Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Case for Every Gift

In the past decade, I have spent a good bit of time on transformational gifts. I have tried to work “between” the organization I represent and the philanthropist to imagine and define areas where a very significant investment might have a profound and lasting impact in an area of mutual interest and concern. I have learned that eight and nine-figure commitments require big thinking, careful planning, ambitious goal setting and deliberative, detailed negotiation.

In the world we now live, I think we need to apply many of the same principles to ALL gifts that we seek. We will need to do away with “fund buckets” and replace them with thoughtfully conceived projects. By “fund buckets” I mean the broad categories of needs we advertise, including rubrics like “scholarships” or “research,” or even more vaguely – “current use,” “unrestricted” or “discretionary.” The latter three are particularly vulnerable in a contracted economy. These are needs that we often seek to meet through telefunds, direct mail or web-based appeals or avenues.

In their place, we need to begin offering projects that feature exact budgets, precise goals and specific outcomes. For instance, the top priority for my university in its next campaign is financial aid. To date, we have asked people to give to that area by making a broad case for its importance bolstered by specific examples of which students are most in need and how they will benefit from more aid. For those capable of giving gifts of six figures or more, we offer to create endowments or allow specific designations. Even though we personalize the process for the major donor, this is still a “fund bucket.” As our plans cohere for the coming campaign, our President has outlined three areas of importance within the larger financial aid goal – those with greatest need, those of highest merit and international students. Those of greatest need come from the lowest socio-economic quartile and represent only a small fraction of our current students. We intend to increase their participation by focusing on the recruitment of graduates from proven inner city high schools known as Cristo Rey schools. That target begins to move us away from a “fund bucket” to a specific goal, in this case to increase the participation of Cristo Rey graduates from the current number of 11 to 60 in the next five years. That means we will have to add 12 of these scholarships each year (and there is no permanent funding for the 11 we now have). That will require either an endowment gift that yields the necessary annual support for each student or a “current use” gift that covers the cost of their tuition.

In the past, we would have pursued this goal by engaging only donors capable of making a major gift while relegating our annual fund to filling broad fund buckets with gifts of varying sizes. Now, I am trying to find ways of allowing all donors, no matter what the size of their gift, to designate their gifts to support these students. But how? We could, for instance, make the case for one Cristo Rey student at a time. If our annual goal is 12 new scholarships, our most immediate objective would be to get the necessary funding for the very first by piecing together gifts of all sizes. On-line donors might be able to see icons for 12 Cristo Rey students with the level of funding for each. When the necessary funding for the first was reached, funding for the second could begin. In this way, donors could see how annual gifts could be applied until such time as institutional goals are met. They could see how many students were currently or partially funded and monitor the progress toward supporting the “next student” and reaching the annual goal. If the donor designated $50 or $100 or $1,000 toward the goal, they could see it added to the total and know exactly how they made a difference.

It hasn’t happened yet, but this is where we are headed –no more “fund buckets” but a specific project for every gift and showing every donor how every gift makes a difference and gets us closer to our goal.

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