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In Search of Excellence for Development

In the 80’s and 90’s, Tom Peters’ books on excellence were enormously popular—In Search of Excellence, A Passion for Excellence, The Little Big Things, and many more. I took a great deal from these books, but there was one idea that stuck in my mind: Quality involves living the message of the possibility of perfection and infinite improvement, living it day in and day out, decade by decade.


This idea is a guidepost for development officers who want to be a star in their own offices or across a department or across national organizations. It also provides direction for those who are working on campaigns or even single gifts for a unique initiative.


One of the most thoughtful and incisive leaders with whom I had a chance to work in my career was Dr. Ronald Herberman, Founder of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and Director for a quarter of a century. Dr. Herberman, without ever realizing it, followed the quote above to the letter of the law. He believed that if you do the right thing every day—putting forth honesty and commitment—good things will return to you. He was right. Not only for the organization, but for one’s self.


Dr. Herberman

Because Dr. Herberman believed these things and took them to heart, he won the admiration of the entire development team as well as our ever-growing body of donors. Development was important to him because he knew it would help the research teams and that would ultimately help patients throughout the community and beyond. He always went the extra step in everything and in that context, early in our relationship, we agreed to examine each of our solicitations and all of our plans regularly and candidly. In other words, we set learning goals.


The following are some of the ways Dr. Herberman lived the possibility of perfection and infinite improvement:

  • Dr. Herberman never took “no” for an answer. Once we asked a prospect who was in remission for $1,000,000. The prospect, a senior industry leader, noted that he only gave money to Christian charities. Dr. Herberman leaned in and said, “Well, you can’t get much more Christian than when you have been diagnosed with cancer.” The executive was so surprised he went back in his chair, speechless. For me it was a cringe-worthy moment, to be sure. Yet, with this comment, he caught the executive’s attention and, through cultivation and stewardship, today that executive has made gifts in excess of $1,000,000, and equally important, has become a quiet and remarkable volunteer, often speaking at events and counseling patients. While not everyone would ultimately respond to such a request, the executive over time learned that Dr. Herberman only wanted the best for the mission, and he admired that.

  • Clearly, persistence is key to development success—always keeping an eye on the goal and taking daily, productive steps to reach that goal. Even when an idea doesn’t work, trying it again in a different way. One of the early members of the cancer center council was Arnold Palmer. Clearly Dr. Herberman was in awe of him (who wasn’t?), but Mr. Palmer was also in awe of Dr. Herberman. After multiple attempts to meet with him, Dr. Herberman placed a call to Mr. Palmer and we went to see him. Ever gracious, Mr. Palmer agreed to make a gift to establish the Arnold Palmer Endowed Chair in Cancer Prevention; this was one of the first public gifts that Mr. Palmer had made and I know he made it because Dr. Herberman asked him and told him it was important. Ever true to his word, Dr. Herberman ensured that outstanding environmental specialists held the chair throughout his tenure.

  • Teamwork was essential to him. Dr. Herberman was available every day to answer questions or talk about a strategy…while he was leading a major organization, he still took the time to give his input or discuss what he wanted. He would respond late at night or early in the morning. He reviewed proposals, discussed next scientific steps, wanted to know all about the donors—he wanted to ensure that not only would they be donors, but friends. One day he was traveling and did get exasperated when I called again for a decision on a proposal, noting for me: “Please, it is the middle of the night here and I am reading the proposal on my blackberry!” And 10 minutes later he sent his changes.

  • Reliability is also a key component to development success—not only does the development officer have to be reliable, but the organization’s leader also has to ensure his/her reliability for the mission. This means that development officers have to be armed with all the information necessary for the donors and, if they don’t have it, they have to promise to get answers promptly and accurately. Development officers must ensure that their expertise is undeniable. Dr. Herberman never hesitated to call physicians at the cancer center to gather input for friends, prospects and donors who had just been diagnosed or needed input on a new treatment.

  • Dr. Herberman insisted that we fill the white space in our organization with new ideas—whether they worked or not. (Of course, he wanted all assurances that the ideas would work.) But for the years we were together, I never saw him “punish” a well-intentioned employee who was trying to do the right thing. Even if they colored outside the lines on certain administrative practices—in fact, he often relished these ideas as some of the most important next organizational steps, providing the ability for the organization to respond differently and in a more strategic way the next time around.

Ron Herberman was a remarkable man who taught many people a great deal over the course of his career. And he remained supportive of those in whom he believed, while ensuring that he moved the mission forward. While he searched for excellence on a daily basis with a very prescribed approach, he practiced day to day with respect for his colleagues, with pride in their achievements, and with kindness to all. Dr. Herberman appreciated the goals that were reached, but he never rested on any laurels or let anyone else do that--tomorrow was another day and there was much to accomplish for our patients.


Dr. Herberman was an inspiration for me, and I hope you also will find his example to be inspiring.

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