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One Of The Best Solicitations That Didn't Yield a Gift--Then

When I was a younger major gifts officer, I had already learned about the power that an endowed chair held. I was determined to try and build the portfolio of chairs for the tertiary care hospital at which I was working.

My knowledge of major gifts was growing but, again, it was early in this aspect of my career. There were few learning resources available, so much of fundraising was based on giving something a try.

I explained the concept of an endowed chair to the very courageous board member who chaired our development committee. Together we decided who we would contact out of the short list of prospects that I advanced, people well known in the community for having a certain level of wealth and a philanthropic spirit. He kindly reached out to the very prominent couple who we chose and set a date to meet at a private club in downtown Pittsburgh.

The day arrived. I had not met this couple previously, but if the board member and I didn't have the experience, we had the dream and we had game.

This physically active couple, very busy, made it clear that they didn't want coffee, water, or anything to eat. In fact, their time was precious. They just wanted to get started. They insisted that we sit down in a private hallway that day enveloped by the remarkable portraits of famous people and historical sites, original Remington sculptures, and lush carpeting--all while the staff was cleaning in the rooms around us. After some small talk and advance comments by the board member, I got started with my presentation.

I have never forgotten what transpired.

During my presentation--every detail of the endowed chair was important and had to be presented then--the husband began to laugh quietly. I stopped and asked him what he was thinking. "Oh, nothing, nothing...please continue." This happened several times and I remember how surrealistic it seemed to me, a young development professional. If I lacked experience, I made up for it in sincerity and determination...I continued hopefully. Passionately.

Discussion ensued.

At the end of my presentation the husband turned to both of us and asked, "How many of these chairs do you have?" We had secured about five by then and he asked who had given them. We told him and he laughed again and said, "These are the wealthiest people in Pittsburgh--what makes you think that I have this type of money?" The conversation continued as we shared our rationale, ways to make a gift, the legacy value, etc. It was clear that the couple felt this was out of their range for the moment.

Well, the meeting was over then. As we made our way to the parking lot, the board member and I lamented our loss, but we still felt it was a good step that we had taken. Our belief was nothing ventured, nothing gained.

That evening I felt disappointed. The next morning one of my trusted staff members came and asked me how the meeting went. After I told her, she said, "Well, you are going to feel better when I tell you this. The husband was at a meeting I attended last night. He didn't know me or where I worked. He regaled everyone with the story of the brave duo who solicited him that day. He laughed and laughed about it--and at the end he said it was one of the best solicitations in which he had ever been involved.

Well, the endowed chair didn't happen then, of course. But just a few years later, when the couple was ready to start a marketing campaign with their business, they got back in touch and over several years made gifts that were worth well over $1 million, benefiting both their business and the organization immensely. Today, twenty years after their first gift, they continue to support this venture.

About ten years after their first gift, the wife called our office and made a new gift of $250,000 to establish a fund in her father's name to support research into a neurological disease that ultimately had taken her father's life. She supported this venture enthusiastically over the years, speaking on behalf of the organization to groups from the community, physicians, medical students, etc. Then just months later she established another fund of a similar amount to support cancer research, named in memory of her mother.

This lovely woman told a oncology physician with whom we were working the story about the road to these gifts. We were together that afternoon. Smiling, she described the meeting at the club. During that first hallway solicitation we had caught their attention, she noted for him. While they were not ready then, they were inching towards some major philanthropic moves. And when the time was right, they knew just how they wanted to approach their next contact with us. She highlighted the progression of gifts they had made and the pride they had in all of them.

She talked about her satisfaction in working with our organization and the outstanding stewardship that she had experienced. As she stood to go, she turned, looked over her shoulder at him, then meaningfully to me, and pronounced: "Now, THAT's development."

I learned multiple lessons from this experience. How about you?


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