A Conversation With David Dunlop: Part I | Sharpe Group
Posted January 1st, 1998

A Conversation With David Dunlop: Part I

In this issue of Give & Take, we feature Part I of a special conversation between Timothy Sharpe and David Dunlop, one of the nation’s leading development professionals, on the occasion of Mr. Dunlop’s retirement after 42 years at Cornell University‹four years as an undergraduate and 38 years working in development.

Dave Dunlop has played a role in developing the concepts and principles which have contributed to Cornell University’s extraordinary success in individual giving. In its last capital campaign, Cornell raised $1.507 billion, a worldwide record for a five-year campaign in a university setting. We are honored that he has agreed to share his wealth of knowledge and insights as well as his unique philosophy with our readers. Watch next month for Part II of this inspiring dialogue.

Sharpe: When you first told me of your retirement after some 38 years at Cornell, I immediately thought of your longevity there. I am curious about how you got started in your long career, and wonder whether you planned to work in development while you were still in college in the late 1950s.

Dunlop: Actually, I seriously considered going to work for the New England Electric System. When I got there, I realized that I was being interviewed by the wrong person. The interviewer was too high in the organization to be interviewing a young kid like me. I figured I was getting special treatment because of my uncle, who was an officer of the company. I decided I didn’t want to go where I would just be somebody’s nephew. I wanted to be my own person, to make my own way. Honestly, I never had in mind to stay at Cornell for a career. I thought I would be there for a year or two to learn how to conduct myself in business, and then go out and find just the right job for my career.

Sharpe: Why do you think you stayed so long at Cornell?

Dunlop: Education makes such a difference in this world. And when you’re at your own alma mater, and you see the difference it makes, it’s not hard to become a believer.

Sharpe: How did you avoid getting burned out? Did you ever think of leaving?

Dunlop: First, when you really believe in something, you can take the knocks and the bumps and overcome the tendency to burnout. I had my low periods like anyone else, but there were some things that carried me over those feelings. One is belief in the cause. Some things, like education, are worth a little sweat and stress after all!

Secondly, I have been fortunate at Cornell to be in a community in which people were helped to overcome their weaknesses and to develop their strengths. I think this is one of the reasons I stayed at Cornell. I had opportunities to leave and make more money elsewhere, but I am so lucky that I didn’t choose to leave. Here I have been able to build on my strengths as a fundraiser. And while I think I discovered my weaknesses early on, it took many years to understand my strengths.

Sharpe: Speaking of the turnover issue, what are the advantages of staying on the job for so long? How do you think development work is hindered by excessive staff turnover?

Dunlop: If a person is at an institution for a few years, he or she will begin to form relationships. But somehow it isn’t the same kind of connection, confidence, and trust that evolves over a more considerable length of time. From my experience of living and working here at Cornell, my institutional friendships have become personal friendships as well. I agree with Sy Seymour that it is not the fundraiser’s role to work at becoming the bosom friend of every major giver. But I depart a little bit from Sy in my belief that when a friendship starts to grow naturally and genuinely, we do our institution a disservice by putting off or discouraging the friendship.

Sharpe: You are best known for your belief and success in nurturing genuine, deep friendships with donors and prospects when it is appropriate. How do you encourage the transition from “donor” to “friend”?

Dunlop: In the different levels of giving and fund raising, we see a spectrum. At one end, there is the kind of giving timed to the calendar and very heavily oriented to the process of asking, which I call speculative fund raising. Most people call these annual gifts. I prefer to call these “regular gifts” because it is their regularity and not their “annualness” that is of special significance both to the giver and those who seek the gift.

In the middle ground, where the stakes are substantially higher, we see a kind of fund raising most of us call campaign fund raising for special gifts which might be 10 to 20 times larger than what one can give annually. At the other end of the spectrum, we see fund raising that involves the ultimate gift. I call this “nurturing” fund raising because it does not focus primarily on the asking. In fact, asking makes up a very small part of the work because the gift is timed to the life circumstances of the friend. Therefore we necessarily have to minimize the asking and maximize building this sense of commitment, in other words building this relationship between the friend and the institution.

Sharpe: Come to think of it, in the eleven years we have known each other, I do not believe I have ever heard you use the word “donor.” You always refer to your benefactors as “friends.” Can you comment on the importance of the language we use in this field?

Dunlop: Language does make a difference. People in an annual fund setting are routinely spoken of as “prospects.” Even in campaigns we speak of people as “prospects.” This is really looking at people in one dimension, a financial one. If we stay in that single dimension, we fail at the kind of fund raising that is absolutely the most productive, yields the largest gifts, and can have the greatest potential for changing the course of our institution in the future.

In the third level of fund raising that leads to ultimate gifts, we can’t afford to look at our friends only as financial prospects. We have to relate to the whole person, taking into account all the capacities they have to give such as their time, talents, social support, political support, moral support, intellectual support, and spiritual support for the values that we cherish together. When you address friends by respecting and drawing on their unique capabilities‹and they invest the whole range of them‹they become much more rewarding and satisfying relationships. Consequently, when that moment comes for our friends to decide about how to make their ultimate gifts, they will be more likely to choose the place where they have been able to invest themselves in this wider sense.

In major gift fund raising, we focus our time and attention on people who have major wealth. One question we should ask ourselves as fundraisers is this, are we loving our friends just because they’re rich? I think the way we can resolve this problem really rests on the perfection of our own respect for every human being regardless of what we may or may not receive from them. It is in the perfection of that respect for all humanity that we gain the freedom to focus our time, energy, and attention on those friends who have shared values and interests and shared capacities to respond to those values and interests. This has a lot to do with how we treat people from whom we can receive nothing.

Sharpe: How much money have you raised in your career?

Dunlop: How much have I raised? I’d have to say, “None.” The work that we do depends not on a single individual, but involves a matrix of many people. Friends should not just have one or two people to interact with at an institution, but rather should have a number of people in different roles and capacities at different levels. It is in this kind of climate that we really build that sense of involvement and commitment that fosters the ultimate gift to a particular institution.

Sharpe: How do you determine which staff or volunteers are the best suited to work with particular friends?

Dunlop: Often, it just happens by serendipity. Sometimes the friend makes it happen. I remember one case involving our then-Dean of Agriculture, who was one of the finest deans we ever had. He was a Cornellian himself who was hard working, energetic, intelligent, and committed, and he also was a very confident person. Sometimes he would be so focused that he could become off-putting.

One of our benefactors who wanted to give a professorship asked if he could work with others rather than work with the dean. When we talked with the dean about the problem, he was superb. He understood and told us he didn’t want to be an impediment.

After working with others here at Cornell, not only did this benefactor endow the professorship, but over the passage of time he got to know the dean. He eventually gave the dean a rug that his wife had hand-hooked depicting products of agriculture. That rug now hangs in the very heart of the College of Agriculture. This was a lesson for us. If we keep our eyes on the good that people want to do and don’t get ourselves too wrapped up in our own egos, almost anything is possible. We all don’t have to be on the front lines all the time.

What really scares me is to hear fundraisers say “I raised this” or “I raised that” as if it were something they did by themselves. If you hear a fundraiser say “I raised this much,” run for the hills because it’s a clear signal that the person speaking does not understand the dynamics of either individual or institutional relationships. When I retired, some friends I’ve worked with over the years sent me letters that are generous beyond words, giving me credit for things that I do not deserve. Even when people tell you what an influence you have been, you have to realize it’s just their generosity talking. Truthfully, it really is a whole matrix of people and of values reflected in the mission of the institution that prompts these people to make the ultimate gifts that mean so much.

Sharpe: You have suggested that major gift officers must have a “forgiving nature.” What did you mean by this?

Dunlop: If I had the ability to gauge the people we hire to do development work, I would put this trait at the top of the list. Let me explain why. The friends we address and from whom we hope to receive significant gifts are no more or less perfect than the rest of us. And as we grow close to them, we will see their virtues but we will also see things that aren’t so virtuous.

Unless we can forgive our friends their mistakes and appreciate the good things that they do, we’re liable to become fakers, to become the kind of people who say things they don’t mean and express things they don’t feel. A fundraiser can get away with that for a day, a week, or maybe even a month, but not much longer. People see through that. So by having a truly forgiving nature, we can genuinely like people, appreciate them, forgive them their shortcomings, and be fully genuine in what we do.

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