Posted on

A homegrown development officer

Five years ago Vernetta Waltner wasn’t looking for a job change. She was finishing her 14th year as English teacher at Freeman Academy, a school for grades 5-12 located in southeastern South Dakota.

In the back of her mind she realized that, since their daughters had both graduated, she and her husband no longer needed her fulltime income. And she had never planned to teach until retirement. But what she would actually do instead, she didn’t know. And her own quiet restlessness certainly didn’t prepare her for the question her administrator would pose when he called her into his office in the spring of 2006.

When she arrived she was surprised to see both the president and a board member, who provided her with some background: Freeman Academy had been working with Advancement Associates (AAI) for three years on a capital campaign, and enrollment and market research projects. In the course of conversation, AAI recommended hiring a development director.

The school had been without a formal development department since the 1980s, when Freeman Junior College closed and development responsibilities were absorbed by the president. In AAI’s opinion, Freeman Academy was a prime candidate for “growing” a development officer from within. In such cases, several key stakeholders suggest names based on a list of qualities necessary for success. AAI’s standard list looks like this:

1. A person who knows the organization and believes in its mission.

2. A relationship builder, who enjoys, respects and understands people, can motivate others, and has a good sense of humor.

3. A communicator, who has verbal, written and listening skills.

4. An organizer, who keeps accurate records, makes timely calls, and does thorough follow up.

5. A motivated self-starter, who works with persistence, optimism and creativity.

6. One who can maintain good working relationships with CEO, board and staff.

7. A generous donor to the organization.

8. A person who understands the “principles” of fundraising and adheres to high ethical standards.

9. One who is comfortable asking for money.

10. Someone who is open to learning and applying marketing concepts and strategies.

11. One who can use technology tools in support of the development program.

12. A flexible worker who is willing to travel and maintain irregular hours.

13. One who is committed to continuing education and willing to ask others for guidance and ideas.

14. A well-balanced person who has a life outside work and a means to maintain health and energy.

As Freeman Academy supporters brainstormed individuals who fit the criteria, Vernetta’s name rose to the top.

“It’s a little overwhelming to know that you’ve been chosen,” says Waltner, but even as her head reeled with the thought, she had to admit that she possessed several of the desired traits. As the third of four generations of her family to attend the institution, she certainly knew Freeman Academy and appreciated its mission. As a teacher, coach and athletic director, she was a natural communicator and organizer. As former manager of the “secretarial bureau” (predecessor of the business office), she had experience keeping meticulous records and dealing with finances. She understood the necessity of good relationships with staff and constituents. The fact that her own daughters were now married made her more available to travel and maintain irregular hours. And she liked to try new things.

Her first training session—a multi-day seminar in Omaha, NE—affirmed that she was qualified. “As the presenters described some of the things we’d need to do, I was saying to myself, ‘I can do that’ or ‘I’ve done that before.’” But, she says, going to a seminar doesn’t help one set up a daily schedule or identify the monthly and yearly goals one hopes to achieve.

For those details, Vernetta has found a supportive network in the development officers from other Mennonite Schools Council (MSC) member schools. She values meeting regularly with that group and emails them whenever she has a question. She says the group often has its own workshop in conjunction with the Mennonite Foundation Development Conference, scheduled to meet in Lancaster, PA this fall.

And as easily as Waltner fit several items on AAI’s list, others didn’t come as naturally. “I’m not really comfortable asking people for money,” she confides, recalling the days when, as a student at Freeman Academy, she was required to make donor visits to solicit funds. She believes that practice has, for good or bad, left people with assumptions about how she does her work today. “Just because I call someone doesn’t mean I’m looking for them to write a check when I stop by. But even when prefaced with, ‘This is not a financial visit,’ people still want to write a check.”

And Waltner does not claim to have expertise in financial planning. “That one really scared me. I can listen to the lingo for about 10 minutes before my eyes glaze over.” She is grateful for Mennonite Foundation and regularly directs would-be donors to the Foundation representatives in their area.

Staying in touch with various constituents is a constant balancing act. By now, Waltner keenly feels her lack of direct interaction with students. “[This past school year] was the first that I hadn’t had the graduates in class, but I still was involved in their lives because of older siblings. Now that I’ve been out of teaching for four years, I worry that I’m not spending enough time with current students—and even staff—to pay off in the future.”

Another challenge is trying to define which “hat” she’s wearing at any given time. In more than one case, Waltner fills roles that, while not technically part of her job description, provide opportunities to build key relationships.

For example, she currently chairs the Schmeckfest meal committee of the Freeman Academy Auxiliary. This “tasting festival” is the school’s chief fundraiser and serves as a homecoming for many alumni.

More recently, Vernetta served as chairperson of the auxiliary’s social committee, which provides catering services for numerous community events—annual company meetings, tourist groups and wedding receptions, to name a few. “The time I spend in the kitchen with all those different people in the community is huge, because I would never see them otherwise.”

Waltner is also a member of the Freeman Community Development Corporation, as were the Academy’s two previous administrators. She believes this association has given the school very good rapport with the broader community, which is especially important in a small town that has seen its share of tension between its public and private schools.

Given commitments like these, the 70% devoted to Waltner’s “official” job seems just about right. When away from her desk, she enjoys her grandchildren and spending time in nature.

“My first year I was very good about spending one lunch hour each week with God, often in the [campus] arboretum reading scripture or,” she laughs, “just spending a whole lot of time in prayer! Sometimes I feel like what I’m doing might not show that much now, but I consider that I’m building for the future. And while I do what I can, in the end there has to be a Higher Being guiding my efforts.”