Lake Forest College and the ‘Millionaire Next Door’ | Sharpe Group
Posted May 1st, 2010

Lake Forest College and the ‘Millionaire Next Door’

Kent Weimer is Senior Director of Gift Planning in the department of Development and Alumni Relations at Lake Forest College, located in Lake Forest, Illinois. A Sharpe client, the college recently made national headlines when it received a multimillion-dollar gift from an unexpected source. Here Kent Weimer shares with Give & Take the story behind the gift and the fund-raising practices that helped this donor and many others decide to lend their support to the college.

Give & Take: Can you tell us how you arrived at your current role?

Weimer: I first became exposed to fund raising shortly after graduating from college while working at a day camp for developmentally disabled children. We needed to raise funds to support our programs, so I very quickly had to learn fund-raising basics. Over the years, I gained valuable experience at a number of national organizations. During 17 years with the YMCA I was involved in all aspects of financial development. At the Lions Club International Foundation I was charged with establishing the gift planning program. I later served as Director of Gift Planning at Shedd Aquarium before becoming chief development officer at a museum in Key West. I joined Lake Forest College about four years ago to revitalize our gift planning program.

G&T: How is Lake Forest’s fund-raising team organized?

Weimer: Like many colleges, we have professionals responsible for the annual fund, others in charge of major gifts, and then an office of charitable gift and estate planning. We all work well together. It’s a very integrated program in which we approach fund raising strategically as a group. We try to see what we can do as a team to raise the most funds for the institution regardless of whether the gifts are large or small, immediate or received over time.

G&T: Do you make an effort to communicate with your donors and alums when you’re not asking for a gift?

Weimer: Absolutely. We very purposely ensure that in most of our communication with alumni, parents, and friends we are not asking for support. Our contact with donors is primarily intended to strengthen their sense of community and their relationship and identity with the college. We organize alumni events around the country to allow alumni to visit with old friends, make new ones, and hear the latest about what’s happening at the college.

G&T: What means of reaching out to donors have you found most successful?

Weimer: Besides our alumni events, we maintain contact with donors through specialized newsletters, electronic communications, and our alumni magazine. Our Web site is also an effective means of communication. We just recently added Sharpe’s Planning Perspectives to our Web site. It is fully integrated with the rest of our site and gives donors and their advisors a chance to learn about different gift plans and decide which one best meets their needs. Donors can also create illustrations on their own and then share them with the college and/or their family or advisors. I believe this new part of our Web site will allow our donors to feel more comfortable and be more knowledgeable about their gift planning options.

G&T: I understand you’re nearing completion of a successful campaign.

Weimer: Our campaign is called the 150th Anniversary Campaign because it was kicked off in 2007 during the college’s sesquicentennial year. When we started the campaign, our goal was to double our endowment and raise funds for several capital projects. As you can imagine, with recent economic challenges our priorities have changed somewhat. The focus of the campaign is now on unrestricted support because the need for financial aid has risen so dramatically, as it has at most colleges and universities across the country. Unrestricted support will allow us to put funds where they need to be in light of the current environment.

Despite the economy, we’ve raised about 90% of our goal. All indications are that we should be finished with the campaign before the stated end date of May 2012.

I think part of the reason we’ve been successful with our campaign is that we used multi-channel communications to get the word out. We’ve publicized the campaign in everything from our alumni magazine to newsletters, targeted mailings, e-mail, our Web site, events on campus, and personal visits. By utilizing a variety of communication channels, we’ve been able to alert donors to the campaign, and they’ve responded. One of the keys, though, is our very skilled major gifts team that has met face-to-face with potential major donors across the country.

G&T: Can you tell us about the remarkable gift you recently received from an alumna?

Weimer: This gift took us by surprise. Grace Groner was truly the “millionaire next door.” She graduated from Lake Forest College in 1931 and took a job as a secretary at Abbott Laboratories, where she worked for 43 years. In 1935, she purchased three shares of Abbott stock for $180. She never sold the stock and always reinvested the dividends, and over the years it grew steadily in value. At the time of her death this January at age 100, the value of the stock had reached $7 million.

Lake Forest, just north of Chicago, is one of the most affluent suburbs in the nation. Despite the wealth she accumulated over the years, Ms. Groner never adopted the upscale lifestyle chosen by so many of her neighbors. Unmarried and childless, she continued to live in a tiny one-bedroom house, did not own a car, and bought secondhand clothes.

Though frugal, she was also generous. Over the years, she became increasingly active in the Lake Forest College community. Late in life, she began funding a small scholarship program at the college. Before her death, Grace worked with her advisors to establish a foundation. Her stock has actually gone into the foundation, and Lake Forest College is the sole charitable recipient. The foundation should generate over $300,000 per year to support students in the college’s study abroad program and students doing internships. The college was also left Ms. Groner’s modest home, which will be named Grace’s Cottage and will house student interns who are benefiting from her generosity.

Our gift planning officers worked to strengthen the college’s relationship with her over the years. While I’m sure this interaction helped lead to her decision to have her fortune benefit Lake Forest, we had no idea before her death of the scope of the legacy she would eventually entrust us with.

G&T: What is your favorite part your job?

Weimer: One of the best perks of working in planned giving is the opportunity to interact with other fund-raising professionals. I’ve been active in both national organizations and our local council on planned giving. The degree of professional development such organizations provide is very refreshing and enlightening. Having access to such a large and supportive group of professional colleagues is very important.

But my favorite aspect of my job is definitely the relationships I’ve built with our donors. Like Grace Groner, they are remarkable and generous people. I love being able to help them leave a legacy to the next generation of Lake Forest students.

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