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Popping the Question

By Matthew Q. Clarida, Crimson Staff Writer

Early on a chilly Saturday morning in April 2013, a group of Harvard’s most elite donors gathered in the Business School’s Spangler Center. After breakfast in Spangler’s sunlit Williams Room, the attendees were treated to a day of Harvard celebrity: an hour of conversation with University President Drew G. Faust, a panel moderated by Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, and discussions throughout the day with some of the University’s most celebrated professors.

The annual symposium of the Committee on University Resources—or COUR, as it is known by its members—is an invitation-only event, and only the University’s most valued donors are on the list. COUR, like the alumni council of advisors convened by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith or other alumni visiting committees at various schools, is both a reward for past support and an engagement tool meant to bring top alumni to campus and into conversation with the University’s top leadership.

Taken together, the committees form a crucial part of the powerful fundraising machine built by Harvard’s Office of Alumni Affairs and Development, which is operating at full horsepower during the University’s ongoing capital campaign. But while COUR and other committees like it unite hundreds of well-heeled donors, for most Harvard supporters life after graduation does not begin on a top committee with the ear of Smith, Garber, or Faust.

There are many different types of donors and many different paths to giving, and the Development Office’s robust fundraising network aims to cull them all. For many supporters, the process runs through events, reunions, and other gatherings planned by University staff and eventually culminates in a gift of $10,000 or less each year.

But for those who give moreoften much morethe relationship is far more intimate, with access and attention ratcheted up. When big gifts are on the table, Harvard’s Development Office antes up, making available top professors and leadership and giving big donors a chance to craft just how their money is spent.


With an ambitious University-wide capital campaign in full swing, one of Harvard’s most important arms is in a fairly nondescript office building at 124 Mt. Auburn Street. Inside, staffers at Alumni Affairs and Development operate the behind-the-scenes machinery of Harvard’s famed fundraising apparatus. University Vice President Tamara E. Rogers ’74 runs the show from two offices: one inside the Development Office and another with the central administration in Massachusetts Hall.

“Our alumni don’t owe us philanthropy,” Rogers explains late on a Monday afternoon this May, outlining the overarching mission of her office. “What we want to do is to make them feel as though, given that they’re philanthropic, that Harvard is a place where they would want to be philanthropic.”

But before Rogers and her staff make the pitch to potential supporters, officers at Alumni Affairs and Development work with a robust in-house research team to study Harvard alumni—and even some potential targets with no affiliation to Harvard—who might be interested in donating, as well as trends in finance and philanthropy.

The research usually amounts to an extensive collection of publicly available information, Rogers says, ranging from the academic field of the relevant graduate to other philanthropy the target might be involved in, to corporate board postings, and much more. A particular focus of the research team is previous work with nonprofits and giving to higher education.

“There is an astonishing amount, of course, that one can learn from public sources about potential interests of prospective donors, be they alumni or non-alumni,” Rogers says. She adds that her best source of information is often the groups of volunteers her office organizes around the world. After volunteers interact with potential targets, Rogers says, they often report back to the central fundraising office on the target’s overall interest and any specific programs that might seem attractive.

“People, when they come together to talk about fundraising [might say], ‘I think you might approach this person for this and that person for that,’” she explains. “[Volunteers] may know more than we do.”

For those who think that development amounts to a few mailings and a lot of phone calls, Rogers, with a laugh, insists, “it’s not quite that simple.”

Indeed, after the research is done, more than 200 frontline gift officers—some working from the Development office itself, the others working at individual schools—bring the results into the field. Hundreds more work in support as assistants, analysts, and event and financial planners across the University.

According to various online job postings by the University, new gift officers are expected to commit a large part of their year—up to two months—to life on the road, where they meet potential and existing donors on their home turf. Annually, these officers are expected to conduct hundreds of in-person meetings with alumni and are also required to continually generate new leads of potential donors in the $100,000 plus range.


Those who establish a pattern of significant giving are likely to hear more from the Development Office and, in some cases, Harvard’s leaders, as they gain eligibility for an important perk of sustained support: the alumni committee.

“Once you give serious money, they will never let go of you,” Byron R. Wien ’54 says.

Major donors like Wien fill out formal and informal committees spread across the University’s schools and run by top administrators. The committees have various functions, but nearly all have a similar, overarching goal: keep alumni on campus and in touch with Harvard.

Keeping alumni engaged, Rogers says, “means ensuring that they meet people who could be of interest [and] revisit the campus.” Depending on the donor, these visits often include facetime with top University officials. “It’s quite, quite common that they have the opportunity to spend time with various leadership,” she says, adding later that for the donor who wants to stay abreast of what is going on at Harvard, committee work is often very attractive.

“There are people who are very interested in committees, they are interested in helping the University solve certain kinds of problems or look at certain issues,” she says.

Among the most exclusive of these groups is the Committee on University Resources, founded by the Board of Overseers in 1940 and envisioned by University officials and COUR members as a capstone recognizing generous support to Harvard. While wealthy alumni often serve on various visiting committees or deans’ councils, many of the wealthiest are united by COUR membership.

Some members say they did not even know COUR existed before they were invited to join, but most insist that admission to the committee does not necessarily come with the expectation of future support. Once invited, members say that COUR becomes a place where a group of dedicated supporters can connect with one another and with top Harvard officials in an intimate setting.

“I was just amazed at the individuals who were invited to participate in it and what they had accomplished in their lives,” says Paul J. Zofnass ’69. “In my view, it was the who’s who of Harvard.”

Zofnass adds that while he had given generously to Harvard before being invited to join COUR, he “wasn’t even close” to the $1 million figure that some have claimed is a membership requirement for COUR.

Most COUR members interviewed for this story say that the highlights of the group’s annual meetings are the enhanced access to University leadership and the discussions with other members.

“You broaden your knowledge about the University and its needs, and there's a certain camaraderie that develops. Everybody has a similar mission,” says Kenneth Lipper, a graduate of the Law School and a member of COUR. “It gives you a chance to have a dialogue with the president and various officers of the University.”

According to Zofnass, the common ground established by COUR membership quickly forges relationships.

“If you go to one of these annual events, you meet somebody for the first time, and a year later, they’re like old friends even though you probably only knew them for 10 minutes,” he says.

Each COUR annual meeting comes with a guiding theme: in April 2013, the gathering focused on innovation and the sciences and ended with a tour of laboratory spaces that many COUR members had helped to fund. Despite the insistence that COUR membership does not represent a forward-looking quid-pro-quo, members say that this programming, coupled with the access to Harvard’s leadership that COUR provides, can lead to more giving.

Mitchell L. Dong ’75 says he discovered an interest in public health and environmental policy while he was a freshman at the College, but his decision to support the School of Public Health came after a presentation by the school’s then-dean, Harvey V. Fineberg ’69 at a COUR meeting.

“I got friendly with Harvey and he invited me to join the [School of Public Health] visiting committee,” Dong remembers. “I just kind of gradually got sucked in.”

When Dong’s 25th reunion came around, he and his wife, Robin, worked with Fineberg, then the provost, to make a major gift to the School of Public Health to endow a professorship.


While donors say that committees are effective tools of engagement, they add that the Development Office often moves beyond the committee and brings in the closers—top University administrators—when it comes time to make a big pitch.

Especially during a capital campaign, officials like Faust, Garber, and the deans and alumni campaign co-chairs of various schools play a crucial role in fundraising. When members of this group travel, the Development Office arranges meetings with potential supporters and ensures that days away from Cambridge are well spent.

“Development would like to fill every waking minute,” Faust says of her schedule when she travels for fundraising purposes. “And they... often succeed if I don’t say, ‘between 3:30-4:00 I’m going to take a nap or go for a walk or call in back to the office and find out what’s going on in Cambridge.’ I just have to say in advance, ‘don’t take that time,’ or they’ll take every minute of it. So they’re extremely effective in that way.”

When it comes time for leadership to sit down with a potential benefactor, the Development Office makes sure that the administrator—who might meet dozens of prospects during a day on the road—is prepared for the crucial one-on-one session. For meetings with new acquaintances, the administrator is usually provided with a concise, bulleted biography of the prospect.

“Ultimately, [the researchers] make sure that our leadership and volunteers have the best information in front of them when they sit down for a meeting,” says Alumni Affairs and Development spokesperson Patrick S. McKiernan.

The preparation is understandable; for many donors, these meetings are a crucial final step in the decision to make a large gift, coming after a long courting process by fundraising officers, group meetings with leaders, and committee work.

For Kenneth C. Griffin ’89, a long-term relationship with University leaders translated this February into a $150 million gift to the University, $125 million of which was designated for undergraduate financial aid.

Griffin served on the FAS’s Financial Aid Task Force before making his record-setting gift. “They are really, really engaged on the task, and its a hard task, to make sure that not just with respect to our country, but with respect to the world, Harvard stays at the forefront of education.”

When New York real estate magnate Peter J. Malkin ’55, another member of COUR, and his wife decided in the early 1980s that they wanted to make a major gift to the University, they immediately approached then-President Neil L. Rudenstine and then-FAS Dean Henry Rosovsky. At the time, the Indoor Athletic Building between Kirkland and Lowell Houses was nearly six decades old and badly in need of attention. Rosovsky presented the project to the Malkins.

“The Dean said that Harvard needed  to renew the Indoor Athletic Building, a crucial facility for the entire community,” Malkin remembers. “It was a project that, when it was presented to us, struck us as something that could really mean a lot to the students, faculty, and staff.”  In 1984, the Malkins celebrated the renovation and renaming of the building as the Malkin Athletic Center.

Like other donors, the Malkins have stayed involved with their project, allowing the University to assume the day-to-day operations and upkeep of the MAC but holding onto the final say when it comes to big decisions. When the MAC came up for renovation in the early 2000s, Malkin consulted architect J. Timothy Anderson ’55 and ultimately revised the University’s proposed changes to the exterior.

Malkin adds that the role of University leadership is crucial when it comes to soliciting philanthropy. “It is the personal touch that the president or the dean provides that really brings those big gifts,” he says. “You're more likely to give if you are called on that way. If the president of Harvard asks you to do something, then you're going to give it a lot more consideration.”


Though there are many paths to making a donation to Harvard, Faust has emerged during the University’s capital campaign as a uniting force. Though she often meets with donors in small groups, she also travels to generate wide interest in the capital campaign and promote alumni reconnecting with the University.

“I give a lot more speeches,” Faust says of her campaign responsibilities. “Those kind of events mean a more public presentation of the campaign, supporting the different school campaigns, [and] setting the agenda for the larger meetings.”

This May, Faust traveled to New York City where, aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid on the Hudson River, she rallied nearly 600 alumni and donors. In attendance were some of Harvard’s wealthiest benefactors along with some Harvard affiliates who had recently graduated and for whom the registration fee of less than $50 had been waived.

After delivering her standard campaign stump speech, in which she outlines the fund drive’s priorities and speaks of her vision for Harvard’s future, Faust mingled with the crowd in the ship’s hangar, posing for photos and working the room.

“The president is always a big draw,” Rogers says. “Many alumni don’t have the opportunity to hear her speak. By her going around the country, it’s a great chance for people to finally have a chance to see her and hear her and then perhaps meet her at the reception afterwards....some of the students from 2013 and 2010, 2011, and 2012 said, ‘wow, we wanted to come back; we haven’t heard her since our baccalaureate speech.’”

But while Faust is a uniting force, the Development Office is well aware that every potential donor has a different Harvard story and a different interest in supporting the University.

After Faust’s speech and the well-appointed spread at the night’s reception, alumni gradually made for the exits. As they stopped to retrieve their coats, many dwelled over a crimson-clothed table bearing various bowls of pins. In the bowls were symbols of Harvard experiences, ranging from the undergraduate Houses to the University’s graduate schools. As they went their separate ways, some alumni grabbed a few, others just one.

—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.

—Staff writer Theodore R. Delwiche can be reached at Follow him on twitter @trdelwic.

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