For the millions of people reading my blog(or the 19 followers who have subscribed to it so far), let me explain what I do for a living. I’ll start with a story. Sometime in the fall of 2005, a month or so after I had started my job as Oglethorpe University President, I hosted some large university function. I’m not precisely sure of the circumstances, but I suspect it was the fall dinner we do every year to honor our closest friends and most significant donors. Sometime near the end of the evening, I returned to my seat not having eaten anything on my plate (nor been at my seat most of the night) and my wife turned to me and asked: Who are you? Truth be told, Betty asks me lots of questions that I don’t quite understand and even more to which I have no answer. But on that night and for that question, I actually knew what she was asking. She had never known me to pass up a good meal, but that’s not exactly what she was getting at. I had spent the entire evening going over to people whom I barely knew and engaging them in conversation. Behavior she had never seen before. See, I’m not all that social a person. Given the choice of spending an evening home alone reading, writing, working or watching Bolivia play Uruguay in an international soccer match, or attending a social function where I will mix, mingle, and engage, I’m picking home. When I was Vice President at Swarthmore College, our Board of Trustees would arrive three times a year for meetings and at the end of a very long first day of meetings followed by a dinner, our president invited everyone over to his home for coffee, dessert and conversation. In 15 years, I may have gone once or twice, but I’m not even certain of that. Despite Betty’s urgings that I really ought to go, I was done. The day was over. Bolivia and Uruguay were calling.
Hence the “who are you?” question. Well, it turns out I was now the president (and almost seven years later, still am). Part and parcel of that job is engaging everyone I possibly can 24 hours a day in the Oglethorpe story. Would any personality test have ever suggested I was well suited for this job? Doubt it. But that night I had already become completely obsessed with the Oglethorpe story and couldn’t seem to stop sharing it with others. And almost all the time since then, I have enjoyed doing just that. I enjoy talking to people who know something about us. I love talking to those who know close to nothing. The story of a small, southern, Atlanta-based school that provides a truly representative cross-section of Americans (racially and economically diverse) a superlative education that enables them to become leaders in their communities, in their businesses and in their families is a compelling one. And the more I have told the story, the more people wanted to know. Heck, what more could anyone hope for?
People ask me what percent of my job is spent raising money for Oglethorpe. My stock answer has been that a huge part of my job is telling the Oglethorpe story in a way that interests others, draws others to learn more about us, encourages others to send their children here, and yes, entices them to contribute their time and their money to the cause. If that’s fundraising, then I have spent a whole lot of my time doing that. But in terms of sitting across the table from someone and asking them to make a gift of a particular size for a particular thing on a particular date, well then, not so much. Until this past year, anyhow.
Colleges and universities occasionally run these things we call capital campaigns. Every few years, it seems, Harvard runs a successful one for a few billion dollars. I’m sure the money is well spent, even if it is not well-needed. It’s been a long time, though, since Oglethorpe tried to run one of these. If the truth be told, our own house was not in good enough shape to go out and ask people to support us. Today, though, it is and the message we had been hearing of late has turned to something like: It’s your time now. Please come ask us. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to go ask (yes, I am going to try to work those two words into every blog from now on).
Now, I’m here to tell you there’s a whole lot of difference between telling the Oglethorpe story and asking someone at dinner for a million dollars. Is it proper etiquette for make an ask before the waiter arrives? Do I need to wait for coffee to be served? I’ve been at this for a few months now and my conclusion: to heck with etiquette. There’s no good time or bad time to ask someone to support an institution we both love. I’m not the only one asking, to be sure. Many have helped but my favorite co-conspirator is a trustee who herself has made a very large gift. I love watching her. And trust me, while she has more etiquette in her finger nail than I will ever have, she goes right for it. Here’s where I am in the pyramid of givers (that would be near the top) and it sure is lonely there. Want to join me? And by the way, here’s the pen and paper to sign. Bam!
Last spring, Oglethorpe’s Board quietly set a working goal of $45 million dollars for the whole campaign. We’d try to raise this money over six years and even things like an estate gift would count toward the total. While this goal was a very modest one in comparison to most schools, our trustees were still very nervous we would fail. Oglethorpe had never raised this kind of money before. Our entire endowment, after all, was only $20 million dollars. Give it a year, they suggested to me, of trying to see what we might raise and then we will be ready to make a public announcement of a campaign goal. If we need to lower the goal to ensure success, we can do that. That was six months ago. Today I learned Oglethorpe was awarded a Five Million dollar grant from a local foundation for our new campus center project because the leaders of our community believe in what we are doing. This gift represents the largest in the 176-year history of our university. And this wasn’t the first five we had raised for the campaign. We are now just shy of $30 million dollars towards our working goal of $45M with more than five and a half years to go. Sure glad we decided to call it a working goal. Today I thanked Oglethorpe’s faculty and staff for their commitment to our school and our students. Here’s a photo of the banner we just hung outside my office. Lots to be thankful for. Today was a good day for Oglethorpe.