The Human Equation: Fitting Donors to Fundraisers

From Thalian Hall to the University to its many museums, the Wilmington area has an abundance of cultural institutions. Which means it also has an abundance of fundraising campaigns, focused on keeping those organizations afloat. WHQR's Megan Williams looked into the human equation behind the bottom line...

Wilmington, NC – A disclaimer to start with: as a non-profit, WHQR participates in the same world of fundraising this story describes. Although the station can't boast of anything on the scale of this first example: Herbert Fisher. Fisher is giving UNCW two million dollars for its new student center. Although he'd given the university much smaller amounts in the past, when they approached him about sponsoring the building, it only took Fisher a weekend to make up his mind. It wasn't the money he says he thought about, but, "wouldn't it be wonderful to rejuvenate the Varsity?"

The Varsity was an unofficial student union Fisher once ran next to what was then Wilmington College. The new student center's caf? will display the Varsity's name and memorabilia. It's no accident Fisher is attached to a project that suits him so well. The University's Chancellor herself made the pitch.

"She had read the background of my history and she asked me to come and tour the building," Fisher recalls. "She said, 'we would like very much to name the caf? in the student center, we would like to call it the Varsity.'"

Fisher's story illustrates what fundraisers say is the first principle their job: relationships.

University development director Chris Clapp helped cultivate Fisher's donation. Wilmington has at least four multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns going on right now, so it's vital that organizations offer donors something they can connect with. Part of Clapp's job is figuring out what that is, whether it's a blast from the past, or a front row seat for scientific advancement.

"Lot of times, we'll go to those faculty and actually have donors meet with them, talk, see the research. We have a gentleman now who's established research program for arsenic. And he is meeting with the faculty members to find out what they're doing."

But there's a fine line for an organization between cultivating a donor, and becoming a hostage to their interests. Mebane Boyd, who's heading the endowment campaign for the Cameron At Museum, says the offers can be tempting: "It's easy to let happen, if someone says, 'well, I'll give you this much money if you hold this exhibition.' I think it's important not to let that drive the mission, and the plans for organization."

Instead, Boyd says, the hard work is seeking out donors who fit the organization's needs. Tony Janson recently donated roughly $200,000 to the Cameron. Actually, the way Janson tells it, the gift is from his wife, Helen. She told him that if he sold their house after she died, he should give the money back to the community they'd both enjoyed.

Janson's been involved with the Cameron for years, but he postponed making the donation for several months, in part to find out if he liked the leadership of its new director, Deborah Velders. Sitting outside the garage apartment he now occupies, Janson says it's a donor's responsibility to know how their gift will be used.

"I mean you wouldn't go to broker who absconded with half of your funds without you realizing it. And the same thing with institution, you have to feel that there is a basic level of honesty and trust that things will be done right."

Janson donated his money to the museum in the form of a challenge to encourage matching contributions. It's a common technique to create momentum in a fundraising campaign. In this case, Janson's challenge was met rather swiftly, by the announcement of the Bruce Cameron Foundation's own, record-setting, 10-million dollar challenge. Indeed, donors are often an organization's best fundraisers. The Cameron's Mebane Boyd says she's not just looking for people who can make a gift, "but who also are willing to share fact that, 'hey, I care so much about this museum, that I want to encourage you to do the same'"

In the end, Boyd says, when it comes to the complex motivations behind any major gift, what counts are the stories: the ones she tells about her organization to win over donors, and the ones they tell her about why they give.

Megan Williams, WHQR News

Support for local arts and cultural programming comes from WHQR members, and Landfall Foundation, an organization of residents who support projects enhancing health, education and the arts in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender Counties.