What if some of our industry’s job churn is rooted in fear? What if the honeymoon is eight months, followed by facing one’s choice, then adapting and committing to reality? What if a gift officer hasn’t learned to “adapt and commit” in order to make a real difference?

Here’s a story illustrating tenacity and the steps of engagement with a potential major donor:

An alumna phoned the boss to identify a classmate who should be asked for a big commitment. This wealthy alumna had given only once, a $5,000 current-use scholarship, some 15 years before. A call report indicated this alum may be racist. But, she resided in my territory. The boss would take over if she shunned me. The alum accepted my visit, with a caveat: “Make sure you’ve read my book by the time we meet.” I did and it gave me a window into her frame of reference. She began with a life of abundance; suffered childhood abandonment and poverty; followed the stock market from age 10; was given money for college by a boss who saw potential; was the first female US Navy captain and was now widowed.

On living room walls of her home were framed photographs of the alumna in glamourous gowns with famous politicians. She looked me up, down, and over, smiled and said, “You’ve got great gams[1].” She was deeply opinionated and asked if I had been abandoned by my mother, too—she felt an affinity for me; was I a Republican like her? I thanked her for her $5,000 gift, to which she exclaimed she’d never been thanked.

Back at the office, I found the archived thank-you letters from the president, dean, and director and sent them to her. From that point on, the alumna and I met every six weeks for several months. Each time, she would say, “I wasn’t thanked for my gift.” Finally, I faced her and said: “There’s something I’m missing here. We, at the College, believe we have thanked you. What is it that you were hoping for?” The alum said, “I’ve funded some 85 scholarships to three institutions over the years and yours is the only one that didn’t thank me.” When I probed more, she explained, “I expected a relationship with the recipient of my scholarship, yet we never met. She never even phoned me.”

My research exposed a flawed stewardship process. The alumna had earned a graduate degree at a men’s university, which had since become co-ed. Her scholarship gift had been administered by the university, not the women’s partner school. And her gift hadn’t met the minimum for customized stewardship. I learned the scholarship awardee’s name and that the help had enabled a brief but satisfying professional career. After graduation, the young woman married a Frenchman, relocated to France and had a toddler. Life was good. When I relayed this information to my alumna, she said, “Now that’s what I wanted to know. Okay. I’m okay now. Thank you.”

The result was a gift of $100. I was grateful and she knew I recognized her test. On a future visit, she asked about my love life. What? As it turned out, she wanted to make sure I found someone who would not take advantage of me. She went on to give the name and contact information of her financial advisor—to make sure I invested properly. She was concerned for my long-term security, my independence. I was stunned.

A few months later, I prepared a seven-figure ask and flew down to meet her. She was in a fit of anger. She threw an official-looking document  at my chest. It was from the President. “What is the meaning of this? Did you draft this for the President? You may have been well meaning, but whoever wrote this four-pager has no idea how to write for a busy professional audience!” All I could say was, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. May I have a moment to read it?” She looked at me hard, to see if I was telling the truth.

I gave her space to vent and calm down. I then asked for $1 million to benefit the library. Her anger flared again and she actually jumped up and down as she yelled at me. She needed a year for her book tour. I smiled. She calmed again and apologized. The timing was wrong, nothing personal.

The President was sure I had over-reached. Months later, I had the opportunity to introduce my alumna to the President, who asked her for $25,000. The alum and I looked at each other and wordlessly agreed to forget the President’s solicitation. She nor I ever mentioned it again.

After 18 months of working with this alum, she phoned me. She wanted to make a cash gift of $1,475,000, along with her papers and Navy uniform. Did I think this would be enough to please the President? My alum actually wanted affirmation that this was a “good gift.”

Lessons: It is important to be authentic and match the pace of the potential giver when it comes to significant commitments. Be nimble, alert, and creative. Stay focused and keep one’s eyes on the goal. Be worthy of trust, of candor in discussing capacity, finances, interests, and philanthropy. The alumna experienced me as a proxy for the President and believed her relationship was with both of us, even though she met the President only once. It is an earned privilege to engage in a gift discussion. The gift should be impactful for the institution and give pleasure to the donor.


[1] ‘Gams’ is 1940s slang for legs.