Sunday, April 26, 2009

What Donors Give To and What They Give For

I have long been an advocate of listening to prospective donors, of trying to ascertain where their interests and passions lie, then seeking to find where those interests align with an institution's strategic objectives. In other words, the most enlightened philanthropy-seeking organizations don't just plan and present finished project ideas to prospects; they share early stage concepts and allow them to be shaped by donors or they consider the project ideas offered by would-be donors to see if they can dovetail with the institution's purposes. Successful philanthropic campaigns allow donors to not only give to, but through, an institution to achieve a larger societal gain or to find a way to honor others.

About 15 years ago, when I was at Georgia Tech, the Institute received an anonymous $10 million dollar gift to name the business school for Ivan Allen, the former mayor of Atlanta. Everyone assumed the gift was to acknowledge Allen's leadership during the civil rights movement. After all, Allen was the first white mayor in the deep south to come out in favor of the civil rights legislation thereby putting his political career in jeopardy and causing himself to be ostracized by many of his social peers. He had also demonstrated great courage in quelling a mob on the verge of riot and by putting himself in many difficult situations.

But the donor gave to honor Allen for another reason. When the donor had first arrived as a student on the Georgia Tech campus at tender age of 17, he found himself in strange world. Shy and awkward, and from a very modest, rural background, he had little to his name, only a few shirts and a single pair of pants. He noticed that other boys (and it was still an all-male campus then) were better off, better dressed and possessed of greater social ease. He became increasingly self-conscious and lonely, wondering if he would ever belong. But before long, he was befriended and quite sincerely by a handsome, outgoing young man, one of the most popular fellows on campus. The handsome extrovert seemed to notice no differences between them and began inviting the diffident country boy to campus gatherings, sporting events, and social activities. They became friends and the country boy began to feel at home. The more comfortable he became, the more he excelled in rigorous engineering classes. After graduation, he found he had the technical mastery and boldness to become a highly successful entrepreneur. He saw the power of radio and bought a station, and then another, and another until he had amassed an empire. But, for all that he accomplished, he never forgot where he came from; he never failed to be grateful to the university that developed his abilities or the handsome young man that made him feel so at home. He watched his friend, Ivan Allen, go on to a great business career, and then a political one. When both were in the late 70s, the radio magnate decided to name the business school for his friend and to keep his identity forever concealed, to do something entirely selfless in the name of someone who had given him, so selflessly, so many years before.

Throughout my career, I have been privileged to see similar magnanimous acts -- widows who gave not only in their husbands' memories but in such a way to keep faith with their ideals and aspirations, business leaders who gave to honor a mentor or partner, and entrepreneurs who, having found backing for their early ideas, used their capital at the height of their success to back the ideas or the budding entrepreneurship of others. I learned that it was wise to be well-versed in the capabilities and ambitions of the organization I represented, wiser still to take the time to carefully listen to the hopes and dreams of those who might give to it. I came to realize that my job was not to convince others to give to my organization but to find ways that my organization would allow them give back to people that had made a difference in their lives or to show them how my organization would allow them to use philanthropy to extend the meaning and purpose of their lives to others, to, in effect, allow their life's work or life's passion to live on, in their name or the names of those that had given so much meaning to their lives.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sound Advice

In a recent issue of BusinessWeek, the president of Babson College offered some sound advice: >

In one of his key points, he calls for institutions of higher learning to deepen and redefine their relationships with their alumni during these difficult times. Indeed. Those institutional leaders who use the present financial difficulties as a reason or excuse to reduce their interactions with alumni will, in effect, be saying, "Our relationship with you is based on your ability to give to us. If you can't give, don't expect to hear from us." The consequences of such decisions could be highly detrimental and long-lasting.

Now is the time to listen more and ask less. In fact, those institutions that ask too much or too frequently run a greater risk of losing support, according to recent research conducted by Penelope Burk of Cygnus. Now we should be asking what we can do for those who have done so much for us.

Georgetown, like many other colleges and universities, has a large alumni contingent in New York City. As the credit crises began to unfold and financial institutions began to totter, our alumni association rushed to provide additional career counseling to alumni in that area. The more our alumni responded, the more sessions we provided. But we still had a difficult decision to face. Our largest and most important annual alumni gathering, the John Carroll Weekend, was scheduled to be staged in New York in a matter of months. Alumni chapters, much like cities in pursuit of an Olympic bid, compete to host and stage the event. New York had won the bid for this year but the decision was made two years earlier when the markets were running high and the world seemed so different. But now, New York was reeling.

Since the John Carroll event is very expensive to stage, we had to ask ourselves hard questions. Should we incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense knowing that fewer alumni would have the ability to pay? Should we cut back on the event, do something more bare bones over a shorter period of time? Should we just accept the fact that we would have to eat more of the costs even as our budget was being cut? We turned these and many other questions over and over in our discussions and finally decided that our alumni needed us to be there more than ever before, that we must keep faith with our commitments to them. We decided to do what we thought was right and to accept the financial consequence.

We knew we would have to more creative and cost-conscious than ever before in planning the event. We brainstormed about interesting programs, speakers and events. We decided not to charge one fee for events and activities but to allow our alumni, parents and friends to choose from a range of possibilities, to buy a la carte. We put together a great program, at least it seemed so on paper, then publicized it to our alumni and began waiting nervously for the response. It was immediate and strong. Registrations began pouring in.

We will hold that event this week in New York. Registrations are still coming in but we have set a record for attendance. In fact, we have more than doubled the previous record for attendance. The large number of registrations and sponsorships have covered all our costs. This will be the largest and most successful 0ff-campus gathering of alumni in the University's 220-year history. It could not have come at a better time. As our financial fortunes have fallen, we have become a stronger community.

The reasons for this success are many but the most important was the most basic -- our decision that this was the time to emphasize community building. This was the time to reach out, to communicate and commiserate, to be frank about where we find ourselves today but hopeful about where we want to be tomorrow. In that sense, what is in many ways the worst of times may prove, years and years from now, the best of times in building a stronger foundation for future achievement and service.