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Mission Accomplished! - An Interview with John Knowles

In this episode, Andrew interviews John Knowles, president of the Catholic Finance Association and executive director of the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference.  Andrew and John spend their time together discussing finance, fundraising trends, and the Church’s relationship with emerging technology.  They also stress the importance of clarity of mission both in fundraising and in our personal lives.  

Listen to "123- Mission Accomplished! (Fundraising trends, Finance, Emerging Technology, Mission+Vision): John Knowles (Catholic Finance Association)" on Spreaker.

Show Notes


John spent the first 29 years of his life in Michigan.  He grew up in Michigan, went to college in Michigan, and earned his law degree from Michigan State.  He left Michigan to work with Domino’s founder, Tom Monaghan, at Ave Maria School of Law where John served as development and external affairs director.  In that role, he helped move the law school across the country to Florida.  After his time at the Ave Maria School of Law, John also worked for another Monaghan organization, Legatus, a membership organization for Catholic CEOs and business professionals.  


Current Work

John’s work with Legatus required lots of travel, and when he and his wife welcomed their first child, he decided it was time to find a job that allowed him to spend more time at home.  At that point, John became the executive director for the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference (DFCM).  DFCM serves as a membership organization for diocesan fiscal leaders, and it offers training and formation for these professionals.  John also leads the Catholic Finance Association, a membership organization for Catholic financial professionals.  


Startup Mentality in Fundraising

John shares with Andrew the challenges of fundraising for Ave Maria School of Law, a relatively young organization in the midst of a cross-country move. John likens his work at Ave Maria to work at a startup.  While there were the challenges of a small alumni base and limited brand recognition, John found ample opportunity for success.  He found success at the law school because he was creative and nimble and he was able to communicate a very clear mission to prospective donors.  John also placed high value on making friends and building relationships within the school’s new community.    


Trends in Technology and Philanthropy

John highlights for Andrew some trends he’s seeing in philanthropic giving and emerging technology.  Based on these trends, John shares his belief that the Church needs to be bold and innovative in shaping the ethical application of technology, and he gives examples of areas in which the Church can proactively insert itself for good.  John shares how new technology can be used to better help individuals live out their Catholic values, and he describes how AI can offer quick and easy insight into faith-based investing.  


Clarity of Mission

Andrew and John close by emphasizing the importance of clarity of mission.  The two discuss the importance of a clear mission and vision in fundraising and in their personal lives.  In order to be successful in all facets of life, personal and professional, having a mission that can be effectively communicated is of utmost importance.  


Lightning Round

  1. If you could fundraise for any organization or cause at any time in history, what would it be?
    • I’d love to work under St. Paul in the time of the Acts of the Apostles.      
  2. If you could get a donor meeting with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
    • Elon Musk:  I’m very intrigued by him. 
  3. Is there enough money out there for every organization that's doing good work?
    • Yes, absolutely.  I’ve seen enough to know that it’s true.  There is so much wealth in our world, and we just have to keep making the ask.       
  4. What is one piece of advice that you would give your past self?
    • Stay away from the pizza!
  5. Who are 3 people who have most influenced you professionally?
    • Gene Milhizer:  He was dean at Ave Maria, and he was really good to me.    
    • Colleagues at Legatus, including Stephen Henley
    • Jeff Smith:  Founder of Catholic Finance Association, he taught me lots about leadership and humility.    
  6. What is one fact about you that most people don’t know?
    • I’m very interested in science fiction, and I’ve seen every Star Wars movie, every Star Trek episode, and read so many science fiction books. 
  7. What is a book that you would recommend?
    • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie 


If you would like to connect with John, please reach out to him on LinkedIn.  


Andrew’s Takeaways

I’m going to begin with my biggest takeaway first.  This theme of clear mission and vision was so evident throughout all parts of my discussion with John that I feel like we absolutely have to start there, and really, it’s going to be the center of my first two takeaways.  John first mentioned the idea of clear mission and vision in the context of fundraising.  He shared about how his development work at the Ave Maria School of Law was made easier because of the school's clear mission.  Ave Maria was founded with a real sense of purpose; it exists to offer an excellent faith-based, specifically Catholic, legal education.  Its clear and succinct mission is easily communicated to donors, and donors who find value in that mission know exactly what their gifts are going to do.  Fundraising work starts with mission.  If an organization doesn’t have a clear mission, we, as fundraisers, need to work with leadership to articulate one.  If a clear mission exists, we need to find the most effective ways to share it with donors.  Without a clearly defined and communicated mission, fundraising efforts will flounder.  Donors need to know what an organization is doing and where it’s planning to go in the future.


The takeaway of a clear mission and vision doesn’t apply only to our professional lives.  John tied up his interview so nicely as he ended by talking about how clarity of mission and purpose is so important to him as an individual.  John spoke about how he loves his work because he doesn’t have to worry about betraying his Catholic identity as a professional.  His work is purposeful and intentional, and as a Catholic professional, he knows who he is and what he stands for.  I am thankful to be in the same situation.  I get to spend my days working with Catholic ministries, helping them grow and expand, and encouraging donors to share the gifts God has given them to help build His kingdom on earth. My work absolutely reflects my mission in this world, the mission God calls me to, but it didn’t happen easily or automatically.  I had to spend time, lots of time, both in work and in prayer to get to where I am now.  Like John, I wouldn’t be where I am now without a clear personal mission for me and my family.  I encourage you all to do the same, spend time discerning your own personal life mission, and then get working to make it happen!


My final takeaway also comes from John’s experience at the law school.  He and I chatted about how his ability to be scrappy and nimble in his fundraising was so valuable. As we discussed last week in my interview with Evan Woolsoncroft, the ability to be bold and proactive is key to our success as development professionals.  It’s so key that I’m devoting one of my takeaways to it again this week.  As fundraisers, we always need to be willing to try new things and experiment with new ways to reach donors and raise money.  We cannot be bogged down by the need to do things the way they were always done.  We can do things year after year as long as they’re successful, but we can’t stay with them just because we’re afraid to fail at something new.   It’s time to be brave in our fundraising, friends. Let us all aspire to nimble scrappiness!  


Along the lines of this takeaway, I close with a quote that I sometimes share with my daughters.  It’s a quote from an Australian poet, Erin Hanson, talking about all of the possibilities in life.  She closes by saying, “And you ask, “What if I fall?” Oh, but my darling, “What if you fly?”  It’s a little on the sappy side, but I do think we should take her musings to heart.  As we try new things, we might fail, we might fall.  But, if we fall, we get up and we try again. On the less sappy side, Rocky Balboa says that its not about how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. Not every new thing we attempt will be amazing. Sometimes we might even fall or get knocked down. But we won’t find the really excellent pieces of life unless we keep trying.




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