In this month’s “Gift Planner Profile,” we talk with John Shafer, director of development at Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania. Having spent most of his life at the school— 12 years as a student and 25 years working as an alumni and development professional— Mr. Shafer shares his unique perspective on fund raising for an institution that has been an integral part of his life.
Give & Take: The name of your school is a bit of an oxymoron, since it isn’t in Wyoming and it is not a seminary. Can you tell us a bit about your school and its name?
Shafer: You’re right. The name is a bit confusing. The school was founded in 1844 by leaders of the Methodist Church who felt that Northeastern Pennsylvania needed a strong college preparatory school. The school is located in Kingston, Pennsylvania which is located in the Wyoming Valley. “Wyoming” is an Indian word that means flat land. Back in the 1800s, the word “seminary” was synonymous with the word “academy” and apparently didn’t get the theological connotation until the late 1800s. We have been coeducational since our founding—the first class had 17 boys and 14 girls. So we are one of the oldest coeducational independent schools in the country.
Give & Take: Were you a student at the school?
Shafer: Yes. I started in first grade and lived on the campus for most of my years there. My grandfather was the school physician from 1910 to 1947. My dad was then the school physician from 1947 to 1982. The school actually grew up around our home. Three years ago my parents gave our family homestead to the school. I had a unique perspective as a development officer of securing one of the larger gifts that we have received and obviously a very important piece of property to the school. Yet at the same time my family was relinquishing what could have been a very nice personal asset to have in the future.
Give & Take: You have been working at Wyoming Seminary for 25 years. Why do you think you have stayed so long? What do you think have been the advantages of staying at one organization?
Shafer:I know I am really unusual in that I have stayed at one institution for as long as I have. In some ways working here is like being home to me because I have been here all my life. I believe so strongly in the school and the opportunities it has given to me and also to so many generations of students that I am really committed to the cause. I guess if I have any sort of philosophy as a development officer I believe you have to be committed to the organization that you are working for. I believe that donors contribute to the cause and also to people.
One of the greatest advantages of working in one place for so long is that I have been able to help secure some significant gifts to the school as a result of long-term relationships with many individuals. I have had opportunities to go other places, but I think I am really able to make a difference here and I think the school is making a difference for so many people. That is why I have stayed.
I have developed some wonderful friendships with donors over the years. One of the downsides to that is when one of them passes away, it is almost like losing one of your own family members. Even if the friend has left a nice bequest to the school, it is a very sad time because you had such an intense personal relationship with the person. But there is also that good feeling that you helped the person who has passed away make it possible for future generations of students to enjoy the benefits of school. Hopefully these students will feel the same way about their school that this alum did.
Give & Take: I understand that your development office is quite small, with just you, a director of annual giving, and a director of alumni programs. What is it like to do the sophisticated gifts you complete working with a relatively small staff?
Shafer: Through the years we have had as few as two professionals working in the office, so I have had the opportunity to do all kinds of special events, annual giving programs, capital campaigns, planned giving, etc. Quite honestly, I really enjoy that. No two days in a row have ever been identical. I wonder if I would really enjoy it if I was just the director of major gifts, or just the director of planned giving. It has been really rewarding for me to be involved in all aspects of the program.
I’m always intrigued when I hear about larger development programs and the problems they often have communicating with one another about particular donors. We don’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes here because the office is so small. We are all aware of what each other is doing.
Give & Take: What changes have you noticed in gift planning over the years?
Shafer: I think one of the biggest changes is just the incredible infusion of technology into the office. When I started we were keeping names and addresses on index cards. I can remember it used to take us literally two months to get ready for a phonathon. Now it takes a few hours.
I think the other thing that has changed as far as giving is concerned is how more people today want to designate how their gifts are used. Many people want to direct and earmark how their gifts are used and allocated, and that is fine. People these days have been involved with more organizations as volunteers so perhaps they are more informed about their giving than before. I think there is a real concern among some of these younger donors that their gifts not be lumped into a general, unrestricted fund. I think they get more personal satisfaction from their gift if they direct where it goes.
Give & Take: What changes have you noticed in your tenure concerning bequest gifts to Wyoming Seminary?
Shafer: One of the first decisions that I made in the early ’80s was that we needed a resource to turn to for help in sharing planned giving information with our alumni and friends. We certainly didn’t have the staff to do it ourselves! I interviewed numerous companies and very quickly decided on the Sharpe company because I felt their literature was so easy to understand and not overly technical for the members of our constituency. We started sending a quarterly bequest brochure and over the years have moved to the point where we are now doing customized newsletters.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s we were very lucky to receive $100,000 to $200,000 a year in direct gifts from bequests. For the past five years we have averaged $1.2 million and this year we have received the largest gift in our history—$5.6 million—from a bequest from an alumnus who graduated in 1926. I clearly see gifts from bequests and other types of planned gifts as the future of fund raising.
Give & Take: What is your favorite part of your job?
Shafer: My favorite part of my job is hopefully making a difference at an institution that means a great deal to me. People often say to me, “How can you ask people for money?” And my response to that is, I really don’t ask them for money. I talk to them about the school I believe a great deal in, and that I think they believe a great deal in, and you just tell them about some of the opportunities that are available. They do the giving. We are just providing the opportunity.