Updated: Feb. 10, 2015 at 1:11 p.m.
GW promoted its interim fundraising chief to a permanent post Friday after announcing that he oversaw the securing of nearly $100 million in donations since the fall.
That means the University almost brought in more donations in just five months than it did in the entire fiscal year of 2013. Officials are now more than 70 percent of the way to reaching GW’s $1 billion fundraising goal, and top leaders say they trust Aristide Collins, who has been at the University since 2010, to continue to build momentum during the campaign.
As the vice president and secretary of the University, Collins worked closely with the Board of Trustees and built relationships with top officials in GW’s 10 schools. Those bonds were clear at Friday’s meeting, when several top administrators started the wave after his promotion was announced.
Board Chair Nelson Carbonell even jokingly handed Collins some cash after University President Steven Knapp made the announcement, and Collins handed the money to Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz on the way to the podium.
“You’re part of a family,” Collins said. “We understand each other, speak the same language and we’re all rooting for the same goals, so hopefully it will be a great jumpstart.”
Knapp said Collins was “instrumental” in building the relationships that brought on the success of the last several months, and that Collins knows how to maintain the energy needed to carry the University the rest of the way.
“That will continue after the goal is reached – in the next year or so, right, Aristide?” Knapp said at the meeting.
Experts say hiring a permanent leader from within GW’s ranks will make it easier to connect with major donors, as Collins already knows enough about the University to convince donors to get on board.
The fundraising office now counts a total of $715 million in donations toward the campaign, which means officials have raised $190 million since the public launch in June. GW has secured 50,000 total donors so far – an important number for a school that has low rates of alumni participation and has continually tried to grow its donor base.
To build on the buzz, Knapp brought trustees to Friday’s men’s basketball game, where the fundraising milestone was broadcast on the jumbotron and fans in the stands could grab T-shirts bearing the campaign logo.
Knapp said officials did not conduct a national search to fill the top fundraiser position, instead counting on Collins to make a smooth transition without wasting time training someone, which could “take months.”
“You know we had the right person right in front of us, so why not ask him to do it permanently?” Knapp said. “Those searches take months to do, and meanwhile you’re kind of in limbo. You don’t want to be in limbo in the middle of the campaign. The idea is you want to keep momentum going.”
Collins’ knowledge of GW, which stretches back 17 years when he led fundraising campaigns for the Marvin Center, will help him carry the campaign to the finish line, Knapp said. He also spent several years as a fundraiser at other schools.
Carbonell said promoting Collins ensures the University “will not miss a beat” and keep it on track to reaching its $1 billion goal before the campaign ends in three years.
“And frankly, at this stage in the campaign, we needed somebody who knows the institution, knows the Board, and so I think it was a wise decision to bring someone with his skills in,” Carbonell said.
Easy to connect with donors
Experts say Collins’ ties to GW made him a natural choice for the job, which requires him to have talking points about what’s happening on campus, connections with top officials and the ability to work closely with Knapp to land large gifts.
For example, during the Board of Trustees meeting, Knapp highlighted Collins’ contributions to securing the University’s largest-ever gift last spring – a combined $80 million from billionaire philanthropists Michael Milken and Sumner Redstone, who are not alumni. That gift took three years of dinners with Knapp, trustees and top administrators, conferences across the country and a Manhattan alumni event.
GW’s former vice president for development and alumni relations, Michael Morsberger, left because of personal reasons in November. Morsberger said Collins is “the perfect guy to take over where I left off.”
“He is a good man, known and respected by faculty and staff, donors and trustees. Solid character and consummate professional,” Morsberger said. “I wish him nothing but success with the campaign.”
Richard Trollinger, the vice president for college relations at Centre College and a 40-year fundraising veteran, said “there are definite benefits” to hiring someone from within to lead a fundraising push. He said that person will have already laid the groundwork with the university president, who is often the partner in working with major donors.
“There are real advantages in fundraising from long-term relationships,” Trollinger said. “You want to be in a situation where you can complete each other’s sentences.”
Noah Drezner, a higher education professor at Columbia University who specializes in fundraising, said Collins’ GW roots will also make it easy for donors to trust him and his passion for the campaign’s goals.
“Someone who has been with the institution for many years knows the inner-workings and knows the president and from within will be easy to tell the story and engage people,” Drezner said. “You can talk about your experience at GW for the past decade or so – that’s different than saying, ‘I admired GW but have been here for three weeks.’”
Collins said he has already picked up conversations with potential donors where other officials left off after years of courting, and said he expects to see “other significant gifts to the University,” of a similar size to the Milken-Redstone gift, which made up more than 90 percent of GW’s pledged gifts last fiscal year.
Reaching the finish line
Collins said finishing the campaign above target, and potentially before the deadline, will be transformational for a school that got a late start to building a massive fundraising operation and has lower alumni donation rates than its peers.
GW’s previous two campaigns brought in a combined $636 million and took a total of more than 15 years.
Five of GW’s competitor schools are also in the middle of massive, multi-year fundraising campaigns. Two of its peers, Emory and Northwestern universities, both landed gifts larger than $100 million last fiscal year.
Collins said officials would consider extending the length of the campaign if GW reaches its goal early to keep the donations flowing.
“What we’re looking at is the endgame. What happens as we approach the $1 billion and what are we going to do further? Because you just don’t stop. You keep going, you keep that momentum going,” Collins said.
Drezner said it’s possible to see a bit of a “slowdown” in the pace of donations as a campaign continues.
“I think if they were to keep up this pace obviously between going public and the five-year mark they’ll blow through the campaign very, very quickly,” Drezner said.
Drezner said it would be “atypical” to extend the length of a campaign that has already reached its goal. Most schools immediately start preparing for the next campaign. He said officials would have to convince donors to buy into a longer campaign by showing them that there’s more work to be done.
“If they meet the goal early, continue to raise and say, ‘How far can we go?'” Drezner said. “Then they think about how to continue giving. What’s the case for support to say, ‘We said we need a billion and continued support can push us beyond the great things we’re already doing?'”
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz handed Collins cash during the Board of Trustees meeting. Board Chair Nelson Carbonell actually handed Collins the money, and Collins then gave it to Katz. We regret this error.