Wednesday, December 24, 2008

With Faith, In Time

Robert L. McDevitt’s first gift to his alma mater was $5. It came in 1954, 14 years after his graduation. The following year, he doubled the amount and sustained that commitment until 1962. The next year he gave $100 and the year after that, $125. In 1965, he gave his first major gift of $18,000. His annual giving continued to increase -- $200 in 1967, then $600 in 1969 and in 1970, $1,000, a level he sustained through 2006.

In 1971, 31 years after graduation, Mr. McDevitt made a $125,000 pledge, $100,000 of which was in the form of a bequest.

The more he gave, the more attention he received from university officials. He welcomed the visits and suggested to those who came that he would continue to be good to his alma mater but offered no specifics. He ran a successful funeral home business in Binghamton, New York and continued to add to the portfolio of IBM stock he inherited from his mother. University records showed Mr. McDevitt’s wealth was growing but his lifestyle remained unassuming.

The interactions between Mr. McDevitt and his alma mater eventually fell into a pattern. Once a year, a university delegation paid a call to Binghamton. Mr. McDevitt, who had built a chapel in his modest house, asked for a Jesuit in the delegation so that Mass could be celebrated. As time passed, Mr. McDevitt became a bit more specific. He made it clear, upon his death and that of his wife, he would divide his entire estate among his alma mater and other Catholic colleges and charities. He did not say, however, how much would be given to each. When someone attempted to extract a bit more information, he would only say, “Have faith.”

Human nature being what it is, some officials from his alma mater wondered if they might be deluding themselves – if they might be overly optimistic about the size of the estate, especially given the McDevitt’s modest lifestyle, if the annual visits were really making a difference, if Mr. McDevitt, who had become involved in local colleges and institutions, had come to see his alma mater as increasingly less important. It was so hard to tell. All Mr. McDevitt would say was “Have faith.” Presumably, Mr. McDevitt had said the same to the many other organizations he supported.

In September of this year, Mr. McDevitt died. His wife had died earlier in the year. He left the largest portion of his estate, 30 percent, to his alma mater, Georgetown University. The estate, largely in the form of IBM stock, was estimated to be $250 million. Georgetown’s share was $75 million. It was the largest gift received by that University in its 220-year history. Had the economy not contracted so precipitously, the value of Mr. McDevitt’s estate could have been $300 million or more.

All philanthropy-seeking organizations hope for a Mr. McDevitt. They try to discover those with deep philanthropic intent and to devote the necessary time to building a productive and enduring relationship. But the Mr. McDevitts of the world can be quiet and unassuming. There is no way of knowing for certain where our time is best spent but there is much is Mr. McDevitt’s record that is instructive. Far more important than the amount that he gave in any given year was his sustained loyalty over many years. Research shows that the steady, loyal donor who gives modestly is far more likely to leave an estate gift than the very generous but occasional donor. Sometimes the relatively modest amounts given by the loyal donor causes some institutions to overlook them, to say, in effect, “Well, that’s nice but most of my time should be spent with those capable of making major gifts.” But, in fact, time is never better spent than with the loyal donor. If we can encourage young supporters, those in their mid to late twenties, to give for five straight years, the vast majority will continue that habit of giving for the rest of their lives. If we can find ways to sustain the support of our donors for 15 straight years, their probability of making an estate commitment increases by 80 percent.

It is, as Mr. McDevitt would say, a matter of keeping faith, of prizing and nurturing loyalty. What we give over time will be returned in time, often many times over. There’s no perfect strategy, of course. No judgment, analysis, hunch or bet is foolproof – but keeping faith and spending time with our most loyal donors will produce rewarding and sometimes astonishing results.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

High Propensity Prospects

Philanthropy-seeking organizations spend a lot of time trying to find prospects. All too often, they build prospect lists on the basis of financial capacity alone. But being wealthy and being philanthropic are not necessarily one in the same. So, those organizations that chase prospects solely on the basis of wealth find themselves long in the chase, often with disappointing results. Organizations that build prospect lists by looking for those who possess the combination of financial means and philanthropic propensity (which I have explained in an earlier blog post) are invariably more successful.

Is there an even better way? Can we identify those with high philanthropic propensity early in life so we can spend most of our time building relations with those who are most likely to support us? Can we build those relationships in such a way that those with high propensity give increasingly, even without being asked, as they become more financially comfortable?

Well, in higher education, there is one group that I would pay enormous attention to because of their remarkably high propensity to be involved and to give: married alumni. That propensity is even higher if they began dating and got married on campus. It is even more so, if either one or both are legacies, or had siblings or other family members who are also alumni. The more family connections, the deeper the propensity to give. Indeed, the more family connections, the more alma mater seems like an extension of family. Do you know who fits this bill on your prospect lists? Are you paying great attention to them, early and often in their marriage and careers? I hope so.

And is there any way you can particularly cultivate the interests of married alumni? Let’s brainstorm. Do you know the great families of your institution? Do you keep diagrams showing various family connections over time, including in-laws? Do you seek out family archival material of those family for your library? Do you do oral histories of those families? Do you know when a new member of that family enters your admission pool? Do you keep records of those who request to be married in your chapel or somewhere on campus? Upon receipt of a campus wedding request, do you immediately check if the couple has broader or deeper family connections to other alumni? Do you do anything special for alumni when they get married, even a nice note of congratulations from your president or a “two for one” alumni discount on events and activities for the first five years of their marriage (also an extremely important period in cementing ties to one’s alma mater and establishing long-term philanthropic patterns)?

One of the best ways of recognizing the marriage bond and helping cement a couple’s relationship to their alma mater was instituted by Laura Wayland (now working for Georgetown University) when she was at the University of Dayton. Laura created a brief, half hour ceremony over reunion weekend, where married alumni, in unison, renewed their marriage vows, “all the men together; then all the women.” Says Laura, “We called it a ‘Blessing of Married Couples …. Our first year we had approximately 80 couples attend. Each lady got a single white rose and so many couldn’t get their rings off that our priest asked them to hold their hands up… At the end, he asked couples to remain standing” as various anniversaries were called out. “We had two couples married over 70 years. It was quite moving. I still don’t know if it was the exhaustion of the weekend or the ceremony, but I had to step outside as I was overcome with emotions myself.” Who wouldn’t be?

I realize that secular institutions cannot stage single-faith ceremonies but I cite this example to cause us all to think how we can do a much better job of letting our married alumni know that they and their families are very important building blocks in our vision of an ever greater alumni community.

If there are some that you are particularly proud of, please share them with us all.