The Strategic Planning Process that Saved Pacelli High School

To fully understand the power of the Compression Planning® model, we have to go back to its origins.

I was recruited to design and lead one “last-ditch effort” to save a parochial high school in Austin, Minnesota (population 23,000). The previous year’s fund-raising efforts brought in $60,000 and spent $40,000 to do it over a three-month period.

I enlisted the help of my friend, Father Jim Buryska. In 12 days, we put together a plan that raised $640,000 in 3 hours and we spent $900 doing it. The way we tackled that fundraiser gave birth to a business that specializes in a high-speed way of working through big challenges, messes and opportunities.

Jim and I recruited a team and then gave them their task – spend no money but raise buckets of it. We put together a group no one would have ever recruited to raise money for a Catholic school. Jim and I worked side by side with people of many faiths. Our recruiting strategy was simple – go for talent, mostly from the media.

The strategic planning process that saved Pacelli High School is listed below:


1. We used local media sources to create a community buzz.

Jim worked for the diocese and knew the clergy quite well at Pacelli. While running the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce for 5 years, I spent almost every Friday afternoon visiting the local media – radio stations, TV stations, newspapers, and I developed many friendships. The publisher of the newspaper, the manager of the radio station and the head of the TV station were briefed daily about the campaign plans and backed our efforts 100%.


2. We used Pacelli High School as the headquarters of our campaign.

We needed space to run the campaign. We wanted a large space to conduct meetings, deliver the necessary training, and store all of the equipment. By using the school as the campaign headquarters, we had easy access to staff, students, equipment and the gym for the kickoff. Part of the plan included decorating the outside of the school with banners made out of bed sheets by the students.


3. We organized and executed the plan so fast the opposition didn’t have time to react.

There was opposition to the fund drive as well as to our approach. There was bad blood among the three sponsoring churches. We knew we had to do something fast so they couldn’t rally support to hinder us. The original coordinators wanted another three-month campaign. Our plan was to do it fast: 3 hours, on one day, 12 days from the start of planning. Our approach was simple – get in, plan it, do it, celebrate it and move on.


4. We prepared potential donors in advance so they were fully ready to contribute.

The idea was to help people make a decision before the actual fund drive. Then the campaign workers who visited them wouldn’t have to be fully briefed on the school’s issues. The plan called for one adult and one or more students to visit each potential donor. The teams weren’t responsible for the “sale.” They were told to just go out and get the checks or the pledges. This was especially important given the rumors going around.


5. We went for four-year commitments versus single year ones.

A key part of the fundraising campaign was we asked for four-year pledges instead of having annual drives with one-time donations. The decision was made to go for as much as possible and it worked – people made 4-year pledges!


6. We made it so exciting that people wanted to participate.

People love door prizes…especially if they are worth something! Our method to solicit door prizes saved a ton of effort. No one had to go begging. I asked the manager at Sears, Bill Bambrick (whose son was a student at Pacelli) to give us money to buy a TV from a competitor.

The press ran the anonymous story and door prizes started gushing in. We actually ended up having to turn away donations for door prizes due to the quantity!


7. We took care of “front line” workers.

At 1:00 p.m. I went on the two radio stations and asked if anyone in the community wanted to help, sandwiches would be appreciated – simply drive to the school and honk their horn and a student would run out and grab the sandwiches from them.

About 3:00 p.m. I had to go back on the air and ask people to stop bringing sandwiches – there were too many to eat!


8. We involved as many people as possible.

Students accompanied adults when calling on people for their pledges. The idea was that having the actual students there might soften anyone who would be nasty towards the volunteers.

People of all faiths and non-faiths contributed food for the hundreds of workers. People of all backgrounds contributed door prizes.


9. We did everything in a unique way.

If someone had energy around an idea, it was done. Someone suggested giving away door prizes to people who said no and we did. It was a riot! Many who originally said no ended up being major contributors. Not all, but some.

It was intentionally made fun for everyone who came anywhere near the campaign. The planning time flew by – sometimes spending 16 hours a day working. This kept the buzz flowing.


Thinking back to the early days of the Compression Planning® System and how it helped save Pacelli High School, I’m struck by the sensation that no matter how many years have passed, the magic of that event still remains.

Something special happened that day which is why I went on to develop a strategic planning approach to help leaders crunch the time it takes to make critical decisions. This process has been used be leaders across the world throughout healthcare, manufacturing, higher education and many non-profits.

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