Advice to a Professor

Published by Rebecca Davies on

September 12, 2011

Dear Mr. Lipsyte,

Loved “The Ask”!

I’ve reviewed it, and wonder if you’d write a few words in response? We in the development world are really curious about your career choice for the protagonist, and how you researched the hard details of the profession.

I know the book has been reviewed extensively, but I can’t find one done by a fundraiser like me. Again, we’d really appreciate your perspective.




September 15, 2011

Hi Rebecca,

I really loved your review of my novel. It was funny and insightful and I was fascinated to hear thoughts from a professional fundraiser’s perspective. I’ve had a great response from people in the development world, in fact. Some have come to readings or sent emails. Even in my own institution (Columbia University) I’ve gotten support from people in the trenches of the job. One woman said she kept a copy of the book in her desk for moral support.

Thing is, I had written hundreds of pages of the novel and they weren’t working and I threw them out and started again. And I decided the job Milo had in that version of the book wasn’t working. (As I recall, he was in a financial aid office!) Then one day I find myself at a meeting where some development people are making a presentation.

It only took a few minutes of hearing them talk about the asks and the much-desired gifts that I knew what world Milo should be part of. I tried to remember some lingo as well. That was the research, for the most part. The rest was really just imagining what it would be like to have that job. Because on the one hand the cause is usually a good one, and it’s not like asking somebody for money out of the blue because all the parties know why they are there, but still, I imagined, there must be some awkwardness, and also there is the strangeness I’ve always found being around rich people when they are holding all the cards. It can be frustrating I’d imagine, especially if they are dithering and you have pressure from your bosses, and so forth. And I then imagined what it would be like if an old friend was the ask, how much worse it would be. Basically it’s extrapolation. And then I started to see the dynamics as a metaphor for other relationships in our lives. We are all making asks, dancing around certain issues to get the deal done, etc. Anyway, I knew that as long I stay tuned to the real feeling of the characters, and not treat them (for the most part) as the drones they must pretend to be, I could get at the absurdity, the hurt, and the comedy.

But it all stemmed from a chance presentation. And now, bizarrely enough, I may have to take a potential donor to lunch in a few weeks and I’m scared. Any tips?




October 6, 2011

Professor Sam,

Thank you for commenting on my review of your book, insight into your creative process, and supporting the profession of fundraising in writing this literary fiction.

And don’t be scared about going on a donor call. Rather: you’re going to lunch with a new friend (tip #1: pass on the ribs, spaghetti and corn dogs). Advancement means advancing the academic mission of your institution, and this is achieved through the development of relationships with donors. Toosh dev. Break bread.

That you have asked for cultivation tips already sets you apart. You are a distinguished faculty member who knows the capacity building that can be achieved through successful partnerships between academics and development staff: endowed faculty support, endowed student support, endowed and expendable research support and expendable support for capital building expansion.

Herewith are my tips on your role in the philanthropic continuum at the university

1) Your job is to present the institutional vision with passion and urgency. Explain the challenges; the advancement officer will then explain the donor’s ability to solve them. Be relaxed and personal and enthusiastic. Prospects will match your passion.

2) Make the time to read and consider everything your advancement colleague prepares for you. You’ll be given research with the prospect’s critical background info; their history of support; notable relationships; and areas of interest. You’ll be invited to participate in a full briefing and strategy session before and after the visit. Before the meeting, know precisely why you are you going on the call: are you cultivating, stewarding, soliciting feedback on your institution’s goals, or asking for a gift? After the rendezvous, your advancement colleague will advise concrete steps to follow up. Please do them.

3) Respect your advancement colleagues. We’re here to bring value to your Faculty, and we have the unique skills to be able to do so. As you are an expert in your field, so are we in communications, marketing, events planning, and relationship building: connecting volunteers, faculty, alumni and students. But we can’t do this on our own. We need you to articulate the vision. You will benefit directly.

4) Linger on the small talk. And then ask strategic questions to better understand the personal motivations of your donors/prospect: Can you describe why you got involved with the university? In what positive ways has Columbia influenced your life? How well do you know our programs?  Which ones?  How did that come about?  What are your impressions? Are you involved with other organizations beyond ours? What are your top three philanthropic priorities? Do you involve your children and your spouse in your philanthropic decisions? How did you learn about giving and volunteering?

5) Read #1 again. Again, your role is to share your dream: If money was no object, this is what we could do. If we don’t have the money, this (mediocrity) will or (greatness) will not happen.Remember you are asking on behalf of the academic community, not for yourself. Knowing this, in my experience, should abate your discomfort.

Your advancement officer colleague will gauge the meeting and signals and know when the right time is to ask (e.g. the prospect exudes a sense of commitment, expresses desire to help, conveys understanding of the needs, or relays a story about their experience that supports why funds are needed).

….and when not to ask (through the prospect’s language, and his or her lack of participation in the discussion or outright objections).

Be a leader, the professor who makes institutional development part of his academic legacy. Good luck!


Rebecca Davies, B.Mus (Honours)

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Paul Nazareth ( twitter @UinvitedU ) · October 6, 2011 at 15:52

Fantastic post, great advice as always @RebsD – why haven’t more professional fundraisers read “The Ask” ( mainly, me?! ) . Thanks for highlighting this great resource! Will have my hands on it soon…. we need to dispell the mystique and mythology of fundraising and encourage more dialogue like this – 101, homerun as always!

    Rebecca · October 6, 2011 at 21:55

    Thanks Paul. I can lend you my copy if you’d like, and would borrow one in return.

    What about you? Do you have any other thoughts on engaging faculty learned from your time working at the university?

Christina Attard (twitter @GPtekkie) · October 6, 2011 at 23:42


Thanks for sharing your correspondence with Professor Sam – both because it’s really interesting to read a communication between an author and a reader, but also because your summary of the role that a faculty member has to play in a university “ask” / donor visit is bang-on!

A big challenge within university fundraising (which you touch on) is the professional working relationship between faculty and development staff. As much as we have to develop relationships and trust with alumni and external stakeholders, we also need to look for opportunities to build our relationships with faculty so that when it comes time to go on a donor visit together, it’s not like two blind-dates all at once for that faculty member!

Best experience I’ve had? Dining (at least) weekly in the faculty dining room at one of the U of Toronto college campuses allowed me to know my colleagues on the academic side better.

Being married to a prof, I understand that the concept of asking for money via grant and funding applications is pretty much a never-ending process for anyone at a research-intensive school. I think it might be helpful to faculty members to understand that going on a donor call can be quite similar to that funding process they already go through, but that it’s going to be in an interview format rather than on paper (and we’re going to be there to help!). And trust me, fundraising comes up as a solution to problems in lots of departmental meetings on the academic side, I think it’s just that often the relationship with development isn’t there for academics to know who to reach out to in order to get started AND manage expectations on both sides!



    Rebecca Davies · October 10, 2011 at 20:50


    Faculty/development staff relationships cannot be two solitudes, or no money would get raised. Thank you for emphasizing this.

    I remember when I first started supporting surgeons’ academic priorities at the Faculty of Medicine. I was introduced to them and their world at the Faculty’s annual scientific research day – the Chair of the dept thought it would be good time and place to meet all the division chairs. It was the most socially ostracizing evening of my life. Not a lot of common ground was afforded during poster presentations and research awards.

    As you would imagine, significant gifts only started to be secured after relationship development began with these clinicians themselves (love your analogy of blind dates). The best way I did this was to spend hours in the operating room to observe their work in situ, and their approach to patient care. Procedures could be as long as fifteen hours, and there was plenty of time in between the intense cutting to chat and bond. I had stories to tell donors; and the surgeons respected the time I spent learning what it was we were raising money for, and, surprisingly, that I wanted to get to know them as people.


Nurse Wendy · October 7, 2011 at 13:02

Hey Rebecca, I enjoyed your book review….will have to read when I’m back in Canada. I busy in South Sudan (too busy to write the MSF blog I’d planned), but gaining lots of good stories to share on my return. (How we had 73 pediatric inpatients, but only 25 beds because they were too expensive to buy in the market, so all of the women and the malnourished children had to lie on blankets on the ground….with the 35C heat and the snakes (not kidding) slithering around…not a pleasant experience, but luckily most of the outcomes were good….need some money for beds asap!! Oh and some funds to treat the HIV patients would be a bonus as well….things to think about!!) But a big thank you to the fundraisers who are doing their part….I have an overwhelming number of stories of people we saved because of the fabulous donors we have…and the hardworking teams behind the scenes. I may be totally exhausted, but it was pretty great today when the malnourished little girl (she was 50-some percent on arrival) jumped off the bed, ran down the ward, and wrapped her arms around my legs…when she came she couldn’t even sit up without support! Those moments are really priceless! So keep on doing the fabulous job you do, and know we appreciate it in the field! Take care, Wendy

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · October 7, 2011 at 23:04

    Thank you Wendy, love your comment! Makes us feel proud to be fundraisers!

Mitch Hinz · October 8, 2011 at 17:18

Rebecca, great review, great dialogue, and big of you not to be too critical of “research” on our vaunted profession being limited to one chance presentation attended by a Professor of Creative Writing. Your advice to him on how to handle a donor luncheon could itself be a “how to” best-seller on donor cultivation. Do you mind if I borrow it? Promise to give credit. And can I borrow Nurse Wendy too? Program stories from the field are the mortar that hold all our fundraising castles together. Cheers. See you at IFC?

    Rebecca Davies · October 10, 2011 at 20:20


    By all means, borrow what is useful. Nurse Wendy (permission via Facebook) is happy to help, too. Allow me to introduce her properly: she is Wendy Rhymer, Nurse-Midwife http://ca.linkedin.com/pub/wendy-rhymer/b/608/868.

    As for the author’s questionable research methodology, well, he effectively nailed it so I can’t quibble.

    Plan on attending IFC in 2012 (it will be my first time). This year, I’ll be watching this space for some blogging from 101 blogger-delegates.

    All best,


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