Fundraising chief Mike Morsberger will remain a friend to GW even after he steps down from his post this month, continuing to give donations to the school he never attended.
Morsberger was known at the University for replying to emails in minutes, sending handwritten thank-you notes to donors and avidly supporting the GW men’s club lacrosse team. His sudden resignation, which he said was for personal reasons, means GW will lose the face of its largest-ever fundraising drive, the administrator who transformed its fundraising operation in his four and a half years at the helm.
“From the first moment I stepped on the GW campus, I knew it was someplace special – and that feeling has only grown stronger over the past five years,” Morsberger said.
Morsberger transformed GW’s fundraising operation from a team that raised $84 million in 2009, one of the lowest totals among schools of its size, to hundreds of staffers who the University trusted to raise $1 billion by 2018.
Morsberger led “the building of that whole fundraising apparatus,” University President Steven Knapp said. But he said Morsberger will also leave a solid plan for the campaign that the office can continue to set in motion even after he departs.
“In terms of momentum, I think we’re set up. We have everything ready to go and it’s moving, and we’ll keep moving and I think we’re making very rapid progress,” Knapp said.
The University will launch a nationwide search for Morsberger’s replacement immediately. Aristide Collins, the University’s vice president and secretary, will carry out Morsberger’s duties while the search is in progress.
Laura Taddeucci Downs, the head of the Council of Chairs, said Morsberger’s genuine enthusiasm for GW shows constantly and she has to remind herself that he is not an alumnus.
Morsberger kept three books on George Washington’s life on his nightstand, hoping the nightly reading would help him learn more about the University’s namesake and plan the campaign with that connection in mind.
“I won’t lie. I think it is a loss. He’s the leader. He’s the face of the campaign up to this point. He’s the one who motivates and inspires everyone. But that being said, people now see what can be done in that position,” Taddeucci Downs said. “People now understand what it means to have a true leader. That’s been transformative for GW.”
Transforming the office
Morsberger was hired away from Duke University to steer GW’s small fundraising office and eventually plan the University’s third massive capital campaign. Taddeucci Downs, then the president of the alumni association, said in the five years leading up to hiring Morsberger, the office went through several leaders, and that there were “a lot of transitions and upheaval.”
She said more than his predecessors, Morsberger understood that “alumni relations cost money. It’s holding tailgates, receptions, but the idea is you spend money and they give back.” She pointed to one of his first actions at GW: securing a substantial budget increase for his department, and since 2010, he has grown his staff by 30 percent.
“It is going to be different, but the University has learned what kind of person they need to bring into the position,” Taddeucci Downs said.
Morsberger came to GW in 2010 following stints at Johns Hopkins Medicine – where he landed what was then the institution’s largest-ever gift. He also helped launch multi-billion dollar campaigns at the University of Virginia and Duke Medicine.
But when he left those well-oiled operations, he came to a school where a campaign that stretched from 1992 to 2003 raised about half a billion dollars. GW’s previous campaign, which lasted five years, brought in $84 million.
Jean Johnson, the dean of the School of Nursing, said Morsberger came to development after the administration had largely neglected the office.
“It’s not easy to start from the ground up. You compete for donors with other major schools that had already established relationships. He did a really excellent job,” Johnson said. “His leaving is a loss to the University.”
Morsberger has already helped the office pull in more than half of its $1 billion total goal. Another big momentum builder came last spring when he helped the University land its largest-ever gift, a combined $80 million from billionaire philanthropists Michael Milken and Sumner Redstone, which renamed the public health school.
Morsberger’s colleagues say it’s his generous and caring personality that make him a successful fundraiser, helping him connect with donors and secure large gifts.
Steve Frenkil, the president of the Alumni Association, said he often spoke with Morsberger about ways to build ties with alumni, remind them of their time at GW and make them want to give back.
“He does that with his style of showing real interest in what is on your mind, what is your story and why it matters to you,” Frenkil said.
Morsberger brought in 26 gifts of $1 million or more last year, five more than the previous year. He also helped grow GW’s donor base, which ballooned 15 percent last year, and the largest-ever number of donors gave to the University last year.
How he’ll leave his mark
Morsberger also mentored students outside of fundraising as the adviser for the men’s club lacrosse team. He had three helmets hanging on a wall in his basement: the Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore Colts and GW men’s lacrosse.
“He was very proud of his connection to our program,” said J.D. Englehart, the team’s head coach. “Whether it was time, advice or perspective on what it was like to lead at GW and enter work life, he was always giving and a very generous man.”
Players on the team said Morsberger has rearranged his schedule to come to games, invited them over for pizza parties at his home and advocated for their program in meetings with other administrators.
When senior Maddison Bruer started researching ways to convince restaurants to use “conflict-free chocolate” in their products, Morsberger found an anonymous donor to give $10,000 to her project. Her team will now travel to Ecuador for a week during winter break to visit two cocoa farms, and will pitch the proposal to restaurateur José Andrés next spring.
“I was so astounded. It was one more example of how Mike truly goes above and beyond his job and his role. He didn’t have to help us. He put the boots on the ground to find that donor and help us,” Bruer said.
Pam King Sams, the executive vice president for development at Children’s National Medical Center, nominated Morsberger for a Fundraiser of the Year award this year after meeting him at Johns Hopkins two decades ago.
He “seemed more committed than most to his craft,” she wrote in the nomination letter to the National Association of Fundraising Executives.
Kathy Megyeri met her husband on campus 50 years ago, and they had their first date in 1963 – at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. The couple, who hold five GW degrees between them, decided to leave their estate to the University three years ago, and Megyeri said Morsberger helped guide them through the intricate legal process of making the gift.
“Mike will be sorely missed because he appreciated so much all donors to GW and made us feel like our gifts were valued and would be put to good use for the future betterment of GW. He had such empathy for how attached we were to the school,” Megyeri said.
Implications for fundraising efforts
As schools nationwide announce large fundraising campaigns, demand for strong fundraisers makes turnover in the top spot fairly common, said Michael Nilsen, vice president for public affairs at the Association for Fundraising Professionals.
“There’s so much demand for fundraising right now,” Nilsen said. “It’s not just Ivy League schools doing big campaigns, and it’s an issue most universities have to deal with.”
Morsberger laid the groundwork for GW’s fundraising blitz to remain successful once he steps down, though there is never a perfect time for a school to lose its chief fundraiser, said David King, president and chief executive officer of the fundraising firm Alexander-Haas.
“You’ve got the major work done. You’ve raised a significant percentage of the goal. And you’ve gotten the actual execution of going public done, which is a pretty big production,” King said. “It’s a transitional moment.”
In a letter Morsberger sent to his staff just after he announced his resignation, he said he was sad to leave, but that he believes all of them will be able to keep up their string of successes.
“Don’t let me down after I walk out the door. Please keep this momentum going,” he wrote. “I will be crestfallen if you don’t shatter records again this year and continue GW’s sharp ascent into the top tier of higher ed. This is our moment.”
Mary Ellen McIntire contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the October 13, 2014 issue of the Hatchet.