Making the Pitch

Making Harvard's case in a crowded philanthropy market

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“If you want to have an impact on the world, I can’t think of a better way to have your funds used with great leverage. I’m giving to one of the great educational institutions in the world,” says long-time University donor and venture capitalist Sidney R. Knafel ’52. “The extent that I can help that institution to raise its standard, to raise the standards of education institutions all over, will create a better educated populace in the future who will probably do a better job than we did.”

Even bumps in the investment record, like Harvard’s decades-long foray into Allston, questions about the management of its natural resources investments, or professorial ethics violations, tend to have little effect on the overall confidence in the University’s ability to translate gifts into successful research or other outcomes.

What’s more, according to Schervish, at a large university where money is fungible, even the impact of earmarked gifts will extend beyond a particular short term initiative.

“There are alumni that you are always in touch with and bringing on campus for tours and roles like the Board of Overseers and so forth, and you want them to recognize that the University is changing, and you need to stay on the leading edge of knowledge in fields that demand that people be a little bit flexible about their willingness to support,” says David Yermack ’85, who is an alumnus of the College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, and the Business School.


Long before a donor ever gives Harvard a monetary gift, big or small, the University has in most cases been working to inspire confidence and maintain loyalty. And unlike other charitable causes where donations result in merely a letter of thanks or a one-time award, Harvard offers its backers a continued stake in an influential community long after they leave campus or even if they never stepped foot on it.

From the the senior class gift to a donor’s inclusion of Harvard in his or her will, the University employs a host of committees, reunions, networking events, and, for a wealthy few, access to top professors and leadership, to keep potential donors involved and invested. More than just altruistic satisfaction, giving to Harvard has tangible benefits.

“Once you give serious money, they never let go of you,” says Byron R. Wien ’54, a vice chairman at Blackstone Advisory Partners who donated both a professorship in drama and one in the life sciences. “Someone in the development office maintains a relationship with you and will be a presence in your life,” Wien added.

Rogers insists that while “alumni don’t owe us philanthropy,” the Alumni Affairs and Development Office ensures that donors meet representatives of the University that could engage their interest. Griffin, for example, has become close friends with Smith, according to Faust.

“Harvard keeps contributing to their life,” Schervish says, adding, “Harvard is the gift that keeps on giving, and that’s why Harvard gets gifts.”

Smaller donors, who Rogers delineated as those who contribute $10,000 or less, cite allegiance to Harvard and the desire to give back to perpetuate the opportunities from which they benefited as reasons they give.

“I am aware that for centuries people have had their educations subsidized at Harvard by alumni who donate back to the school,” says Yermack, adding that he and his wife “want to contribute to the education of the next generation knowing that the previous generation contributed to ours.”

Yermack’s perspective speaks to the University’s multilayered appeal. Familiarity and an appreciation for its mission mix with confidence in its capacity to bring an ever-widening array of goals to the marketplace of ideas.

“Whatever money I give will go a lot further than if I do it on my own or give to a lesser organization in terms of name recognition and convening power,” says Paul Zofnass ’69, who established a sustainability initiative at the Graduate School of Design with a $500,000 donation in 2008. “If you want to do some good things, having Harvard involved can power it through.”

—Staff writer Amna H. Hashmi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amna_hashmi.

—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OlkowskiTyler.