In Defense of a $400 Million Gift – A Fundraiser’s Perspective

When Harvard announced that billionaire John Paulson had made a $400 million gift to name the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, you would think that the philanthropic community would applaud such a mega-gift.

Harvard UniversityNo sooner was the gift announced when the blogosphere lit up with criticism over Paulson’s generosity.

Vox.com writer Dylan Matthews – who is a Harvard alum himself, according to his LinkedIn profile – received considerable attention when he started his critical blog post with:

There is a special plaque in philanthropist hell for John Paulson.

Matt Phillips, writing for Quartz, doesn’t so much attack Paulson for the gift as he does large university endowments in general, and Harvard’s in particular, simply stating:

For what it’s worth, Harvard doesn’t really need the money.

without providing any evidence for this statement other than the fact that the university has a large endowment already.

Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough questioned Paulson’s motivation in a piece for InsideHigherEd.com, asking:

But when do the Paulsons of the nation transform the lives of people they may never meet?

implying that Paulson’s gift will have zero impact on Harvard students.  [Dr. Kimbrough also addressed the Paulson gift on his own blog on the Dillard web site, HipHopPrez.]

Most notably, author Malcolm Gladwell ranted against the gift on Twitter. Here’s a sample:

Despite these critics, others have come to Paulson’s defense, citing reasons such as:

Even Vox.com published a rebuttal to Dylan Matthews’ earlier piece, arguing that universities exist for reasons beyond educating students.

All of these are valid defenses of the gift.

My defense comes from a different perspective – that of the fundraiser.

For 11 years of my career, I worked for several non-profit organizations raising major gifts – immediate and deferred, outright or pledged over a period of years.  I never came close to securing a gift as large as Paulson’s, but I have secured seven-figure gifts.

There’s one thing I know about philanthropic gifts of any amount: the decision to give for a particular cause or institution is grounded in emotion, a deep-rooted connection within the heart of the donor to a specific social need, be it education, disease, the environment, health, animals, poverty, religion, or anything else.

When it comes to major gifts, uncovering that connection can take time – many hours of effort on the part of a fundraising team and other members of the organization.

Paulson said that discussion of a gift began two years before it was announced.

Prior to those two years, fundraisers at Harvard cultivated a relationship with Paulson, a 1980 graduate of the business school.

When an “ask” is made, in order for a donor to say yes, that request needs to be for the right amount, at the right time, for the right project, with the right institution.  When those four elements come together – which is not often – it can be magical.

Yes, donors can be swayed by naming opportunities, taxes, or other benefits.  But ultimately, the #1 reason for giving is because of a personal connection to a cause.

Paulson would not have made such a large gift without a deep personal connection to Harvard.  In his words:

There is no question that the support and education I received at Harvard was critical in helping me achieve success in my career.

What’s more, he developed a personal connection to the idea – the vision – of what the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) can be.  Business School Dean Nitrin Nohria and Harvard University President Drew G. Faust sold Paulson on that vision, and he bought in, saying:

Today will mark the beginning of a new center of engineering and sciences.  Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will be transformational for Harvard, for Allston, for Boston, for the East Coast, for the United States, and for the world.

Being associated with that vision clearly appealed to Mr. Paulson.  He is to be commended for his philanthropy.

And the Harvard fundraising team deserve special thanks for their behind-the-scenes role in nurturing the perfect environment for an extraordinary demonstration of personal philanthropy at its best.

Questions or comments? Contact me on Twitter @juanros

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