A quick stroll through my Facebook memories on September 29 reveals that a year ago, I was in Portland, OR. During that trip I met with a 1988 social work graduate. We’ll call her Melissa. It was the first time she’d met with someone from the University. Her most recent gift was $25 in 2009, the one prior to that was $100, the most she’d ever donated to the school. She was rated at the $100,000 level.
There wasn’t much in our database on Melissa, including reliable contact information, so I did my own googling and found her on LinkedIn. She had been in private clinical practice for over 30 years and had recently relocated to Portland, OR. I took a chance and sent her a message though LinkedIn, referencing her move, clinical practice, and inviting her to meet when I was in the area. Within 24 hours she wrote back and agreed to meet.
We met for coffee where I learned she went through a divorce and battled lung cancer while in school. Her health issues required her to miss some of her required field work, but the Field Education team came up with a solution to meet her requirements enabling her to graduate as planned. She got a little teary-eyed and told me it was a painful time of her life to reflect upon. We talked for about an hour and covered a lot of ground. But she made it clear she had limited resources, other philanthropic priorities, and grandchildren to dote on. We had a lovely meeting and while I came away having confirmed Melissa’s capacity rating, wrote in my contact report, “not a prospect at this time.”
Less than a week later, Melissa called me out of the blue. Our meeting had reawaked memories of her days at the school. She remembered how kind and compassionate the dean and faculty had been when she took her medical leave. She wanted to do something to help other students who might be in similar situations. We talked about giving levels and opportunities. The $100,000 endowment figure was too steep and she didn’t want to discuss planned giving, but could do $10,000. This was enough to establish a current use student emergency fund to provide relief funding, administered at the dean’s discretion, to students experiencing life emergencies straining them financially. Melissa made the gift on credit card a few days later before the gift agreement was even finalized.
On January 19, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States in Washington State. Four days later I was back in Portland introducing my dean to Melissa over breakfast on a rainy day. We were concerned about coronavirus reports overseas and wondered when, not if, the virus would be starting its march across the United States. Less than two months later I was working from home as cities across the country shut down.
Like many of you, as businesses closed and job losses increased, words like “unprecedented” and “uncertain” became standard in our donor check-in emails. Scores of fundraisers pivoted to stewardship and cultivation while easing their feet off the solicit gas pedals. On April 21, I reached out to see if Melissa would be open to a Zoom check-in meeting and included an update on four students recently helped through her fund. She emailed me back immediately, clearly moved by the news I’d shared. She surprised me, writing she wanted to discuss an additional gift to the fund. We agreed to meet on April 24. Thirty minutes before our meeting on the 24th, I received an email notification. Melissa had made another gift on her credit card. This time it was $17,000.
Since then, I’ve supplied her with additional updates on students receiving support through her fund and we’ve had another Zoom call with the dean. Sadly, there’s no shortage of School of Social Work students facing financial insecurity right now. Melissa’s gift isn’t providing financial aid, though. It’s covering emergency child care costs. It’s helping put food on the table before unemployment benefits kick in. It’s assisting with a portion of rental expenses so a student can leave a dangerous domestic situation. There’s no way I could have foreseen how a discovery coffee meeting in September with a graduate could be changing the lives of so many six months later. Talk about kismet…wow.
Anyway, if you’re waiting for this story to reveal Melissa has since made a transformative seven or eight figure commitment, I’m sorry to end it there. Maybe someday, though. I continue to cultivate and steward her, and hope to discuss a planned gift soon. For now, though, I’ll continue my discovery work during these uncertain and unprecedented times, looking for the next Melissa.