Helping hands

Past heroes can help charitable fundraisers connect with donors.

[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

Sometimes the greatest teachers teach things they never thought they would teach.

As a young college president, I learned a number of precious lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Among these was a lesson for my development efforts. I noticed that throughout his life, Dr. King made it a practice never to go on a call alone.

He always brought senior partners on calls, and not just fellow ministers or trustees.

He brought really senior partners like Thomas Jefferson with him.

Martin Luther King Jr., a young Baptist preacher from the South, was trying to induce the rest of the nation to change the way we engage our African-American fellow citizens.

This mission focused on convincing people, sometimes important people, to do things that were hard, even counterintuitive sometimes.

He never walked into that job alone.  He brought Jefferson with him.  He quoted Jefferson:  “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator…”

He brought other Founding Fathers and Biblical notables.  Their stories and quotes situated him and his audience in mutually familiar company.

They created a historical link between this black preacher and the rest of us.

They also added some weight, some legitimacy to his call for equal treatment of blacks and whites, even in the face of substantial resistance.

He called those senior partners’ witness to be present in his own efforts.  He changed minds and hearts.

I found his approach very wise for an inexperienced college president trying to convince important people to make very big gifts.

When making a visit to a donor, I would try to understand the nature of my request, and then find a heroic donor who had responded to a similar request.

For instance, if I wanted a given donor to make a gift that would help make a major change at my college, not just fund a continuing piece of work, I would find a story about a transforming donor and bring him or her with me as the senior partner on the visit along with the trustee or staff support.

I would say something like this: “You have an opportunity to do what Mary Garrett did when President Daniel Coit Gilman came to visit her to ask her to make a gift to the new medical school at Johns Hopkins in the 1880s.”

I would tell the story of the ask, and enable the donor to see herself in a larger historical context.

Most donors can see how the gift we ask of them will help our cause.

We do well, however, to enable them to see how it will help them achieve some measure of immortality, how it will be regarded in the decades to come, and how it fits in with the history of our nation.

In bringing the full story of the gift to Hopkins to the living room of my donor, I can let Mary Garrett’s generosity show in all its splendor and complexity and, in a funny way, actually dwarf the monetary value of the gift itself as its radiating impact on Hopkins, medical education in the nation, and women in the professions shine through across time.

America’s great legacy of generosity deserves to remain a lively part of life.  That can only happen if we bring Mary Garrett, Julius Rosenwald, Charles Pratt, Mary Scripps, Albert Cowles, and Olivia Sage and hundreds of other heroic givers into the living rooms we visit.

We can enable these senior partners of ours to continue being successful as they help us to convince modern-day philanthropists to follow in their footsteps.

Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

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