Interruption or Opportunity?

True story.

Yesterday, a major gifts officer at one of my clients received a call from the President’s office.  Seemed the executive assistant had a man on hold who wanted to talk with someone about making a gift.  The MGO took the call.  Here’s what happened next.

The man on the other end of the phone had traveled through 3 states via both train and bus to arrive at the nearest major city.  He was talking to the MGO using someone else’s mobile phone.  He was at the bus station.  He graduated from the institution back in 1954 and hadn’t been back on campus since 1970.  He thought there was a bus that would take him all the way to campus, but apparently that route no longer existed.  He was stranded and wanted to know if the MGO would drive the 20 mile trip to pick him up.

A quick peek into the donor database showed the man in question was a lost alum.  No record of address, phone, and no contact with the institution.  But he wanted to talk with someone about a gift.  The MGO decided to pick him up.

Wearing well-worn jeans with a t-shirt and carrying a small bag, the man met the MGO at the bus station and they drove back to the institution.  A quick tour of the surrounding town and campus was astonishing for the older man.  So much had changed.  So much was “new.”  Eventually they settled into the MGO’s office.

“I’ve never married.  I have no children.  I have been caring for my mother for a number of years now. I never made a lot of money.  I was a teacher for 30 years but I tried to save as much as I could.  And I’d like to make a gift.”

“Well, what type of gift were you thinking about?”  asked the MGO.   The man responded by describing an endowment but didn’t have the language quite right.  When the MGO suggested an endowed scholarship and explained how it worked, the man readily agreed.  It would be named for his mother whom he wanted to honor.

The MGO then delicately suggested, “we have minimum amounts for establishing named endowed scholarships.”  At this point, the MGO was relatively certain of two things:  1.  This old man, who was a teacher, who had never given to the institution, who made his way across 3 states by train and bus, who was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, probably didn’t have the kind of capacity to establish an endowment. And 2.  He was certain that the man hadn’t heard him as he was now rummaging through his small bag.

After a minute or so, the man pulled out two large index cards strapped together using rubber bands.  He gently peeled the rubber bands away and the two cards fell apart.  In between was a cashier’s check. . .

For $100,000.

The man presented the MGO with the check and said, “I think this should get us started.”  After getting the paperwork signed to establish the endowment, they went to eat.  The President wasn’t available to meet the institution’s newest major donor.  This suited the man just fine as he really didn’t want to meet him anyway.  He wanted to go back to the bus station so he could begin his travels home.  That evening, at 9:00pm, he was back on a bus, set to retrace his steps over 3 states.

Gifts like this simply don’t happen.  They don’t fall in our laps.  But this one did.  And even though this type of scenario rarely occurs, the theme of the story is compelling.  It begs us to answer a simple question:  How would we have responded to this call?  Would we view this man’s odd call as an interruption or an opportunity?  This MGO made the right choice.

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