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Securing that major gift in economically challenging times

Securing that major gift in economically challenging times

March 14, 2023
Martha Ross

The yes is all about the ask: the passion and the personal relationship.

I love Syracuse University, where I spent my undergraduate years at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the Newhouse School of Communications. The winters were long and snowy, and the spring was short and sweet. That seemed normal to me, having grown up in what we fondly called the snow belt capital of the world: Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario.

But I confess – I never gave a dollar to the decades of fund development requests from Syracuse. Not a penny. And here I am in 2023, about to change my will to include a $100,000 gift to my favorite alma mater. It will be my first, and maybe not even my last, gift to the Big O. 

What happened to change me into a major gift donor after 55 years of asking? 

The great match of program-to-donor

As a lifelong donor to various nonprofit causes, I am one of those very specific donor types: I like to know just where my gift is going. That’s not to say I haven’t given to the so-called “black hole” of administrative expenses over the years. But in the last 15 years, I find my gifts follow my specific passions. (I’ll give to the local animal shelter rather than the national ones, for example). 

I want to share why the Syracuse planned ask worked for me and may just work for you with donors like me: I received an email last spring from a young man in the university’s planned giving office. Nathan said he’d be in Boston and would like to visit with my husband and me at our Cape Cod home. We are 90 minutes south of Boston, so not an easy trip out of the city and over the Bourne Bridge to Falmouth. 

I was pleased that Nathan was prepared to make the trip to the Cape and Islands to talk to me about the university and so I said yes. 

Nathan was right on time and was respectfully friendly and well-spoken. He sat with us in our living room, and we talked about my experiences at SU and the lifelong consequences of those challenging, significant times. As we talked, he introduced us to a new initiative which, for the first time, would be a joint effort between the two colleges where I studied, Newhouse and Maxwell.

He said SU was preparing to launch an institute that would bring communications and political science students together for educational and experiential learning opportunities on campus and in the nation’s Capitol. One of the significant goals of the new program would be to explore the aspects of “real” news in our modern culture of “fake” news and its impact on governance and society. 

I loved the idea. It seemed to be a specific way for me to help make my children’s and grandchildren’s world a more inclusive, truthful democracy – something I had come to fear would be destroyed in their lifetimes. 

We talked at length, and then I said, ‘Let me think about it.’

The personal visit

I cannot emphasize enough the value of that personal visit. In 55 years, I had never received any direct contact from the university. We had no alumni/a chapter in Nashville, where I lived, and not many southerners had heard of Syracuse; I was in Vanderbilt University country. Of course, over the years I had received plenty of mailed fund development materials and requests, coupled with the annual evening telephone call from a scholarship student asking for support, and I never gave money.

Here’s the message I want to give to you: 

Nathan brought information and news about my alma mater that no annual report or college magazine could provide.

In person, we talked and listened to him describe many exciting programs and a highly diverse student population evolving at Syracuse. He didn’t press us hard, nor did he expect an answer from his first visit. He was building a bridge, and as he was preparing to leave us, he said he’d like to visit again in the fall when he was back in Boston. 

In the ensuing months, Nathan sent me additional materials about the collaborative institute, and my husband and I discussed the level of gift I might like to consider. Nathan and I exchanged emails to clarify specifically how I could target my gift to the Washington, D.C., experiential learning aspect of the program.

When Nathan returned in October, I wasn’t pleased with the generic wording of the endowment language (along the lines of “if it is not used here, it can go there, at the discretion of the institute leaders”). I wanted my gift to support the expenses of students as they studied and experienced Washington, D.C., its systems, processes and politics. 

He understood and returned to Syracuse to work with the legal team. I expect we will find our way to create substantive language that specifies the use of my gift.

“When we work out the specific language, do we have your endowment gift?,” Nathan asked me as he left. And I said, yes.

The lessons 

  • Pair your donor’s interests with the ask. 
  • Make as many visits as you can in person. 
  • Do your alumni/a research to see where they are now in their lives, and don’t assume they won’t give, just because they haven’t in the past.

Then stay in touch and, more often than not, I suspect you’ll hear them say, “Yes, I’ll give.”


Martha Ross

Martha has held a variety of positions in the nonprofit sector since 1985, including executive director at Y-CAP of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee; head of school at St. Paul Christian Academy in Nashville; executive vice president of Family & Children’s Services of Nashville; and executive vice president at the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. During her 10 years at St. Paul Christian Academy, Martha helped increase enrollment by 63% and build a new Music and Arts Center, library and computer center, a renovated gymnasium and model after-school and summer programs and grew an annual budget of $640,000 to $2.1 million. She also is an accomplished reporter and photographer and has served on the board of numerous nonprofits, including Family Counseling Services of Orange County (NY); Planned Parenthood; Cornwall Public Library Board of Trustees; YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee; Nashville African American Male Risk Reduction Committee; and Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Art Center. Martha holds a degree from the Maxwell School in political science from Syracuse University, a master’s of educational leadership from Lipscomb University and studied for her doctorate, Ph. D. (ABD) in Multiple Intelligences and the Learning Expressions from Walden University and Indiana University.