I am a development officer and spend my working life playing the supplicant to potential donors. As such, friends and family often ask me how I can do what I do. They don’t understand that my job involves one of the highest forms of human manipulation, getting someone to part with significant assets and giving nothing tangible in return, no new car, no shares of eBay, no real estate. It is therefore one of the most challenging of games.
As one might expect, there are tricks of the trade, some more devious than others. Here are some fair warnings gleaned from my career:
If you are invited to go fishing with a development officer or president, think twice. Having a prospect in a boat in the middle of a large body of water is an unfair advantage. The potential donor finds himself with the choice of listening to the solicitor’s pitch, or swimming for it.
If the development officer or president visits you to solicit a gift and leaves his old, ratty raincoat behind, throw it out or have someone deliver it to him immediately. He left it because you didn’t commit to a specific pledge and he is going to call you back tomorrow looking for his raincoat. He will offer to stop by to pick it up, and then re-engage you in conversation about your pledge. One fellow I worked with had eleven such raincoats.
If you are elderly, or infirm, don’t be too surprised to look out your window on a snowy day and see a legion of college students (or perhaps Boy Scouts) shoveling your walks and driveway. The subsequent visit from the development officer is not a coincidence.
Research is the fuel that drives solicitation. Many institutions have FBI-type files for prospective donors, filled with amazingly detailed information. Knowing the likes and dislikes and even the weaknesses of a potential supporter is important.
If you are known to enjoy the company of members of the opposite sex, don’t be surprised that the very attractive administrator is always present when you are at a college function or when someone visits you from the college. And, don’t be surprised that the onion you prefer in your martini is always there rather than an olive. Expect to receive birthday cards from the college president, and maybe an anniversary card or even a sympathy card on the loss of your favorite Labrador retriever.
The Vital Center
If the president or development officer offers to put your name on a building, make sure it isn’t above only one of four doors, or in an interior space. You might also want to ask if the institution has a policy about changing the names on buildings. (One college is famous for hyphenating names. Thus, the Jones building becomes the Jones-Smith Building.)
One Ivy League school I’m familiar with had a prestigious building that needed some renovations. All of a sudden the face of the old building became encased inside an entirely new structure which now bears the name of the new donor.
And, of course, there’s the familiar tactic of creating the Jones Center inside the Smith Building. Find out what exactly a “Center” is and how it will be designated. If a naming opportunity is important to you, create a named endowment. It is very difficult to change the name of an endowment fund.
If development officers are familiar with the principles of economics, it’s generally because of the concept of fungibility. Tracing each dollar contributed to see if it benefits the stated purpose of the gift is difficult if not impossible in many cases. In fact, as savvy donors are well aware, some institutions make a habit of selling projects twice, with each donor thinking he or she is the sole source of funding. The second donor’s funds go into the unrestricted pot for operational support. With everyday operating costs being as high as they are, the institution can always argue, if challenged, that the second grant was needed to pay for overhead.
One particularly egregious incident involved a grant from a government agency and a large private foundation for different aspects of the same research program. Part of the grants overlapped. That overlap was used for the extensive renovations of a dean’s office.
Outright lying is never ethical but in planned giving, sometimes withholding the full truth is best. Why would a development officer tell a potential donor to reserve the option to name alternative charitable beneficiaries in a charitable trust? It goes against the principle of securing the most gifts for the institution. And why give the best advice about a donor’s estate plans if the college might suffer?
Sometimes the deal making and strategy go awry over the assumed friendship of the donor and the development officer. Many true and lasting friendships do in fact develop, but a development officer doesn’t have time to be chums with everyone. Not surprisingly, one can often chart the trajectory of such relationships as follows: The wealthier the prospect, the better the friendship.
Matching the right donor with the right project and the right amount of the gift is the object of almost every development officer and donor. Some of the techniques used by development officers are no different from those employed by enterprising car salespeople. And the ride can be fun if everyone’s eyes are wide open. After all, it is rare in a courtship such as this that both partners are unaware of the games being played.
But beware of the unscrupulous development officer set on making a campaign goal, perhaps for his own advancement or out of a misguided sense of what is best for the institution. His prospects for perverting the system are limited only by his imagination.
Anonymous is head of advancement for an established college on the East Coast.