Can you share your best fundraising experience?

I’ve been fortunate to have many great fundraising experiences over the years, working with inspired and inspiring donors, development professionals, and volunteer fundraisers. You may be disappointed by my favorite story, though. It’s not about a billion dollar gift, and I’m not even in it. I share it, though, because I found it so moving, and learned a powerful lesson from it.

The story concerns Dick Spangler. At the time, he was in his sixties and president of the University of North Carolina (UNC) system. A highly accomplished individual who distinguished himself both in business and academia, Dick previously had served as chairman of the Bank of North Carolina and chairman of the State Board of Education. He also chaired HBS’ first ever capital campaign.

Dick’s daughter was volunteering at a nursing home, and one day came home with news for him. “Your fourth-grade teacher is a resident there,” she said. “She’s so proud of you.” Dick didn’t recognize the woman’s name, and they went back and forth several times over her possible identity. Dick continued to draw a blank.

Eventually, Dick went to see this woman who claimed to have been his teacher, and he instantly recognized her. (He had been misled by the name his daughter had told him; the former teacher had married in the interim and taken the name of her husband, now deceased.) They had a nice chat, and Dick thought no more of it.

Some weeks later, his daughter came home with more news: “She wants to make a donation to the university.” Contemplating his already crowded schedule, Dick sighed inwardly, but resolved to return to the nursing home to accept what he assumed would be a check for a small amount of money.

He found his former teacher all dressed up with her financial adviser at her side.  The latter handed Dick a check for $1 million. Seeing his dumbfounded expression, the woman explained that she and her husband had accumulated some money over time, but had no children. She wanted to establish a scholarship fund at the UNC School she had attended.

Some years later, when Dick decided to make a legacy gift to UNC, he established a chair at each school in the system—and named the one at her alma mater in her honor.

The main lesson in this story, for me, is about respect. By any measure, Dick Spangler was an important and busy guy, but he took the time to meet with his former teacher a second time. And he later honored her memory with one of his own gifts, to the school they both loved. Being respectful to donors is fundamental for success. Hopefully, it comes naturally, and is reciprocal.

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