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.

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