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Nonprofits use technology and charm to recruit major donors

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by Nicole Anderson Ellis


There’s been bad news on Wall Street.  The markets are soft.  The dollar is weak.  And in this slumping economic climate, Robert D. Sweeney faces a self-imposed goal of raising $1.25 million dollars a day, every day, for the next three years. 

Sweeney, senior vice president of development and public affairs at the University of Virginia, is at the helm of a $3 billion capital campaign,one of the largest in higher education history. (Yale, Stanford and Cornell are among the handful of schools that have demonstrated more ambition.)  Yet Sweeney’s not worried. 

“Major donors are not generally affected by fluctuations in the market,” he explains.  “Even with the dot-com bubble crash and now the subprime mortgage crisis, the creation of personal wealth has been tremendous.”  And the wealthy have been increasingly generous.  In 1991, the year Sweeney arrived at U.Va., the school raised $50 million.  Last year the
university received gifts totaling $300 million.  “These are not pledges.  This is real live money,” says Sweeney.  “And 1 percent of the donor population gave 82 percent of the gifts.”

U.Va. is not alone in receiving this kind of generosity. Major philanthropic gifts have ballooned across the country in recent years. In 2000, Frank Batten Sr., the retired chairman of Norfolk-based Landmark Communications, gave $60 million to U.Va. That gesture earned him the No. 10 spot among America’s 50 Most Generous Donors, an annual list compiled
by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  Last year Batten gave $100 million to his alma mater, but he dropped to No. 17 on the list.  The top two spots went to billion-dollar donors. 

“A gift of $50 million used to be front page news … nationally,” says Sweeney.  “Now there are a large number of $100 million gifts made every year.  It’s a standard of philanthropy not seen since the days of Carnegie, Rockefeller and the like.”

As Virginia’s wealthiest watch their cups overflow, the development teams at nonprofit organizations are racing to find them, woo them and secure big-ticket gifts.  Much of modern fundraising is the same as it was back when industrialist Andrew Carnegie was preaching his “Gospel of Wealth,” which described the responsibility of the rich to be philanthropic. 
Black-tie events remain central, and a face-to-face pitch still seals the deal.  But a century of technological advances has radically altered the first step of the process.

The search
Securing a major gift begins with deciding whom to ask.  Prospect research software has become standard for locating likely gifts.  With names like WealthPoint and PerfectDonor, these programs mine public records for data on a prospect’s salary, investments, previous charitable giving, organization memberships and purchase of luxury items including
yachts and private planes.  “Online public information allows us to figure out who has the capacity for philanthropy,” says Sweeney.  “It’s an absolute requirement.” 

But traditional methods are still in play.  Word of mouth matters, as do annual reports, the society pages and regional business news. 

At Virginia Commonwealth University’s MCV Foundation in Richmond, the development team headed by senior gift officer Sharon Larkins-Pederson has an enviable head start in its search for donors.  “Most self-identify,” she explains.  When people have positive experiences at VCU Medical Center, they are eager to give back.  “They’ll call up and
say Doctor So-and-so saved my life.  How can I help you?” 

Among these grateful patients are former cardiology patient Kenneth Wright (an Amelia County native who parlayed a single Avis car rental franchise into a nearly $23 million business) and his wife, Dianne (former owner of a successful travel agency and a breast cancer survivor).  “We’ve given back to those who support us,” says Dianne.  The Wrights donated close to $2 million to the foundation last year alone, earning them the honor of VCU’s Individual Philanthropists of the Year. 

Yet even when donors come knocking, development officers face the challenge of nurturing the largest possible gift. 

“It’s called cultivation,” says William Birch Douglass III, a trust and estates lawyer with McGuireWoods in Richmond.  “And it takes many forms.”

The story
Douglass has been a fan of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) since childhood.  “I used to ride my bike over to see the mummy,” he recollects.  As an adult, he became a member and later a major donor.

“When you can afford things you’re interested in you give at high and higher levels,” says Douglass.  In 1995 his status as a donor helped earn him a seat on the museum’s board of directors, and last year Gov. Timothy M. Kaine appointed Douglass to the museum’s board of trustees, a body that Peter Wagner, vice president for development at the VMFA, describes as his best fundraisers.

“On your board you want people of influence and affluence,” says Wagner.  “Is peer pressure a useful tool?  Absolutely.”

But that pressure has to be subtle.  “Invitations to black-tie events,” describes Douglass.  “Or while having dinner with friends you might talk about it.  Nobody’s going to write a check out of the blue sky.” You have to set the stage, he explains.

The bay is the perfect stage for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Its events are more likely to require life vests than cummerbunds, as members are regularly cultivated with canoe trips where heron and river otter punctuate the foundation’s story.

“Depending on the person and their interests, the details and the focus change,” says David Greer, the foundation’s Virginia director of development.  He may highlight the value of restoration (“A single mature oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day”) or educational efforts (CBF brings 40,000 students to the Bay each year).  “But the story is ultimately the same,” says Greer.  “Clean water is a right, not a privilege.”  And it takes money to defend that right.

U.Va.’s story revolves around academic excellence, world-class research and increased public access, but the goal is the same — to inspire generosity. “I tell my staff, there’s no lack of $25 million prospects.  Just a lack of $25 million ideas,” says Sweeney.  “You have to create the link between donor passion and institutional inspiration.  If you make
that connection, the gifts follow.”

But between telling some version of the development story and receiving a major gift, lies a delicate climax.

‘The Ask’
“At some point, I have to make ‘The Ask,’” says Douglass.  Having stood on both sides of the question, he has seen it done poorly and well.  The difference, he says, is “T.A.C.T.” 

“People who are very wealthy know exactly what’s up,” says VCU’s Larkins-Pederson. “Today’s donors are very sophisticated.”  They know they’re being cultivated.  After all, they are asked for money all the time.  Wright says he and his wife get an average of 10 requests for donations a month.  Most come from good causes, notes Dianne Wright, but,
“You can’t support everyone.”

To stand out in that eager crowd, a request must be well-crafted and come from the top.  At U.Va., that often means the involvement of President John T. Casteen III.  At VMFA, which recently wrapped a $171 million campaign to fund the museum’s 165,000-square-foot expansion, the request usually comes from a trustee.

“It’s an absolute necessity,” says Wagner, that the person making the request is also a major donor.  In addition, the pitch must be tailored to the prospect.  “What rings your bells won’t ring mine,” says Wagner.  “My job is to create an appeal where you can’t say no.” 

And lastly, “There is no ‘should.’”  According to Wagner, “If you’re not happy about your gift, I’ve failed.  Truly.” 

The reward
Most of the VFMA’s collection is packed away during construction, but Giovanni Balducci’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” (painted in 1562) remains on display.  It’s a dark scene, in every sense.  In one corner writhes the tortured namesake of the painting. The onlookers on the canvas include a king, some angels, a crowd of second-century Romans and one glaring anachronism; the immortalized face of Balducci’s generous patron and the first duke of Florence, Cardinal Alessandro de’ Medici.

Today’s acknowledgements of financial support come in varied forms.  After a $10.5 million gift from the Wrights, VCU thanked them by putting their names on its new microelectronics lab, the C. Kenneth and Dianne Harris Wright Virginia Microelectronics Consortium. Yet of all the displays of gratitude he and Dianne have received — an engraved silver platter, poster-size thank-you notes, full-page honors in annual reports, etc. — Ken Wright seems most proud of his binder of letters from VCU freshmen who have received scholarships that he and Dianne also fund.  “The Wrights are true philanthropists,” says Larkins-Pederson.  “They do it because of their love of this community.”

After 35 years in development, Sweeney has noticed certain patterns of generosity among Virginia’s well-heeled.  “As they gain more personal wealth they move beyond the elements wealth can bring — all the toys — and they move into what I call self-realization.  How can they use their wealth to make the world a better place?  They get great energy out of giving,” says Sweeney.  “The gift becomes one of the most pleasurable experiences of their lifetime.” 


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