Fundraise Smarter

What The Harvard Mega Donation Teaches Us About Major Gifts

Posted by Andrew Littlefield on Jun 18, 2015 12:22:00 PM

Find me on:


If you’ve kept an eye on the news lately, you’ve likely heard about the recent mega gift to Harvard University courtesy of John Paulson totaling $400 million.

Four. Hundred. Million. $400,000,000. A four with eight zeros after it.

He must have really small handwriting to be able to fit that on a check…

There’s been no shortage of opinions on the gift. In fact, in my Google Alert file I keep on major gifts, I saw one headline that read “Essay urges people to applaud Harvard's fund-raising success” and right below it another one that read “Essay criticizes the $400 million gift to Harvard.”

Everyone has something to say, and a lot of it is very compelling.

But aside from the Should-He/Shouldn’t-He debate, there are lessons to be learned for fundraisers.

The team behind that nine-figure gift is never mentioned in the articles, but I imagine those fundraisers are feeling pretty good right now.

So what lessons can we learn from this Moby Dick of a donation?

1. It Ain’t About the Ego

It’s tempting to look at the size of the gift and the institution to which it was given and write it off as an ego-stroking act meant to show-off amongst the circle of the ultra-wealthy.

But man oh man, that would be one helluva ego.

Paulson’s $400M gift accounts for over 3.5% of his entire net worth. That’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s very likely that most of his net worth is tied up in investments, making the size of his gift in relation to his liquid assets more impressive.

This was a give-till-it-hurts kind of situation.

Now, don't go feeling bad for old John, he'll be alright, but I doubt this was made as an ego trip.

Experience from fundraisers supports the idea that it’s not about the ego, but truly is about the outcomes. Major donors aren't as concerned with buildings being named after them as they are about the outcomes.

You can be cynical if you like, but I doubt the pitch from the fundraising team was “Just think what the boys at the country club will say.”

Hiring Major Gift Officers

2. Relatability Matters

So why did Paulson give to Harvard, with its $32.7 billion endowment? Why not a more deserving school? Or even one in his hometown? He's one smart dude, who has surely been pitched by countless nonprofits for major gifts. I'm sure he understands the need elsewhere. Why Harvard?

Because relatability matters.

People give for all sorts of reasons, but it usually boils down to their emotions. And two powerful emotional drivers for giving are empathy and nostalgia.

Universities dominate the major gift landscape, and those two emotions likely play a large role in that. It’s easy for someone like Paulson to empathize with college students (even at a wealthy university) because he’s been there. He wants the students there to have the best of the best.

A person’s college years typically elicit strong nostalgic feelings as well. It’s easy to look back at those years fondly and tie a person’s present day success to their education. That’s a powerful motivator for giving.

That being said...

3. Don’t Assume You Know A Donor’s Wishes

Paulson graduated from Harvard’s Business School and has been firmly entrenched in the business world since then.

But that’s not where his gift is going.

Paulson has elected to make his gift towards the college of engineering. That decision was not made lightly, I’m sure. At some point in his career, Paulson decided that engineering is important and something he wants to support.

It’d be easy for the fundraisers to assume that he wanted to support the college he attended, but it would appear that they had deep discussions with him to pinpoint exactly what he connected with, then created a plan to make that support happen.

4. It Took Time

Paulson graduated in 1980, 35 years ago. It might sound like a “Duh!” statement, but major gifts don’t happen overnight. I’d imagine that the conversations with him started years or even decades ago.

The size of that gift, the place it went to, the timing; none of that was an accident. This was undoubtedly a gift that was planned and cultivated for a long time, by all parties involved.

Opinions aside, you've got to respect the hustle.

No matter what your thoughts are on whether this mega-gift was a good idea or even good for society, there’s no denying that it’s a big win for the development team at Harvard. The lessons on display can serve to help other universities and organizations target potential donors and build relationships that lead to program changing donations such as this.

Hiring Major Gift Officers

Image credit: Flickr user angela n. CC BY 2.0

Topics: Major Gifts, major gift fundraising, major gift prospecting

Follow WeDidIt

Popular Posts