While on the surface this may seem like the story of a $93 million estate gift from a dedicated donor, Give & Take found that “the story behind the story” is how this significant gift was actually the culmination of 25 years of consistent contact and relationship-building.
A $93.3 million estate gift to benefit Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, including two specific bequests for $10 million each. The residuary bequest of $73.3 million will be used for endowed scholarships, faculty chairs, and other academic initiatives at Rollins.
The late George Cornell, a Rollins College graduate, Class of 1935.
The donor’s early motivation
According to Robert Cummins, Director of Planned Giving at Rollins College, Mr. Cornell and his late wife, Harriet, emerged as major donors to Rollins in 1978 when they gave $750,000 to name the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Fine Arts Museum. They went on to give funds for two other buildings, a baseball field, scholarships, endowed chairs, and a challenge grant. “The Cornells were very interested in what the College needed at any particular time and made tremendous commitments to us during their lifetimes,” Mr. Cummins explained. “I think recognition was very important for them, especially to Mrs. Cornell. They enjoyed the recognition that came from having their names on buildings and plaques and were very philanthropic in the community.”
Strategy for nurturing the relationship
Mr. Cummins stressed that developing and maintaining a close relationship between the Cornells and the College extended over a 25-year period and encompassed four Rollins presidents and multiple generations of development officers. “I remember one of the first development meetings I attended when I started working here about eight years ago,” Mr. Cummins recalls. “Our President asked who was seeing the Cornells that month? And who would visit them the month after that, and so on. A key component in maintaining the relationship was assuring that someone visited with the Cornells at least every month. The President went to see them from time to time, and nearly everyone on the development staff had contact with them at some point. As a matter of fact, the Cornells were very flattered whenever we would introduce them to a new staff member.”
Taking care of the Cornells was a top priority at Rollins. Besides the monthly visits by either the President and/or others on the development staff, Rollins invited Mr. Cornell to serve on its Board of Trustees. “George was made a trustee in the early 1980s,” Mr. Cummins explained. “This allowed Mr. Cornell to be acutely aware of the College’s needs because he was an insider, so to speak. He really cared about the College, and never missed a trustee’s meeting.
“We always tried to be sensitive to the Cornells’ interests,” Mr. Cummins continued. “Over the years we continued to determine what it was they cared about. We were donor-centered as opposed to Rollins-centered. In the end, what they cared about most was what we needed most—which was unrestricted funds to meet whatever might be pressing future needs. So everything meshed nicely.”
Message to gift planners
For Mr. Cummins, one of the most challenging elements of this story is also one of the most important lessons learned. “We never knew during the entire 25 years that we worked with the Cornells exactly what we were going to receive from their estates,” Mr. Cummins said. “We were never aware of the extent of their assets. The Cornells could be very introverted. I was present during one visit when George was asked specifically about his intentions for Rollins through his estate, and he changed the subject. He just would not discuss it.” Even though Mr. Cornell, like many estate donors, was not forthcoming about his ultimate intentions, Mr. Cummins and the Rollins development staff continued to visit him and educate him when opportunities arose about what he could accomplish through gifts as part of his estate plans.
After Harriet’s death, George made two specific bequest commitments of $10 million each—one to set up scholarships in Harriet’s name and the other to endow a chair for presidential leadership. However, he never told staff members that he intended to also leave Rollins the residue of his estate, the other $73.3 million that rounded out his bequest. “As gift planners, we know that the majority of donors who make bequests may never tell us,” Mr. Cummins explained. “This gift falls into that category.
“I think the lesson underlying this gift is in relationship-building—the importance of making a commitment to the relationship, believing in your donors’ interest, and then maintaining consistent contact over the course of the relationship,” Mr. Cummins said. “Just because there may be setbacks, that does not mean that you don’t continue. The lesson is to focus on the nurturing and maintenance of that relationship, not on the money.
“I believe every organization has a donor like George Cornell, where it is the quality of a long-term relationship that will make the difference as to whether or not you receive their ultimate gift or it goes elsewhere. Because it’s not about the money, especially in the donor’s mind. It’s the quality of the relationship and the trust earned over time that matters most,” Mr. Cummins stated.