Asking for money is right up there with some of the most feared things people do—deal with death, experience a divorce, give a speech—most people say, “I could never do that.”
For the first two-thirds of my career, I rationalized it the same way. “I don’t want to be a university president,” I’d say. “No way I’m going around town with a tin cup in my hand.”
After hearing me say that for the umpteenth time, my wife Lin looked me in the eye. “You’ve been very successful in bringing about positive changes and have written books/articles about university leadership, advising others on strategies to use in changing their organizations. I think you should become a college president.”
Well, I did become a college president and it wasn’t long before I was asking people for money—big money—selling the university, promoting the cause. When I started at Youngstown State University, the institution had experienced a decade of enrollment decline. The budget was $6 million in the red. Most employees didn’t feel good about themselves or the institution. And worse yet, there was a bit of a down-beaten attitude throughout the community.
I had no choice; we had to come up with something new. Obviously, with no track record or money, it wasn’t going to be easy to do. It reminded me of one of my mother’s standard lines, “looks like you’ll have to make a purse out of a sow’s ear.”
I talked it over with Lin. She smiled and said, “You’re the president. You better get started.”
With no fundraising staff or capability, I began my fundraising career. Within months we hired a small staff, three as I recall, then met with advisers and community leaders. The consultants we used recommended we launch a $22 million fundraising campaign in three years.
I laughed to myself knowing we couldn’t wait three years. I still remember when I told my staff we had to have it done in three years. They looked at me like I was some kind of a crazy man.
The first thing I learned about fundraising is you always start at the top, meaning you get the “big hitters” on board first. For us that meant my first ask would be for a million dollar gift. I gulped, having never raised a cent in my life.
I remember walking into the headquarters of the Cafaro Corporation. Mr. Cafaro was sitting behind a huge desk—a cigar box on the left, everything was polished, not a thing out of place. Behind him was the most impressive gallery of celebrities I’d ever seen—US presidents, Frank Sinatra and countless sports legends.
We chatted for a while, Vern my assistant on the left, and Mr. Cafaro’s son, Tony, on the right. I went into high gear, selling the university and praising the Cafaro’s for their commitment to our community. Finally, I was there— it was time to “make the ask!”
Calling upon all of my reserves, I opened my mouth. Nothing came out. Swallowing hard, I continued again building up to “make the ask.” Opening my mouth, once more, I froze—nothing came out. Not to be denied, I started again.
Ten minutes later I said, “Mr. Carafo, the university would be pleased to name the new residential complex for honors students after you and your wife. It will be the hallmark of excellence on our campus.”
We received his million dollars and the same from seven others. Raising over $27 million, we were able to revitalize the university and set a new tone.
I clearly learned when managing a fundraising campaign, if you don’t ASK, you don’t GET. In my first novel, Signature Affair: Love, Lies ans Liaisons, I wrote about Steve Schilling, President of Eastern Arkansas University, learning the techniques of fundraising and how to make the “big ask.” His nervousness was a reflection of how I felt making the real life ask in Mr. Cafaro’s office.
Fundraising can be fun. And, guess what? I loved it. Even now in retirement, I’ll admit, it’s the one thing I miss the most!
For more information about President Steve Schilling click here: Signature Affair by Les Cochran