Megadonors: Large gifts crucial to capital campaign

By Michael Barnes

When Lee Nystrom ’73 met with President Brian Rosenberg two years ago to discuss how “dreadfully outdated” the athletic building was, the former Green Bay Packer proposed an aggressive fundraising campaign to ensure that all Macalester students had access to quality facilities. Rosenberg then asked Nystrom how much money he would contribute.

Nystrom’s answer: $500,000.

It is no surprise that Nystrom, a sales consultant with 30 years experience, is chair of the committee that is trying to raise the rest of the money for the new athletic facility.

In the last two years, Macalester has seen its alumni giving rate rise past 40 percent. That means more than 10,000 former students contribute money to the college every year.

The Annual Fund, which conducts the solicitation operation, will likely raise $3 million this year, a new high. On average, donors gave about $350, and most of the total comes from a large number of contributions at levels of $100, $500 and $1,000.

In a separate space across campus, however, a handful of staff at the Development Office work to solicit gifts from about 100 donors who have the capacity to give at much higher levels. They have already contributed $10 million in individual gifts this year.

Director of Individual Gifts Heather Riddle is in charge of the program that solicits these larger gifts from alumni and others closely related to the college. She describes a fundraising operation that has evolved significantly since 1997, when she first came to work at Macalester.

“I was hired in the middle of the ‘Touch the Future’ [capital] campaign,” Riddle said. “Lots of families were making the biggest commitments they’d ever made.”

The Touch the Future campaign was Macalester’s last attempt to raise money for improvements and repairs to facilities, funding for faculty and scholarship support. The campaign goal of $50 million was met and exceeded. The college recently began a new capital campaign.

When Riddle started at Macalester her assignment was to try and increase the number of alumni who gave, and to increase overall fundraising. She would call alumni and start out by asking for $25.

Today, asking at that level would be a waste of her time.

“If this were the first time I’d ever met you, I’d ask for $1,000—then I’d ask you how that feels,” Riddle explained. “We now have a program that is more of a back and forth conversation.”

The implementation of more aggressive goals and strategies, a trend Riddle has witnessed during her nine years at Macalester, has had a clear effect on total fundraising, according to information provided by the Development Office.

In 1995, the total gifts to Macalester were $4 million, and this year they are expected to reach $13 million, an increase of 225 percent, though not adjusted for inflation.

“Things are going in the right direction, but I’d like them to go faster,” Riddle said.

Four associate directors of individual gifts carry out the bulk of the work, meeting with donors to determine their capacity to give money, and working with those who can give a significant amount to decide when and how much.

Riddle is in the process of hiring two more gift officers, a step that will help bring Macalester closer to the median of our peer schools in terms of fundraising staff.

Having enough staff support is important, because Riddle and her staff stress that this branch of fundraising is about relationships. There are not just 100 donors giving significant gifts to Macalester, but 100 families making an investment in an institution they believe in, Riddle said.

The gifts can either be directed toward the operating fund as annual giving, the endowment, or capital projects, which include renovation and repairs of campus facilities.

Margaret Marvin ’39 spent two years at a local community college before finishing up at Macalester. She now lives in Warroad, Minn., a small town where she began teaching after graduation.

During her time on campus, she endured the effects of the great depression, and described walking to downtown St. Paul to use a library, because it was too costly to take a streetcar, then the predominant mode of transportation. She also struggled to cover the expenses needed to live in a dorm her senior year, after living off-campus.

But despite coming from a modest background, she gave to Macalester soon after becoming an alumna.

“I gave early on, and it was a small gift, but it was something I felt I had to do,” Marvin said. “You get to thinking of all the people along the way who helped you out here and there, and this is a way of giving back.”

Marvin and her husband, who is the honorary chairman of Marvin Windows and Doors, a family business whose headquarters are in Warroad, have given a combined $825,000 since Marvin graduated.

While Marvin contributed gradually more money over the years, some alumni see it as part of a tradition to provide significant financial support to Macalester.

George Mairs ’50 has contributed money to the college since he graduated, part of a family tradition begun by his father and grandfather, who both served on Macalester’s Board of Trustees.

“We’ve had very strong ties with the college over three generations,” Mairs said.

Mairs is a manager of Mairs and Power, a family business and Minnesota’s oldest investment firm under continuous management and ownership. While Mairs asked that the specific amount of his contributions remain undisclosed, he has made several significant gifts to the college, most recently in support of the new athletic center.

“Money after all is the lifeblood of any school, so you certainly can’t ignore that,” Mairs said. “However, the relationships are also important.”

Mairs said he supports Macalester because he believes in the mission of the college and the benefit it offers to students and the surrounding community.

“It’s very important that we support this college because it’s one of the two strongest in the state of Minnesota,” he said. “Macalester is trying to prepare students to become leaders in the local and world community.”

While Mairs builds on a strong family tradition of providing financial support to the college, other big donors are relative newcomers to the group.

Barbara Jabr ’53 had given gifts to Macalester but never anything close to the $500,000 she and her husband recently contributed to help create a Middle Eastern Studies program.

“We are at a time in our lives where we are retired and we, particularly my husband, has invested well,” Jabr said. “Rather than use the money when we are dead, we decided we would give it when [Macalester] needed it most.”

The program Jabr is supporting is similar to a program she and others benefited from in the 1950s.

“[Macalester] is going to have a concentration now that will incorporate Political Science, Economics and History—exactly what we were doing in 1950,” Jabr said.

The program was discontinued several years after Jabr graduated.

Jabr recalled a conversation she had with former Macalester President Mike McPherson, in which she described the Middle Eastern Studies program.

“He said, ‘Yeah, we don’t have that,’ and that was the end of it,” she said.

That was not the reaction Jabr received from Rosenberg. She said that he made clear there was demand and an opportunity to develop the program once more.

“It means a lot to us,” Jabr said. “My husband is Palestinian born and his family has a very long tradition of public service.”

Jabr also recognized that she likely would not have given to Macalester if not for the efforts of staff in the Office of Development. She credits her conversations with a former director of individual gifts as part of the reason she gave.

Kristin Midelfort ’78, the only alumnus who works on Riddle’s individual gifts team, has honed her
conversational skills so that she can convince other alumni like Jabr to make a gift that is both personally satisfying and helpful to the college.

“I’m out there to judge people’s affection for the college as much as I am there to see if they have tons of money,” she said.

Midelfort said she listens closely for a donor’s aspirations.

“I listen for unfulfilled dreams or wishes,” she said. “Not just what they would like to do, but what they missed the chance to do. Sometimes values, sometimes politics, sometimes their deepest connections all feed into what their unfulfilled dreams might be.”

Midelfort spends her time meeting with people who may have the capacity to give at least $50,000 over the next five years. But she is no stranger to money, or asking difficult questions.

“I am absolutely fearless,” she said of asking for money. “And that means giving people enough space to say ‘no.'”

But this does not mean that she loses sight of her overall goal.

“A rule of thumb is that a major gift officer should be able to bring in $1 million a year,” Midelfort said.

For the next several years, the work of the Development Office will be closely shaped by the upcoming capital campaign. So far, $25 million has been raised for the campaign.

The overall goal of the five-year campaign is to raise $150 million, which will finance the construction of the new athletic facility, a renovation of the fine arts center, as well as provide financial support for scholarships, faculty salaries, and new programs. But part of the plan is to use the campaign to boost the level of annual gifts made to the college.

College officials expect that by the end of the campaign the entire fundraising operation at Macalester, including the Annual Fund, should bring in $20 million a year. This amount does not include a number of bequests, or planned gifts, euphemisms for the commitments alumni make to give money after death, Riddle said.

This would be an increase of more than 50 percent over the anticipated 2006 totals, which are expected to reach a record high of $13 million.