The art of the ask

DANIEL McCABE | Before the scholarships, before the endowed chairs, before the new buildings or the McGill Institutes for the Study of Canada, comes the ask.

Someone representing McGill sits down with the individual the Development Office has identified as the prospective donor who can make that endowed chair or scholarship happen.

And, depending on how the conversation progresses, the person making the ask might well be on her way to winning McGill a cheque with six or seven figures on it. Or she might have bruised the University's reputation with somebody whose opinion carries a lot of weight.

It's not the kind of meeting you want to screw up.

"There is a lot of groundwork that goes into it before the actual ask," says Vice-Principal (Development and Alumni Relations) Derek Drummond. "You don't just decide one day to turn up in somebody's office. You do a lot of research beforehand and you cultivate a relationship with [the prospective donor] that involves much more than just the money they might have to offer.

"We ask people to sit on committees and to take part in the University. We want them to understand what the issues are at McGill. We might invite them to attend the Faculty of Music's latest opera production

"If you just knock on their door one day, out of the blue and hold out your hand, they'll tell you to bugger off."

Development and Alumni Relations works with a large corps of volunteers -- there are alumni chapters all over the world, for instance.

These are people, typically graduates, who are committed to higher education and who usually have fond memories of McGill. These are also often the people who are in a position -- thanks to their social contacts -- to pass on tips to McGill about prospective donors and their interests.

"That kind of networking is crucial to what we do," says Drummond.

Development officers are attached to each of McGill's faculties, where they work closely with deans in sniffing out any donation possibilities. Drummond and his team are supported by a research department that scans annual reports, press clippings and other documents that could provide clues about who might be willing to give to what.

"We don't dig too deep, the privacy laws in Canada are pretty strict," says Drummond.

"In the U.S., the amount of information available on individuals is unbelievable. It would frighten any Canadian."

What if two or more faculties are interested in the same donor? He might have studied law and made a fortune in the entertainment business. Wouldn't both the faculties of law and arts be interested in looking him up?

Drummond chairs a committee for just such a dilemma.

"It's important we control that. We don't want our deans bumping into each other in the waiting room. We don't want our donors feeling harassed."

Which faculty gets chosen? "Whoever has the best chance of getting the biggest gift."

For their part, prospective donors want fundraisers to do some research before they come calling.

"People who approach me ought to do their homework first," says Heather Reisman, the CEO of Indigo Books and Music. "There are certain causes that I feel a real attachment to and I'm much more likely to be receptive if the ask is related to them."

Reisman likes to support projects that bolster the role women play in the professions, for instance. She recently endowed a nursing chair at the University of Toronto.

Vivienne Poy, a fashion designer who runs the successful Vivienne Poy Enterprises, agrees that fundraisers should take the time to know a little about her. "For instance, I usually support the humanities because they don't generally receive the same kind of support that medicine or engineering does."

The person making the ask is critical.

"People give to people," says Drummond. "They don't give to institutions so much. By extension, people don't give to certain other people. You have to choose carefully.

"By and large they don't give to development officers. We're navigators. We're the people who steer the process."

"It has a huge impact if the person making the ask is someone who is well known as a truly generous person," says Reisman, "as opposed to somebody who just happens to hold a position in a big corporation. Take somebody like [Imasco CEO] Brian Levitt. He is one of the most truly good-hearted people around. If somebody like that is doing the asking, it's inspiring."

Investment portfolio manager David Lank believes universities often make poor choices about who they select to make an ask. He has helped raise funds for everything from massive renovations and additions to the McCord Museum [where he chaired the board of trustees], to the statue of James McGill that has become a landmark of the lower campus.

"It happens again and again. There will be a prospective donor who is in a position to make a very substantial gift and everybody knows it. Somebody inside the university will want to make the ask, because it's prestigious, it will make him look good. But there is a volunteer around, an intimate friend of the donor. The person from the university will get the gift, but the friend could have picked up significantly more. That's the politics of fundraising."

Purdy Crawford, the chair of Imasco, has helped McGill, Mount Allison University and other non-profit institutions raise money for years. He has made many asks, but he doesn't like doing it by himself.

"I have a rule of thumb, I won't make the call unless I have a professor or a dean -- someone closely connected to the project -- with me. There are exceptions, but that is how I prefer to do it."

Crawford is currently helping the Montreal Neurological Institute raise money for its Brain Tumour Research Centre. Dr. David Kaplan, the centre's director, often accompanies Crawford on the ask.

"I take him in, introduce him, sit back and let him do the talking for 20 minutes. Somebody like David has a passion for what the funds are needed for and that passion comes across.

"Some donors won't be happy unless the principal himself visits. They regard that as the top person seeing [the potential gift] as being important enough to take the time to see them about it."

For her part, Poy says the person doing the asking isn't all that consequential. "That doesn't affect me at all," says Poy. "The cause is what's important. And it has to be an institution I already trust."

"I once worked in a campaign with a president who was the world's worst fundraiser," Crawford remembers. "It was always certain that he would say something to annoy the person across the table. In other respects, he was a fine president, but [fundraising] made him nervous. He just didn't feel comfortable doing it." Crawford soon learned to make the asks with someone else instead.

"You have to be pretty aggressive in your ask," says Crawford. "[Former vice-principal (development and alumni relations)] Michael Kiefer taught me that. If you go in asking for $10,000, you might well get it, but if you ask for $100,000, you might get $75,000."

Reisman takes a different view.

"What I find the most disconcerting is when somebody approaches me for a gift -- and I have no apparent history with the institution, the cause or the individual in question -- and they ask for a big, big donation. In a case like that, the size of the pitch is strictly a matter of what they think you can give. I find that very off-putting.

"Sometimes, if the ask hadn't been so large, I might have been willing to do something small as a first step. But when somebody asks you for $1 million, the notion of offering $5,000 instead seems ridiculous."

Adds Poy, "It upsets me if they're too aggressive. Then I don't want to hear from them again."

"Martlet House in no way determines what we raise money for," explains Drummond. "The academics tell us what to raise. We always direct [prospective donors] within those limits. Our priorities are student aid, teaching, research and the libraries. It's hard to fall outside of that."

"The guy who gives does have the right to attach certain strings -- it's his money after all," says Lank. The key factor is, do those strings jibe with the University's academic goals? Lank knows of at least one case where McGill turned down an endowed chair because the University and the donor couldn't agree on the professor who would be named to the chair. "In a case like that, the University should walk away and it will be respected for it."

"I don't think [a donor] should attach strings to a gift," says Poy, who has created fellowships for graduate students at the University of Toronto and entrance scholarships for arts students at McGill. "I would never do that. I'm a firm believer in academic freedom."

But Poy says it is fair to make sure that universities properly use gifts to support the academic objectives they themselves outlined when they solicited the donations. "I'll speak up right away if I sense a problem."

And they shouldn't forget the donor once the money has changed hands.

With the entrance scholarships she created for the University, "McGill has been very good about letting me know who has received it," says Poy. "They keep me up to date. If somebody just takes my money and forgets about me, I'm not going to want to talk to them about anything else."

"There is a continuous flow of information and we tailor that on an individual basis. We spend much more time and money than we did in the past keeping track of things -- donors demand that now. We have to know the answers to all the questions that are raised," says Drummond.

"Professors tend to think of the Development Office as pond scum," observes Lank. "Well, without fundraisers and volunteers, [professors] are totally dependent on the government. If you want those little extras -- that scholarship for your student, that upgrade for your facilities, you're out of luck, buddy."

And as universities continue to contend with the legacy of the massive budget cuts of recent years, you can count on one thing -- there will be a whole lotta asking goin' on.