How asking just a few of the right questions sparked breakthrough philanthropic leadership
Dan Loritz faced unusual challenges in getting his university's largest-ever capital campaign off the ground. Two brief workshops and a strategically focused on-site visit provided the spark. A carefully designed interview quickly surfaced a surprising leadership gift that set the pace for the campaign.
This high-engagement approach let Dan skip the conventional feasibility study and case for support, meet the campaign goal, increase it, and then far surpass the new goal. Take-aways here for institutions large and small.
A roundabout beginning
Our relationship with Dan Loritz, Vice President Emeritus of Hamline University, really began in the pencil drawer of his desk. For years, he’d kept in it a reminder to himself — a clipping from The Raising of Money: “organizations have no needs.”
Then he took the next step and became an early subscriber to The Philanthropic Quest series.
And that led one day to a phone conversation with Jim Lord. Impressed with Dan’s intelligence and curiosity, Jim invited him to a workshop. Dan soon found himself flying all the way from his home in Minnesota to Cambridge University in England.
At Cambridge, Dan stood out in the intimate yet global group — always 100% engaged, sometimes even intense. He was inspired by sharing an interview experience with Michael Bleks (then in the early days of co-founding the first private university in Germany).
Dan could see he was onto something … and the wheels started turning.
A year or so passed and Dan flew to a second workshop in Jacksonville, Florida. This time he wanted to make a case to Jim for doing some work together on the Hamline campus, so he asked for a private meeting with him and Kathy Wells, a consultant studying with Jim.
Now, you might expect someone like Dan to carry with him a list of the university’s top ten funding needs, or maybe his top ten “prospects.” Instead, he pulled out of his breast pocket a list of everything Hamline has going for it — a letter-sized sheet of paper completely covered in the smallest handwriting you can imagine.
“When I'm on campus, the problems seem so real,” he said. “There's always someone going on and on about some urgent need or looming crisis. But when I step off campus, I can see the university as the beacon of hope that it is. And that's the reality I stand in when I meet with people in the community — and try to bring back to campus.”
Dan said he looks at his sheet of paper every day, knowing it takes intentional action to stay true to such confidence and idealism.
Even with all that confidence, Dan wanted support as he readied for the largest campaign in the university’s history. He faced some challenges not every institution encounters: It had been quite a while since their last campaign, so they couldn’t build on recent success. They hadn’t found any obvious candidates for the leadership gift. And their small advancement team had no campaign experience.
Dan made a compelling case, but Jim’s calendar was already too full. So the meeting ended with Jim saying, with regret, “Well Dan, if you can hold off, we’ll see what we can do … but it might be a while.”
Answering the call
Dan ended up waiting close to a year, putting the brakes on Hamline’s campaign so he’d have a chance to start it off right.
At long last, Jim and Kathy were able to call Dan with the good news: They were so compelled by Dan and his ideas, they’d make time for an on-campus visit, as long as it was high-leverage and would provide extreme value to the university.
So the three of them put their heads together and agreed on a brief, focused engagement designed to set the stage for the campaign.
On campus, at last
The design for the service was straightforward: Kathy and Jim would each interview three carefully selected people, using a special “Philanthropic Quest” interview protocol designed to discover what was at the heart of their connection with Hamline’s mission and work, and what their highest hopes were for education and for society.
A few other meetings were on the docket as well — to engage deans and other university leaders — but these six one-on-one, high-stakes relationships were the main event.
One of those interviewed by Kathy was Barney Saunders, the chair of Hamline’s board, the vice chair of the largest privately-held company in the world, and a Harvard alum.
The two spent an intense yet enjoyable time together, a true “conversation of consequence.” The structured interview, plus Kathy’s appreciative presence, gave Barney a chance to articulate fully (for the first time in his life) why he was so devoted to the cause of education — and how that personal “why” might be best expressed through his relationship with Hamline.
After the interview, Barney called Dan. “What was that? What just happened?” Dan had several more conversations with him during the week after Jim and Kathy left campus. Thanks to Dan’s workshop experiences, he was well-prepared to handle those conversations and work with Barney to make meaning of the interview and what it had revealed about Barney’s commitment to Hamline.
After these conversations, Barney made a remarkable observation (one that sadly reflects the experience of all too many philanthropists):
Harvard has asked me, they’ve asked me many times, but always for money. Neither Harvard nor any other organization has ever asked what’s important to me. Hamline University will get all of my money, and Harvard will get no more.
And he meant it, in a big way. Within a week, he had conveyed his first million-dollar gift to Hamline. He went on to make further contributions of such financial and moral significance that he set the pace for the largest capital campaign by far in the university’s history.
So much momentum was created that the university increased the goal and went beyond even that mark. All without the usual feasibility study, case for support, or campaign consultant.
The workshops Dan had attended and the brief visit by Jim and Kathy had delivered the highest-value result: a transformative leadership gift that would set the standard for the entire campaign. At the same time, enough capacity had been built within the university to carry the campaign to an extraordinarily successful conclusion — without the usual complexities most people just assume are “the way things have to be done.”
Why make things more difficult than they have to be?
Applying Jim’s model, we concluded the most successful campaign, by far, in our 150 years. I’m glad this powerful thinking — which was fundamental to our achievement — is now available more widely. I want to see my colleagues in advancement share in this experience of even greater professional success and personal fulfillment.
Emeritus Vice President - University Relations, Hamline University (now Senior Fellow and President, Center for Policy Design, St. Paul, Minnesota)