Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reflections From the Field

I had a number of interactions with donors last week which seemed to provide larger lessons about the changing nature of philanthropy.

The first was with a young donor who had pledged a million dollars earlier in the year. The night before I was to meet with him, I read my research brief and was struck once again by how generous a gift it was from one so young. Then I began to wonder, "Is he the youngest person ever to have given a gift of this size to Georgetown?" I sent an e-mail note to my research director asking her to check and, sure enough, he was. That important distinction had not been noted at any previous point. When I sat down to the dinner the next day with that donor, I was able to share the news in the form of a toast. Yes, we have been fortunate enough to receive million dollar gifts from a good number of donors but his gift was unique. Putting it in the perspective of our 220-year history helped him understand just how truly remarkable it was and, therefore, why it was particularly valued. It's important to look for those kinds of distinctions and, if at all possible, celebrate something unique about every major gift, not just lump all of them into one category or giving society. Looking for distinctions within categories -- whether it is the first to give to an important new initiative , the youngest to give at a particular level, giving in proportion to one's means, or giving in someone else's name -- is an important element of effective stewardship and good donor relations.

The second was with a prospect who had become intrigued by a phrase in our President's vision statement --"to produce leaders who make a disproportionate difference in the world." This donor thought that goal was quite important and was considering a million dollar pledge in support of it but he wanted to know how we proposed to identify those potential leaders. He believed that those who would make a disproportionate difference in the world were likely to have overcome
disproportionate adversity or taken on a disproportionate challenge early in life. If we simply looked for the same old criteria -- very good grades, high board scores and evidence of leadership -- we might miss some very unusual talents or late bloomers, he argued. This prospect was seizing on a key element of our vision statement and challenging us to challenge our own assumptions about how we might get there. Being able to say where an institution is going and why is essential to building philanthropic support but, increasingly, we must be prepared to show how we propose to achieve our goals and to consider innovative means of getting there. Every element of a vision must be backed up with a set of specifics to show how that goal is to be reached, and we must be willing to incorporate different ideas from different donors on the best way of achieving it.

The third was a prospect who liked the idea we had put to him, that of underwriting a distinguished speaker series in one of our schools, but he questioned if we really needed the endowment we were asking for. He wanted to see how we came to that number, including how much the school had spent on distinguished speakers in the past two years (including travel, lodging, security, etc.). He suggested we should carefully calculate those annual costs and then ask for an endowment gift that was twenty times that amount not just pull a nice round endowment number out of the air. When I asked the development officer in that school for the supporting budgetary material, he confessed that the proposal was more "concept-based" than "budget-based." My advice to him and to all of us is that all future proposals, especially when we are seeking commitments, must be budget-based.

Our everyday interactions with donors provide any number of insights into where the world is going and how philanthropic patterns are changing. If we listen, respect and adjust, we'll keep up and maybe even stay ahead.

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