Colleges and universities strive to identify that donor who will be so passionate about the mission that he or she is inspired to provide a transformative gift. Some universities refer to these benevolent individuals as unicorn donors, an apt name, as they may be as rare as, or perhaps as elusive as the mythical creature. In 2017, institutions of higher education received more than $1.8 billion from America’s wealthiest donors according to The Chronical of Philanthropy. It is no surprise that the list of top donors to higher education includes Bill and Melinda Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Charles Butt. All made substantial contributions in 2017 to educational institutions. Giving by the wealthiest donors to higher education declined in 2017, primarily because $900 million, given by Penny and Phil Knight in 2016, produced a significant spike that year.
One institution in the Southeast, North Carolina State University announced such a transformative gift for its College of Textiles this past fall. A $28 million gift, from alumnus Frederick “Fred” Eugene Wilson Jr. and the Wilson family will fund an endowment for the College. The College is now known as the Wilson College of Textiles.
As is often the case, this gift did not arise by accident, but through active communication with the donor and a genuine willingness to connect the donor with the opportunities and needs of the institution. Mr. Wilson’s grandson, Rede Wilson, 2016 alumnus, responded to a direct mail appeal six months after graduation with a $1000 gift. When asked why, he said it was because the dean asked him. The dean had been one of Rede’s professors. The development office was quick to connect Rede with his grandfather, who had given $10 million to High Point University. Michael Ward, Senior Director of Development, asked Rede to serve on a young alumni committee and asked his assistance in reconnecting the family. Members of the family became more actively involved in the College and across the campus. Opportunities for engagement included attendance at basketball games and serving as design judges for the senior design contest. As in best practices, a host of NC State and the College of Textile administration, faculty and staff played significant roles. More than a dozen individuals participated in reconnecting the family, writing proposals, researching opportunities and meeting with family members. The Chancellor and Dean were notably front and center in explaining the need, and transformative impact a naming gift could impart.
Michael Ward suggested that there were several key points that outlined the success of this journey:
- Soliciting new grads: The initial solicitation resulted in an unusual gift for a six-month alumnus.
- Recognition by the research team: Realization that this new grad was a part of a generous multi-generational family.
- Reconnecting the family: Assistance was sought from the graduate to engage the family and many members of the family were involved in every step of the process.
- Progressive emphasis on relationship building: Permission was requested every step of the way before invitations were issued to meetings and events.
- An apology for not having stayed in touch: The College acknowledged that it could have done a better job of staying involved with its more successful alumni.
- Involvement of many people across the campus: But most importantly, efforted was planned and coordinated by a seasoned development officer.
- Asking for permission to solicit: Nothing happened by surprise; the donor’s input and desires were instrumental in developing the opportunity and ultimately the solicitation.