The Marvel of the Gingham Dress
Don't be deceived by your donor's appearance
" ... if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."
- Henry David Thoreau
I was amazed. It happened the other day with one of my clients, a major university. You'd recognize the name of the school, but that's not what's important. I'll tell you about that in a bit.
It's an extraordinary story. It proves you never know what to expect. In fact, in our field you learn to expect the unexpected. Or better, to seek the unexpected - that's the cream in the fund raising coffee.
SEMINARS FOR FUNDRAISERS 2014
What happened at this university reminded me of something that took place some time ago. At another university. I want to tell you about that first. It's a true story. I haven't changed anything except to put it in my own words.
It begins with a dotty gingham dress. That's what the woman is wearing - and that's what I want you to remember.
With her husband, who's sporting a rumpled, ill-fitting suit, she boards a train in hopes of getting an appointment with the president of Harvard University.
They arrive in Boston and walk all the way to Cambridge. They manage to find the office. The president's secretary takes one look at the pair and decides on the spot that the president wouldn't have time for them. The term gate-keeper hadn't been coined at the time - but the secretary was a gate-keeper to the nth degree.
The couple ask to see the president.
"He's busy all day," the secretary says. Actually she barks the words so severely she expects the couple will be discouraged and go away. But it doesn't seem to put them off. They just sit down and wait.
Realizing after a while that they aren't going to budge, the secretary decides to disturb the president. She thinks perhaps if the president sees them for just a minute or two, they will leave.
"Maybe if you just say 'hello', they'll go away," the gate-keeper says to the president.
You can tell, by just looking at him, that the president isn't pleased about being disturbed. There he sits, a face deeply-lined with dignity and importance and urgency.
As the man and woman are ushered into his office, the president looks at his pocket watch - the signal that he is a busy man with no time for trivial matters and unwelcome visitors.
Remaining stern and seated, the president doesn't get up to greet the couple. In fact he barely looks up.
"Yes?" is the full extent of his welcome.
The man and woman aren't even asked to sit down. They stand in front of that granite face. The woman begins.
"We had a son who attended Harvard for a year and had a wonderful experience. He was very happy here. He was killed in an accident. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him somewhere on the campus."
"My dear madam, if we put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and was killed, the campus would look like a cemetery." As Charles Dickens would say, the president's heart was waterproof.
"No, no. We don't want to erect a monument. We thought we'd like to give a building to Harvard."
It took only one glance from the president at the gingham dress and that worn suit.
"A building! A building, indeed!" He explodes the words. Now the president is losing all of his patience.
"Do you have any idea how much a building at Harvard would cost? Why here on this campus, we have nearly $8 million invested in our buildings?"
There is silence.
The president is pleased at last. Now, finally, they will leave.
Instead, the lady turns to her husband. "Honey, if it only costs $8 million to have all the buildings Harvard has, why don't we just start a university of our own." Her husband nods.
The president looks at them both in bewilderment as he briskly escorts them out of his office.
And Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford walked back to the train station ... and did indeed start their own university.
Focused on the gingham dress, the president wasn't ready for the unexpected. Or as Mark Van Doren said: "The fact that it's difficult to see the signs doesn't mean that they don't exist. The signs are all there to be seen, if we can understand and look for them."
Now let me tell you about Allen Hancock. He's from Eugene, Oregon. He's only 33, and he's a philanthropist. But you wouldn't expect it.
Allen inherited $400,000. Then, he began investing it in stocks and bonds. His net worth is well over $1 million now.
He has dedicated his life to charity. That's where his money goes.
Allen lives in a house co-owned by several people. He owns a car, an old one, but usually prefers riding his bicycle around town. Allen embodies a kind of wild and roaring poetry of the commonplace.
It's hard to believe but even in today's world, he lives on about $15,000 a year. And he gives away twice that amount each year.
Allen spends his time volunteering with a conservation group. And, oh yes, he publishes a quarterly journal offering guidance to rich people.
It's unlikely Allen Hancock would show up on anyone's radar screen ... or electronic research screen. He doesn't live in the right neighborhood and he drives a second-hand car. You wouldn't expect to go to him for a gift.
But because in our business the unexpected happens more often than not, you must be as keen an observer of the unexpected as Sherlock Holmes: "The trouble with you, Watson, is that you see but you do not observe. It is my business to see what others don't expect."
I want you to think of that gingham dress. When you do, you will break the bondage of your conditioned way of thinking and seeing things. Your faculties and talents will come alive.
And then there's Tony Paquin and Kelly McCarthy. They live together near where we're doing a campaign. Combined, they're giving away 40 percent of their net incomes.
"If making money is satisfying," Paquin says, "giving it away is intoxicating. If you have a generous spirit, you feel better. It gives you energy. The stinginess, where you're trying to hold on to everything you have, is what will ultimately kill you."
Paquin calls it intoxicating! I love it! I can understand that - he's experiencing a pentecostal sensation of grace and spiritual empowerment. That's what happens when you give.
But you'd never expect it from Paquin. He's only 29 and gives away about $50,000 a year. There's nothing that would show up in his net worth or his holdings that would indicate significant giving. It's completely unexpected. If he walked into your office, just judging from the way he looks and the clothes he wears (and the earrings!!), you wouldn't be inclined to spend much time with him.
Or take Jessie O'Neill. She's from Milwaukee. Recently she inherited more than $5 million, and she plans on giving it all away. All of it.
"It makes me feel good," she says. She talks about how philanthropy gives her a high and, "once you experience it, you want to keep doing it." There are many syllables in Jessie's existence.
Her best friends are surprised. They wouldn't expect this from Jessie. Nor would any of the organizations that are beneficiaries of her philanthropy. "There was absolutely no history of giving," one executive director told me, whose institution was embraced by one of Jessie's gifts. It was a fund raiser's Valhalla.
Well, I could go on. There are so many stories just like the actual experiences I've described. They are like extraordinary beads on a never-ending string. Our work is forever a glorious weave of an improbable yarn.
But I want to get back to that story I started with. You remember, the one about the major university I work with. It happened just the other day and that's why I'm still feeling the excitement of it all. Aren't there really some days that you agree with Chekhov that life can be terrible, life can be truly marvelous. This was one of the marvelous ones.
We received an e-mail from an alumnus. He says he doesn't want a phone call and he doesn't want a letter. He wants a response by e-mail.
He wants to make a gift for someone, he says, and would like to know what he could give that would be special.
We did what you would do. We raced to our database and looked up his record. He's 33, with not much of a record of giving. Twenty-five dollars here, $50 there, and a high of $100. Certainly nothing to get excited about, but perhaps not any more than you would expect from someone his age.
What would you have done? What kind of a gift would you have suggested? Remember, we can't even chat with him or negotiate. He wants a response by e-mail.
Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher said: "Everyday miracles grow and marvels expand." So we thought, "What the heck. Let's look for a miracle. Let's aim high. We can always come down."
We send an e-mail with some suggestions of gifts for $100,000. The list was actually quite fetching. There were a number of interesting and attractive packages. I was pleased.
He e-mails back. "That's not really what I was thinking about. I was thinking of one of those things you do for faculty members."
We e-mail back: "Do you mean an Endowed Chair?" (Good grief!)
He e-mails back: Yes, that's exactly what I had in mind. (We're reminded that C.S. Lewis said: "Some day, you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.")
We respond. "You don't understand. Here at the university, Endowed Chairs cost $1.5 million each." (We had forgotten the story of the gingham dress.)
He e-mails back that, yes, he understands ... and he wants two chairs. (We're having a crucible experience. The office breaks out in a chorus from H.M.S. Pinafore: Oh Joy! Rapture! Oh bliss beyond compare.) The chairs were to honor two faculty members he felt helped change his life while he was an undergrad at the University.
(I told the development staff not to admit to anyone how we got the gift. Talk about how hard they worked, I advised, and what great cultivation it took, and how persuasive they were in making the sale!)
You're wondering where all of his money came from and why we didn't know about it. Well, the fellow just sold his recent start-up software company for $120 million, and he simply wanted to do something for his two beloved faculty members. There was no way we could have expected this sort of a gift.
And now, dear reader, the gospel lesson. You remember, gospel means: Good News.
We so often seek from the obvious. High net worth, bulging annual income, huge portfolio of stocks and bonds, big property owner. That sort of thing is as easy as finding a bleeding elephant in the snow.
All well and good, and you should be going after those big targets. But go, also, for the unexpected. Be one with Camus to seek, "that last crossroad where thought doesn't hesitate."
That's what it's about, the fun and excitement- the deep discovery, the high adventure, the roaring exhilaration of the unexpected.
Noble Laureate Richard P. Feynman says that his greatest discoveries are a result of looking for the unexpected. "The thing that doesn't seem to fit is the thing I look for and turns out to be the most important. It's the part that doesn't go according to what you expected."
But you don't have to be a Noble Laureate - just remember the gingham dress.
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