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.

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