Veteran fundraiser looks back, ahead

David Ross
David Ross

Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — When David Ross joined the fundraising staff of Duke University in 1966, the school was in the midst of a capital campaign that eventually raised over $100 million, and its fundraising staff totaled 15 to 18 people.

Duke, which now employs roughly 200 fundraising staff, raised nearly $2.36 billion in a seven-year campaign that ended in 2003.

“It’s a much more sophisticated development program, and significant increase in staff devoted to fundraising,” says Ross, who in December closed his consulting firm, Ross Johnston and Kersting, ending a fundraising career that spanned nearly 50 years.

But Ross has not stopped working: He chairs a task force at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill that is charged with raising $4 million to complete a campaign to raise funds for renovation and new construction.

He also is teaming with Duke to write a history of fundraising at the school from 1960 to 2010.

And he hopes to write a book about changes in the fundraising profession.

Ross began his fundraising career in 1962 at Ohio Wesleyan University, his alma mater, before completing his law degree at Duke.

After graduating from law school, he went to work for Duke as assistant director of development.

He held several fundraising roles at Duke before getting the top job, and served in two capital campaigns that raised $105 million and $136 million, respectively.

Ross left Duke in 1979 to work for a fundraising consulting firm based in New York City and, in 1981, formed Ross Johnston and Kersting.

Before closing in December, the firm represented over 200 clients throughout North Carolina and the U.S., many of them colleges and universities, but also health-care institutions, independent and secondary schools, cultural and environmental organizations and other nonprofits.

Locally, for example, the firm represented Duke, N.C. Central University, N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Peace College, as well as Durham Academy and Ravenscroft School, and it helped the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics launch its own fundraising program.

Ross says the biggest changes he has seen in fundraising include ballooning growth in the amount of money organizations raise, and big increases in the size, sophistication and specialization of fundraising staffs.

When Ross joined the Duke fundraising staff, for example, it did not employ a single person full-time to handle planned or deferred gifts.

Today, the planned-giving staff totals roughly half-a-dozen people in Duke’s central development office alone, plus others in the development offices of its medical center and law school.

And in 1978, during an administrative sabbatical in the wake of completing his first capital campaign at Duke, Ross analyzed the fundraising operations at five other institutions, including Cornell, Notre Dame, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania.

He found that each of those schools employed significantly more major-gift officers and researchers than Duke.

As a result, Duke added four positions to its development staff.

Another recent change at colleges and universities has been the emergence of “development services,” an operation that handles a range of functions, such as alumni and donor records, donor relations, prospect management, prospect research and information services.

The fundraising consulting field also has ballooned from only a handful of firms to an industry with national, regional and local firms, many of them employing people who previously worked for colleges, universities and nonprofits.

What has not changed, Ross says, is the core focus for professional fundraisers.

“What they need to be doing, whether the economy is up or down,” he says, “is building strong personal relationships with donors.”

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