Matching passions

Veteran fundraiser takes on new campaign at Guilford College.

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Having exceeded the goal for the capital campaign at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center with a year still to go, Michael Poston has moved to Guilford College and is gearing up for a campaign that could total $75 million to $100 million.

The campaign would last five to seven years and be Guilford’s biggest ever, with the quiet phase to begin next year and a public kickoff possibly in 2008, says Poston, who in March succeeded the retiring Charlie Patterson as vice president for advancement.

A key strategy, he says, will be to “ratchet up the giving of our constituencies during the campaign, and then try to sustain certain levels of giving, particularly the annual fund, at the higher levels.”

That strategy, he says, depends on paying attention to donors, an approach that reflects the lessons of 30 years as a professional fundraiser.

Poston, who as a kid worked as a shoeshine boy in his father’s barbershop, began his career as a sales rep for Bristol Myers in Fort Wayne, Ind., but soon found he wanted to “do something other than sell deoderant.”

After working at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and University Hospitals of Cleveland at Case Western Reserve University, he helped raise $92 million in a capital campaign for the University of Florida Health Science Center in Gainesville that exceeded its goal by $23 million.

                                       Michael Poston

Job: Vice president for advancement, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C.

Born: Jan. 13, 1950, Wabash, Ind.

Family: Wife, Bonnie, medical librarian. Grown son and daughter.

Education: B.S., education, M.S., higher education, Indiana University.

Career: Allegheny College; University Hospitals of Cleveland at Case Western Reserve University; University of Florida Health Science Center; Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

Reading: “The Devil in the White City,” by Eric Larson.

Hobbies: “Car freak”. Just sold 1984 Buick Riviera convertible.

Favorite movie: Chicago

Self-description: “What they see is what they get.”

And as vice president and associate dean for development and alumni affairs, he led a $200 million campaign at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center that exceeded its goal by $26 million with a year still to go.

Whether selling consumer products or raising charitable dollars, “the psychology is to listen very carefully to what people tell you and don’t tell you,” says Poston, “and try to understand what drives them.”

Effective charitable fundraising focuses on “donative intent,” he says.

“The institution cannot go out and say, ‘We need, we need, we need,’” he says. “You have to go to people and ask them to tell us what your passion is in life. And once we find that passion, we say this is a match with one of our priorities. It’s putting the two passions together.”

That’s a challenge in a business that has grown increasingly intense, he says, with more nonprofits chasing more donors with more to give away who want to be more involved in groups they support.

While board members at some nonprofits have embraced their philanthropic role, he says, leaders at many organizations still are reluctant to ask for money.

“Some volunteers are timid about it,” he says, “and some CEOs are timid about it.”

Key goals in the campaign will be to increase annual giving, now roughly $3 million, and the share of donors, now averaging 19 percent to 21 percent, among the school’s 15,000 alumni.

Another goal will be to work with donors to develop planned gifts using assets that provide income to them or their family members during their lives and then go to Guilford.

“It is essential,” he says, “that you build a pipeline of money to the institution.”

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