Cultivating a large donation

A group photo of the team that made the $18 million gift possible and some of the students who will benefit from it. (Photo: LLCC)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.​

Listening, teamwork, building a relationship and trust are key in cultivating a large donation. Charlotte Warren, president of Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) in Springfield, Ill., and Karen Sanders, executive director of the LLCC Foundation, talk about a recent $18 million gift, how you never know the potential of a donor, and why each gift, no matter the size, is important.

How did the $18 million gift come about?

Sanders: This was a seven-year process from the time we met the donor to the receipt of the gift, but the relationship actually began years before. The donor had established a scholarship with our foundation. It was a modest scholarship, designated for a student with a specific major (agriculture), from a specific county in our district, and the donor wished to remain anonymous. We simply met the donor’s intent in awarding the scholarship, and we cultivated a relationship with her, as we strive to do with all donors.

We send written acknowledgments for every gift within 48 hours. We acknowledge birthdays, holidays, illnesses and deaths with cards, flowers, phone calls, personal notes from students –  however the donors wish to be acknowledged. We learn this by listening to our donors. Listening is key to building effective relationships. Never judge anyone’s potential ability to make a major gift or make assumptions about people based on apparel, appearance or demeanor.

Warren: We are truly grateful for every person who walks in our door and wants to help our students, and we convey this gratitude. We realize now that this donor was pleased with how we handled her scholarship funds. This was an “audition” of sorts for a much larger gift. You have no idea what a donor’s potential may be.

In this case, we were contacted by a financial advisor who said his client, a farm widow, wanted to come to campus for a private meeting to talk about a substantial gift to our agriculture department. We arranged for the meeting to occur the day before Thanksgiving, when campus was closed, to ensure privacy for her. We also invited agriculture program representatives to attend.

We had a very cordial meeting, telling them about our college’s mission of affordable, accessible education for students and specifics about our agriculture program. We also gave them a brief tour of our facilities. The donor was a very private, unassuming person, and we assured her we would keep our conversations in the strictest of confidence.

Charlotte Warren, president of Lincoln Land Community College, at the press conference in March announcing the $18 million gift to the college. (Photo: LLCC)

Sanders: Her attorney asked us, “What would you do with a $3 million bequest?” We went right to work preparing a proposal of how the gift could be used to benefit current and future agriculture students.

Over the years, the donor’s health began to fail. She had an extremely loyal team of advisors who looked after her interests. We kept in touch with all of them and continued to quietly acknowledge her birthdays and special occasions. We answered all of their questions and planned for the coming gift, but never took it for granted.

Donors can change their minds at any time. We knew her biggest wish was for privacy, and to know that her gift would be helping agriculture and local students.

Warren: As years passed, we had indications the gift could be in the range of $6 million. At the time of her passing in 2017, we learned that the bequest had grown much larger.

The terms of the gift stipulated that the amount could not be shared with anyone until a public announcement. That occurred on March 22 of this year, when we unveiled a check for $18 million from the Kreher Farm Perpetual Charitable Trust. As agriculture professor Bill Harmon said at the press conference, “The Kreher gift is beyond ‘once in a lifetime,’ it’s in the realm of ‘I can’t believe this is really happening.’”

It was and is incredibly humbling to know that Mrs. Kreher entrusted us to ensure this gift will benefit agriculture students for years to come. And, speaking of trust, I would like to recognize and thank the LLCC Board of Trustees and the LLCC Foundation Board of Directors. Both trusted us to work out the details and sign the gift agreement, per the donor’s wishes. Establishing a high level of trust with board members is something Karen and I have cultivated for years.

What are the lessons learned? How would you advise presidents and fundraisers in cultivating large gifts for their colleges?

Warren: Stability and trust were extremely important in this process. Karen has led the LLCC Foundation for more than 15 years, and I have served as LLCC president for more than 12 years. These lengths of service are somewhat unusual today, but we believe this stability was key in earning the donor’s, and her advisors’, trust.

We are also both very active in our communities. It’s important to serve on boards, across the table from community leaders, and convey your passion for your institution and its mission. We both firmly believe in the value of community colleges and how they change lives. Also, valuing and acknowledging every gift is so important. I tell people, no matter how small the gift, it adds up and can change the life of a student who needs help buying a textbook, paying tuition or even fixing their car so they can attend school.

Sanders: For example, we recently helped a student with a 3.6 GPA in our associate degree nursing program who needed assistance to stay in class. She was working several part-time jobs and experienced a financial set back. Her gas was cut off; she had been taking cold showers. Also, her car broke down. We were able to help her with emergency funds, provided by our donors, to keep the lights on at home, and provide the necessary essentials so she could continue to attend school and work. This is why we say all contributions are important. Gifts of all sizes are changing lives each day.

Pacing a relationship with donors is important, says Karen Sanders, executive director of the Lincoln Land Community College Foundation. (Photo: LLCC)

Warren: We see this giving spirit in our faculty and staff, with more than 50 percent participation in our annual internal giving campaign. We believe it sends an important message that Karen and I both are consistent donors with all campaigns and special events, including being sponsors of the annual Foundation Gala. I use no foundation funds for presidential expenses.

Sanders: In summary, my advice is to follow the donor’s wishes. Don’t judge or assume anything about a donor. Always be grateful and thank donors in more than one way. Form a team with your president. Bottom line: it is about building relationships.

Warren: Pacing a relationship with donors is very important. Cultivate, rather than harass donors. Build a relationship and know when to leave graciously when the answer is no.

One gift can have so many ripples. People work hard for their money. Appreciate the fact that donors choose to invest in your college. Most of all, be good stewards of the money entrusted to you, and make sure all gifts directly impact students.

About the Author

Lynn Whalen
is executive director of public relations and marketing at Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois, and vice president of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations.