The Lesson of the Fig Tree

In the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent this year (proclaimed yesterday, March 8, 2015) the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is retold.  In one of my favorite Facebook postings, someone once shared an image of this event, complemented by the words, “If anyone ever asks you, ‘What would Jesus do,’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.”

Next year, the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent will be from the Gospel of Luke (13:1-9) where Jesus tells us that tragedies will happen.  The second part of the reading contains the parable of the fig tree.  It’s the one where the landowner talks to his groundskeeper and says that for three years, he has found no fruit on a fig tree, and orders the groundskeeper to cut it down.  The groundskeeper, however, proposes that he cares for the tree, cultivates the land, manures around it, and then, if it still doesn’t bear fruit, then he will cut it down.

While the parable shares the relationship between God, Jesus and the chosen people, it can also relate to your school.

If you are a development director, or have a development director at your school, the usual “lifespan” (that is, the time from when they start to the time they start to experience significant burnout and/or leave) is 18 months.  School leaders and board members see that development isn’t generating revenues in the short-term, and may decide to try a new development director to get the income they need.

Which is precisely the wrong thing to do.

Why?  Because development is not about raising funds in the short-term.  That’s what fundraising does, and is unsustainable.  Development focuses on the long-term, and deals with developing relationships.  Development professionals need to involve and engage members of the school community’s external constituencies, and, from that engagement, significant and sustainable revenues will develop.

It’s just like marketing.  Some leaders think that the measurement of effective marketing is an increase in enrollment…which is also incorrect thinking.  The measurement of effective marketing is an increase in the number of inquiries to the school.  First, however, the research needs to be done to determine that there is a “market” of potential students for the continued growth of the school.

When a development director experiences burnout (which will happen at least a few times within three to five years), the tendency is to either quit or acquiesce to the leadership’s call for a change in personnel.  In reality, however, doing so can be compared to changing horses midstream since, in most instances, the “results” which will be brought forth by the newly hired development director could be the same, or, even worse, over the same amount of time that the previous development director served the school.  The reason is a simple one.  The development director develops relationships, and when they leave (for whatever reason), the relationship has a good chance of going with them, and the new development director is left to start from scratch – which may mean moving in a completely new direction than the previous development director had set.

The Parable of the Fig Tree acknowledges that after three years, there may not be the “fruit” of revenue.  Yet, one must also realize that the tree will be kept if it bears fruit – but note that the parable doesn’t say “an abundance of fruit.”  Development should start to see results in terms of revenue in 3 to 5 years, but the real fruit is the relationships which are developed with alumni, business leaders, community members those individuals connected to these three main groups.  The sweetness and abundance of that fruit will come, but it must be nurtured, and the ground around it cultivated.  It cannot become a dumping ground for other material (which landscapers call “fill”) that will not contribute to sustainable growth.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2010-2015  (Original publication date: 20100308)