In this “Gift Planner Profile” we speak with George Elder, headmaster of Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis. Dr. Elder discusses an unexpected gift the school recently received and explains why he takes an active role in fund-raising efforts.
Give & Take: How long have you been a headmaster? How long have you been at Lausanne?
Elder: This is my 25th year as a headmaster. I have been at Lausanne for 10 years. It is marvelous. It is very independent in its thinking with a huge commitment to diversity. More than 20% of our students are of color. We have students from 25 nations. So our school is a rich community with an international flair. Lausanne offers a very rigorous academic program with great support for the kids.
Give & Take: As a headmaster, how do you see your role in the school’s fund-raising efforts?
Elder: We have two people in our development office, but I am sometimes the point person for Lausanne’s development efforts. People like to give money to the person who is going to spend it. And there’s a sense of trust that is necessary when people give what they have worked for or inherited and maintained. They must trust that their gift is going to be appropriately used and prudently spent and that it is going to make an impact on the students and the program. That message is best heard from the leader of the school, who shapes the program and the academics, and develops with the board of trustees an overall long-range plan and vision for the school.
Donors like to sit down and talk with me because I am easy to talk to and they can see my passion for the school. My trustees also help with development work. They give generously to the school and they come with me on calls, and make their own calls as well. Clearly I spend a significant amount of my time winning friends and influencing people to make sure that Memphis enjoys a school like Lausanne.
Give & Take: With an international donor base you have probably learned quite a bit about how different cultures react to fund-raising efforts.
Elder: Yes, and that has been a bit of a struggle. There are cultures that are very different from the American culture. Americans have been taught to share the wealth and give willingly of one’s hard-earned resources without gain coming back. For many cultures, it is very foreign to give at all. I think that because of our commitment to diversity and international flair, it reduces somewhat the pool of potential donors. We are trying to educate our parents and friends about the funding it takes to run a school like Lausanne. But many of the people who are from different cultures feel like they pay a significant tuition and that should be enough. But in the American educational system, we try to keep the cost within the reach of as many people as possible. That is why we ask for gifts and philanthropy to make up the difference so more people can reach for a fine, quality education.
I feel that my job is not only to ask for gifts for the school, but to make sure the donors enjoy giving. I want them to feel good about giving and know that we appreciate what they are doing for our children and for our school. I also make sure that donors are honored in a significant way and that it is a lasting thing.
Some donors tell me they don’t want to put their name on anything, but I encourage them to change that attitude. If their name is on the door, I tell them that it is inspiring to let people know who believes in us.
I have never been in the position to give at the level of these donors. But I think it would be such great fun. And I want them to see it as fun. I want them to know that their gift means something to me personally as well as to the students, parents, and future generations.
Give & Take: Tell me a bit about a significant gift you recently received.
Elder: I received a call from Bill, one of our parents, who has two daughters here, a junior and a senior. He said he wanted to do something for the school and he had heard from his eldest daughter that there may not be a senior lounge this year, which has been a tradition for many years. I told him we were planning on having one but we haven’t gotten to it because we were doing so much renovation. He said he would like to give us $10,000 to move the senior lounge project along. I said that would be great. So we set up a meeting to finalize the gift. On the day we were to meet, he canceled. So we scheduled another meeting. He canceled that as well. By this time I thought the gift was probably not going to materialize. But we set up another meeting, and he showed up.
I started thinking that if he had $10,000 to give, that perhaps there was more possibility there. And so I thought of some other needs of the school that he might be interested in. Bill came to the meeting and he gave me the $10,000 check. I told him that we would probably not need the entire $10,000 for the senior lounge. He told me that was wise and suggested that I use the remainder of the money where it was needed most. I told him I was thrilled with the gift, and I wanted to let him know about some other needs of the school.
We are about to open a new science center, and in that building we needed a few donors to name some of the labs for a $100,000 gift. Bill wasn’t really interested in the bricks and mortar type of gift, but he said he would like to help students that couldn’t afford it to come to school at Lausanne. He said the school had done wonderful things for his children and he wanted to spread that to others. He asked how much that would cost, and I let him know that endowing a scholarship like that would take about $200,000 to earn the $10,000 a year tuition from interest. He said he wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment, but that he would give $100,000 and pay the tuition each year for one student until the $100,000 grew enough until the interest every year could pay for that tuition. I was overwhelmed. I thanked him profusely and I told him that he would indeed change the life of the child who received this scholarship.
I then asked if he had a minute to tour the new lounge and Shockey Science Center. The first room we walked into was the lobby and I explained that this would be an area where the children could have wireless internet access to do their research. I told him that eventually this lobby area would be filled with furniture but that we had to do some cutbacks and this would come later. Bill asked how much the furniture cost, and I told him $8,000. He said order it.
Afterward I told Bill that his generosity was just unbelievable. He said that he had been very successful in life and wanted to give back what he could. This gift had nothing to do with anything that I said. It was simply this man’s desire to give in accordance with his religious beliefs and return something to a school that had meant something to his children.
Give & Take: The media has been reporting doom and gloom for charitable giving this year. How have your fund-raising efforts fared this year?
Elder: We are well above what we were this time last year, and we expect to end the year way up. I think that the media sometimes focuses on the negative news that is out there, in good times or bad. So we are not paying a whole lot of attention to that. We know and are confident in the kind of program that we are offering our children. And we believe that it is absolutely vital community and this country that we produce these kinds of kids. And we are going to keep doing it. So we are going to continue to talk to the parents and friends of the school about our needs.
Since September 11 it has been a difficult time. The children have raised money for Afghan children as President Bush requested. And our parents are pulling together as well. Many, like Bill, are giving us more than they have ever given before. And I don’t believe it is because they have more money this year. I think it is that they realize that some are going to be hurting more this year and won’t be able to support Lausanne at the same level as they may have before. They see supporting the school as a way to support their country and make up for those that may not be able to give this year.