The Nuanced (But Key) Lesson Behind Robert F. Smith’s Gift

Amid all of the publicity regarding Robert F. Smith’s announcement to repay the student loan balances for each of the Morehouse College graduates a Sunday ago, there is a key lesson to ferret out, if advancement and nonprofit leaders are willing to look (and listen) closely.

Yes, the gift is wonderful and should be applauded.  Yes, the gift will end up being exceptionally large.  Yes, the gift is different than most other gifts in support of higher education in that Mr. Smith has agreed to pay the loans these Morehouse College graduates owe as opposed to helping them with scholarship dollars to afford the education in the first place (although it is important to note that Mr. Smith is also a Morehouse College scholarship donor.)

But, the observation most helpful for advancement and institutional leaders is more nuanced than these facts.  The most helpful lesson is found when we pay close attention to what exactly Mr. Smith said during his announcement and, just as importantly, how he said it.

Here is Mr. Smith’s announcement during the commencement address.  It’s worth taking a moment to watch and listen to it again.

Did you hear it?  He said emphatically:  “This is my class, 2019.”

Did you see it?  He pointed to himself and the class as he made this announcement.

The lesson is simple, if we are willing to really listen and watch.  This donor’s motivation wasn’t tax breaks.  It wasn’t a name on a building.  It wasn’t to have his family’s name appear on a donor recognition plaque somewhere.

No, the fundamental motivation that drove Mr. Smith to make this generous gift was his sense of authentic partnership with these students.  His emotionally-transparent statement showcased the true instigator for his decision:  He saw a problem and he wanted to make a difference.

Clearly, he views himself at least being partly responsible for ensuring that these graduates have “fuel in their bus.” He has a sense of ownership in helping to solve a problem he cares about – in this case student loan debt for these graduates.

The lesson, then, apparent in Mr. Smith’s announcement has to do with the nature of our work.  Our work as advancement leaders and nonprofit leaders more broadly is not to offer a menu of giving options from which donors can choose.  Our work is to involve donors in a cause that betters humanity and our world.  Our work is to invite donors to experience the mission themselves so that they are encouraged to adopt the same sense of authentic responsibility Mr. Smith clearly has.  Our work is to touch the heart of the donor far more than it is to convince the mind.

Mr. Smith said that 2019 is his class.

How different might our fundraising results look if, instead of calling on donors when we want their support for our plans, we decide to seriously invite them to partner with us to solve big problems.  We may just find that they are eager to put more fuel in our bus.

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