $200,000. Once the committee had developed a plan, Peterson did go back to Ricketts to ask for help covering the rest of the deficit, and he agreed to make a gift.
Both Holy Name School and its board have seen a lot change since those early days. The school has balanced its budget for the past two fiscal years, and is hopeful it will do so for the coming year. Its academic record is strong: 98 percent of its eighth graders graduate from high school within four years—in Omaha, in this area of the city, the public school graduates only about 60 percent of its seniors in four years-- and 85 percent of those students go on to post-secondary school. The original advisory committee has undergone a healthy turnover, with three members becoming part of a larger board providing support to Holy Name and two other schools.
And in January 2015 Pete Ricketts was sworn in as the 40th governor of Nebraska. So these days, Holy Name students get to visit their benefactor at the State Capital. But he’s still coming to the school’s fish fry.