top of page

The Best Development Advice I Ever Got

I live in Pittsburgh and over the course of its history it has been home to many of the major foundations and industries in the US.

I had the good fortune when I was getting started in development to work with one of those titans of industry, Henry L. Hillman. He was a major influence in Pittsburgh philanthropy and it was also a pleasure to spend time with this gracious man who knew so much, enjoyed the pleasure of other people's company, and added humor to everything he did.

One day I was with him when he told me a very funny story about his own early years of fundraising. During this story his mind was really back at the scene, he was watching himself and the other players in the story:

One of the area universities asked him to visit a very wealthy woman, one who Mr. Hillman really respected. He was to ask her for $10 million for a particular project. He was so humorous as he talked about getting ready for this meeting and how nervous he was. When he went to her home, he told her about the project, then gulped out the amount he was requesting. It was the first time he had ever said those words in such a context. She laughed and she said, Henry, I am not very interested in that project, but I will give you $12 million for this project, which she then described. He told her he would have to ask the university if this would be ok. She laughed again and said, Henry, I am sure that they will be very pleased. He really enjoyed this story and laughed while remembering it, and, of course, he said, the University was really pleased.

As he recalled how he got ready for this meeting, he gave me the best advice that I have ever gotten. He said, Gayle, I want you to remember something. Each and every time you ask for a gift, you are not asking for yourself. It's not for your salary, it's not for your education. Don't be shy about articulating the amount of money. You are asking for your organization, a mission you believe in. Take the leap and ask.

I have never forgotten that. Over the course of my career I have asked for many gifts, both large and small. I must admit that no matter when I ask I always practice saying the number as if I am in the middle of the meeting, and, during the actual meeting, I never flinch. I always envision that day with Mr. Hillman and I have always had the courage he gave me.

That conversation actually saved me one night when I was attending a conference in Station Square in Pittsburgh. I ran into a foundation president and he asked me if I had time to talk. Of course, I said. We had a proposal in front of the foundation then, a request for $1.5 million, the "price" for naming an endowed chair at the time. Again, I was very young in the development field. He surprised me by asking me if they could reduce that amount to $1 million which they could more easily give at the time. Remembering Mr. Hillman I said I was sorry, but we could not accept the $1 million. If we started there, all of the endowed chairs we planned to request for our future research program would be lower then expected and we could not afford to start our campaign at such a level. (After all, we had dreams.)

Ok, he said. OK what, I wondered. We soon got our answer as he called our CEO the following week and gave $1.5 million for the endowed chair. That really got us started and we were able to effectively add many more with that model in mind. Sticking to your guns is also very critical at times.

Early mentors are so important in our lives and I was so richly blessed in my career to have some of the best one could imagine. Believe me, I thank my lucky stars many times and I sent as many thanks to these individuals as I could while they were alive and I try to be in touch frequently with all of those with whom I continue to talk. Development means reaching for the stars on your projects and campaigns and I still consider all of these mentors to be with me every day in that quest for excellence.

How about you? Did you get some good advice? Willing to share it?


bottom of page