1:1 with Michael Kiefer
KCI’S “WHAT’S NEXT?” INTERVIEW SERIES – MICHAEL KIEFER
Michael Kiefer has led fundraising operations and raised money at some of North America’s largest and most prestigious post-secondary institutions. He currently serves as Senior Philanthropic Advisor, Presidential Initiatives and Principal Gifts with Dartmouth College, a member of the Ivy League that consistently ranks as one of the world’s greatest academic institutions.
Prior to his appointment at Dartmouth, Michael served for six years as Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Haverford College, and 12 years as Chief Advancement Officer at Amherst College. Under his leadership and cultivation of strong relationships with trustees and principal donors, Amherst College exceeded its fundraising campaign goal by more than 30 percent. He also served more than six years as Vice Principal for Development and Alumni Relations at McGill University. He started his career as a consultant, serving as Communications Director, Campaign Director, and Vice President for Ketchum Canada (now KCI).
I believe the primary driver of giving continues to be emotion, and that’s something we cannot easily quantify and must not forget. Emotional responses to leadership and meaningful connections to people, institutions, ideas, and causes…these motivations trump all else.
Nicole: How would you say fundraising has changed over the years? And in what ways has it stayed the same?
Michael: The first thing that comes to mind is just the magnitude of the sums being raised these days. Another change is the huge increase in the number of gift-supported institutions in the world, and the number of them who have professional fundraising staff. I would also say that the extent to which we rely on data, analytics, metrics, and other forms of measuring institutional or organizational output and fundraising performance has changed a lot.
In my view, leadership is the single most important element in any fundraising initiative, and this has remained a constant. Another thing that remains as true today as it was when I started in this profession is that wealth is not evenly distributed, so successful fundraising efforts depend not on average gifts, but on people giving at levels commensurate with their abilities. Pretty basic, but critically important not to forget!
I would also note that many people from the financial services industry are on our governing boards now. And, more often than not, they are also our top donors. Financial service professionals have brought rigorous financial practices to our institutions and increased attentiveness to the management of the non-profit sector. We can thank these boards for the analytics and business-minded approach that infuses all we do these days in the advancement disciplines. That being said, I believe the primary driver of giving continues to be emotion, and that’s something we cannot easily quantify and must not forget. Emotional responses to leadership and meaningful connections to people, institutions, ideas, and causes…these motivations trump all else, including tax considerations, every time. This, too, is a constant in our work.
Nicole: Talk to me more about your leadership point. What kind of leadership are you referring to? And why do you feel leadership is so important?
Michael: When I began as a consultant in this field, I worked with many gift-supported institutions in education, healthcare, social services, and the arts. In those consulting roles, our most important job was to enlist, engage, and support volunteer leaders who would give at levels commensurate with their abilities, then fearlessly and unapologetically ask others to follow their example. So this is one kind of leadership I’m referring to.
I’m also referring to the internal leadership of gift-supported institutions; the CEOs, Presidents, Executive Directors, etc. They have a very critical role in shaping the vision for the institution and articulating it forcefully and clearly to a wide variety of audiences, and that’s critically important too. I would say that as staff structures have become larger and more sophisticated, roles such as Chief Advancement Officer and Chief Development Officer are also very important in shaping the vision, preparing for broader markets, and leading effective teams.
Is it harder to raise money than it used to be?
Michael has dedicated his entire career to the profession of fundraising and that longevity of practice means that he has a particularly interesting perspective on how fundraising practice has evolved over time. And so, he is the perfect person to ask…
Is it harder to raise money today than it used to be?
Michael: Yes and no. On the one hand, 35 years ago campaigns were rare. People often had established patterns of regular giving to charities, but when a campaign would come along, it was a big deal. You’d have a campaign kick-off event, and everybody in town would come. Now, it’s more like “are you kidding me? Another campaign?” Today, people can be inured to our outreach and are sometimes over-solicited and burnt out from service as volunteers. When that is the case – and we’ve all experienced this – we have to work harder and smarter to get the attention of prospective donors and volunteers.
So, while there are more pockets of significant wealth and people are generally more accustomed to giving and campaigns – which means that we are able to raise sums that were unheard of just a generation or two ago – raising money today is not as straightforward as it used to be.
The first campaign I ever ran was in the early 1980’s. Our client was a hospital in a small town in Ohio, which needed a lead gift of $100,000 to succeed in a $750,000 campaign. The obvious prospect for this gift was the local Whirlpool plant. Whirlpool was by far the largest employer in the hospital’s service area. Our campaign chair – who ran another business in town that supplied parts to Whirlpool – went to see the plant manager, showed them our gift table (pyramid), and asked the plant manager to make the case for being the lead donor to corporate headquarters. It was a pretty straightforward process; there simply were not two $100,000 prospects. We got the gift.
Today the lead gift in a campaign can be hundreds of millions of dollars. The donor is most certainly not a corporation. A compelling leader will present a strong case for support to a prospective donor who has a personal history with and a sense of responsibility for the institution. These are constants. But there is an intensely more complex set of considerations because of the amounts involved, the desire of all contemporary donors to have a demonstrable impact, the expectation of top donors that they will be co-creators of the initiatives they support, the fierce competition for philanthropic dollars, and the stunning fact that we are talking about personal assets.
It is also worth recalling that we used to have to make a case for philanthropy when seeking private support for schools and hospitals and cultural organizations because of the widespread assumption – especially in Canada – that these entities were (and should be) tax funded. We don’t need to do that as much anymore; government funding of non-profits in jurisdictions around the world has dwindled as a percentage of operating and capital budgets.
So, I guess I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier, but rather that the challenges we face are different now than they used to be.
Nicole: Trends and best practices often emerge in the US before they get to Canada. What are the top fundraising trends in the US right now?
Michael: This may not be an emerging trend, but I see a definite rise in sophisticated organizations and institutions doing more segmentation in their constituent relations efforts, and their fundraising. We’re seeing a rise in special interest group fundraising. We are better able to target, say, women or graduates of a certain age or ethnicity, or groups that affiliate with a certain department or team or club. The more sophisticated we get in data gathering, analysis, and manipulation, the more able we are to tease out these unique groups and appeal to them. This is absolutely a result of technological advances.
I’m also super interested in the concept of data protection, which is something we’re talking a lot about at Dartmouth these days. We see our data more and more clearly as a precious asset – something we must build out, use thoughtfully, and protect with great vigilance.
Nicole: We see incredibly large gifts being made to US charities on a regular basis. In your role, you work with donors who make very significant gifts. How would you describe how they approach their philanthropy? What is the ‘why’ of their giving?
Michael: I’d say big donors are motivated first by the desire to have an impact. Donors care about the environment, nurturing leadership for tomorrow, ensuring access to healthcare or higher education for marginalized groups, keeping their nations competitive, and helping to ensure a safer world. Those are high-level kinds of impact they seek.
There are more personal forms of impact too, like ensuring the competitiveness of a beloved institution or fortifying the community that their institution has created for them, their families, and friends. Big donors certainly want to play a role in shaping the initiatives and projects they support. They want to be associated with institutions they believe are important to society and that address pressing world problems. Not a few donors are also motivated by replicating for a new generation the excellent experience they have had.
A donor I recently worked with was thinking of making a large gift and told me that he was struggling to decide how to donate, because he couldn’t figure out “where to plant his flag.” What I think he meant was that he wants to be a high-profile donor who makes an impact at an institution he calls his own in a way that aligns with his own values, beliefs, and desire to make the world a better place.
Nicole: What do we need to know about donors who are able to make transformational level gifts to charities?
Michael: The first and most important thing is each one is different. The relationships we build with these people certainly help advance discussions about giving when we’re having gift discussions. We should always be demonstrating and discussing investment-worthiness with these donors, asking and answering why a gift would make sense for this donor, our students, our faculty, and the world.
Nicole: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the admissions scandal at US universities. What’s your reaction to the practices that have been exposed? How do you and your colleagues at Dartmouth manage admissions issues that involve major donors?
Michael: This particular story is about a few bad actors whose activities are reprehensible. The backdrop is our important worldwide conversation on class and the great disparity in wealth distribution in all corners of the globe. Based on my experience, it most certainly does not reflect a widespread practice. I have been engaged in fundraising for post-secondary institutions for a long time and know that the institutions with which I have been associated are very fair and work very hard to assemble a diverse and representative class each year because that is what a great education demands in our day.
That doesn’t mean that we should not seize this opportunity to double check the integrity of our people, policies, and practices. In creating a superb educational experience, the most important thing we do is assemble great people. One’s classmates are as important as, or more important than, one’s professors, which is why we have such a handmade process of student selection. That process must be above reproach.
Nicole: What do you think are the biggest opportunities open to charities/the sector today? What are the biggest challenges?
Michael: I would say that the biggest challenge is the availability of top volunteer and executive leadership. Every institution needs great leaders, and great leaders are most certainly not a dime a dozen. And the bigger the job, the more daunting (and sometimes off-putting) the challenges for top volunteers and key executives.
I think the biggest opportunity is the vast seas of capital that are available to institutions that build compelling teams, visions, and cases for support. I also think that great opportunity exists in the very real fact that people everywhere are looking to be inspired; we are all grateful when someone invites us to activate our best selves.
Nicole: How are volunteers important to your work in principal gifts?
Michael: Volunteers are very important to me and my colleagues in our principal gift practices. We integrate volunteers into almost every prospect strategy that we develop.
A few years back, I hosted a dinner for high-capacity parents of current students who are in my portfolio. Two trustees made a special trip to campus for this dinner, so these 10 families got a chance to get to know them, ask questions, and spend a pleasant evening together. These trustees have been integrated into a multi-step strategy for each of these families and will play a major role in helping them feel a part of our community and engage with us as volunteers and donors.
In the next couple of weeks, a former board member who is also a campaign volunteer will join me in meeting a significant prospective donor to invite him and his family to make a $5 million gift. This volunteer was instrumental in getting the meeting with this prospective donor, as they have a long history of mutual support and respect for each other. Their children went to Dartmouth together. This volunteer has already made a generous campaign pledge, which sets a good example. Having this volunteer play the lead role in this gift discussion will make a very big difference because, as we know, people give to people, and these two have many different strands of connectedness.
The involvement of this volunteer greatly increases the likelihood not just of an eventual gift, but of a gift commensurate with the prospect’s giving ability. It may seem like common sense – that relationships matter – but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves, because there are just so many professionals in the game now, and we all want to earn our pay and make our reputations. Yes, it’s great if the president of an institution asks you for a donation and, often, big donors only want to deal with the president. And yes, we all know some great professional fundraisers who are “closers.” But there is a qualitative and emotionally significant difference when a donor is engaged by a peer, especially one who is a prominent and respected member of one’s own community or alumni body.
Gift-supported institutions that are intended to exist in perpetuity are not simply businesses. Our horizons are much longer; our notions of productivity and our missions are vastly different.
Nicole: What’s an issue facing the non-profit sector that that isn’t getting enough attention in your opinion?
Michael: Something that is impacting our work that we are not studying as carefully as we might is the impact that a “financial services” mentality is having in the governance of our institutions.
As I noted earlier, we are increasingly engaging volunteer leadership from the financial services sector. They bring a much-appreciated business approach to our institutions – an attentiveness to data, metrics, competitive standing, executive compensation, strategic planning, etc.
We benefit greatly from this expertise. We also benefit significantly from the investment skills and access to top money managers that these leaders bring to the management of our endowments. And we benefit hugely from the many donors who have made great fortunes in the financial services industry. The percentage of top donors in the States, and possibly in Canada as well, who come from the world of finance is huge. In 2003, 10% of the top 50 donors to higher education were from finance. In 2013, this number increased to 36%, and I bet that today it’s over 50%.
We need to celebrate this very significant partnership. Being very careful never to bite the hand that feeds us, we probably also ought to exercise some caution when we call upon the good will of our constituents in the world of finance. I am not talking about institutional finance and fundraising activities (where they are generally amazing partners), but rather in how we talk about who we are, what we do, and how we position our institutions for the future. Gift-supported institutions that are intended to exist in perpetuity are not simply businesses. Our horizons are much longer; our notions of productivity and our missions are vastly different.
Quick Answer (Fun!) Questions
- Where do you look for inspiration?
I get inspired by literature. One of my favourite books of all time is “The Rebel Angels” – a hilarious campus novel by Robertson Davies.
- What was your first experience with “charity” – either giving or receiving?
Giving to the church and church-related causes was very much part of growing up. My father worked in the creative end of advertising and every year was called upon as a volunteer to work on projects with the United Way in Pittsburgh. So we were very conscious of the agencies in our city that benefitted from United Way. As kids, he would sometimes get us to draw pictures for some of the collateral he would design, and that made us feel like we were doing something good for the community.
- How did you become a fundraiser? What was your first fundraising job?
I studied religion. After doing a graduate degree, I wanted to be a writer, so I started in a communications role with a fundraising consulting firm run by a neighbor. I then made the switch to fundraising.
- Why did you stay?
I’ve been able to work with many community and institutional leaders who are eager to address some of the most pressing issues of the world. I feel that the role I play is gratifyingly measurable, which has also made me want to stay.
- What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?
Leadership is the single most important element in successful fundraising.
- What’s the piece of advice you wish you had received?
I grew up in a family that was somewhat cautious about giving. So it took me a long time as a fundraiser to feel unapologetic in my work, to understand that I was truly helping people, and that I had nothing to apologize for. Fundraising for something you believe in is honourable work. I also wish someone had told me early on that long-term commitments are the ones with the biggest pay offs. That’s true in one’s personal life, and it’s equally true professionally. Good things do come to those who put in the time.