Ken Nickless is director of gift planning at Webster University in St. Louis. Now an international university with campuses on four continents, Webster has come a long way from its inception nearly a century ago. Here Mr. Nickless shares the story of Webster’s growth, its global presence and the special challenges and opportunities he has found as a gift planner at this unique university.
Give & Take: What led you to a career in fundraising?
Nickless: I didn’t set out to be a fundraiser, but I quickly found my way to that career path. When I think back to my youth, I always had an awareness that there were needs in the world around us. I didn’t know all that philanthropy entailed, but I had visions of being able to help solve the world’s problems. Now, as a fundraiser, I find I am able to be a philanthropist in my own way. I connect donors’ passions with their resources to help make their philanthropic plans a reality.
I was a music major in college, and my first position after graduating was with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the marketing and public relations department. It was a terrific four years, and I learned so much it made my head spin.
I was then able to use the skills I had gained to transition to my next role as the membership manager at KETC-TV, the St. Louis public television station. At the time, public television as an industry was just realizing it could develop major gift and gift planning programs. I volunteered to tackle that task at our station, and I quickly learned that the gift planning component was most interesting to me. Eight years later, Webster University decided to hire its first full-time gift planner, and I applied for and got the job. It felt like home right away.
Give & Take: Tell us about Webster University.
Nickless: What really defines Webster is its tradition of innovation. Webster was founded in 1915 by an order of Catholic nuns who wanted to extend collegiate education westward for women. Very early on they started trying to attract international students and faculty. Students from Asia began arriving as early as the 1920s.
The nuns’ mission, which we still pursue today, is to provide educational access to those who otherwise might be excluded. By the 1940s, Webster had started offering weekend and evening programs to accommodate working students. In 1967 Webster separated from the Catholic Church and became a coeducational institution. Today, our campuses span four continents.
Give & Take: Do many of your students take advantage of your international campuses to study abroad?
Nickless: Almost one-third of the students at our main campus in St. Louis decide to study abroad at one of our other campuses or at other locations through various study abroad programs.
That figure is remarkable when you consider that more than half of our students are Pell Grant eligible. Many of our students are the first in their family to attend college and have jobs in addition to their studies. Many can’t take time away from work for 8 or 16 weeks or afford the additional cost of international travel.
In response to this need, one of our donors whom we featured in our latest newsletter and on our website created an international travel fund to enable students to take time off of work so they could pursue that educational opportunity. Another donor couple recently made a seven-figure commitment for the same purpose.
Give & Take: How does Webster’s global presence define its character?
Nickless: You can’t say you’re an international institution simply because you have campuses around the world. You have to infuse internationalism into the spirit of the institution. For instance, our faculty have transformed our undergraduate core curriculum into a global curriculum. Specifically, the global curriculum explores six wide-ranging knowledge areas in all of the core areas of study. Then within those areas our faculty helps students develop the critical skills necessary to succeed in this complex world. Our goal is to better equip our students for global citizenship and individual excellence.
Having said all that, in St. Louis we are viewed locally as a traditional liberal arts institution. We’re best known in the community for our fine arts programs. One of our former trustees describes Webster as the spiritual home of the arts in St. Louis. Our theater conservatory is one of the best in the United States. Our alumni are consistent Tony winners and successful stage and television actors, directors, choreographers and writers.
Give & Take: Having worked in public television and now at a university, can you make some comparisons?
Nickless: My experiences at each institution have been fairly similar. My job is to create opportunities to reach out and meet with people. Success in fundraising always comes down to the same thing—personal relationships. That’s the part of the job I like the most.
Most people assume that a university has a built-in constituency, but Webster doesn’t have a traditional alumni base. We serve 21,000 students a year, but only 10 percent of those are undergraduates at our St. Louis campus. As a result, the bulk of our alumni have never visited the St. Louis campus. When you consider only the alumni base from the pre-1967 era, Webster seems like a small institution. There are fewer than 2,000 of those alumnae remaining.
Give & Take: What are some of your best strategies for connecting with donors?
Nickless: One of the first things I did when I first walked in the door was to create opportunities to meet with small groups of older alumnae. I invited those from particular class years or sometimes groupings of three or four classes who were at school at the same time to our alumni house to have lunch so I could learn about their student experience. I was able to become very familiar with a good number of them fairly early on.
As time went on, these women began asking for additional services from us. We very quickly created a special pin and our official pinning ceremony for the 50-year class. Our alumnae also wanted ongoing opportunities to engage with each other on campus. In response, we established a monthly bridge club that meets at the alumni house, a monthly book club and other gatherings.
One 1938 alumna came to absolutely every event we hosted. Even when she was no longer able to drive, she asked a neighbor to bring her. When she entered her final illness, she decided to create an endowment for our Golden Circle, the 50+ year group, so that everyone who came after her would have the same opportunity to socialize with other graduates.
Give & Take: How do you reach out to other members of your constituency?
Nickless: We work hard to foster relationships between scholarship recipients and the donors who funded their scholarships. We ask donors to write a personal statement explaining their reasons for setting up an endowment, and we ask students to write letters thanking the donors. We also provide opportunities for them to meet on campus. Some of the relationships that result last far beyond graduation. Our long-term hope is that these students will ultimately decide to pay it forward.In addition, we communicate with a wide range of alumni and friends by sending them the brochures and newsletters Sharpe creates for us several times a year. We recently enhanced our newsletter and broadened our mailing list.
Just the other day, I took a call from a 71-year-old retired schoolteacher I had never met who was reaching out to me after receiving our latest newsletter. She told me she was interested in a gift plan she had researched on our website and was ready to make a very substantial gift to endow a scholarship.
Give & Take: How do you use the Internet in your marketing efforts?
Nickless: The Internet has been integral in reaching our global constituency. Sharpe Group developed our gift planning website, and it offers valuable information about gift plans, includes interactive gift calculators and provides links for professional advisors. In addition, we have added a video component to the site to allow donors to tell their own stories.
On the front page of our gift planning newsletter, we typically feature donor stories. The recent addition of a link to our website enables readers to watch the donors talk about their gift: why they made it, why it makes them feel good, how our office was helpful in the process. Once donors are on our website, there is plenty of other information to help them learn how to make a gift of their own.
Give & Take: Do you have any advice for others in the field?
Nickless: Learn to listen. It’s so difficult for some people, and it shouldn’t be. When you’re in a conversation, guide the donor to talk about travel, family or other passions. You’ll soon find that you don’t have to do a lot of the talking. All the information you learn becomes very valuable as you get to know the donor better and work to find a way to meet multiple needs with a gift.
Ultimately, gift planning is about people and their life stories. We listen to donors and share our Webster story. Because of that, people feel comfortable reaching out, and many decide to provide greater support—often their “gift of a lifetime.”