Advice to a Professor

September 12, 2011

Dear Mr. Lipsyte,

Loved “The Ask”!

I’ve reviewed it, and wonder if you’d write a few words in response? We in the development world are really curious about your career choice for the protagonist, and how you researched the hard details of the profession.

I know the book has been reviewed extensively, but I can’t find one done by a fundraiser like me. Again, we’d really appreciate your perspective.




September 15, 2011

Hi Rebecca,

I really loved your review of my novel. It was funny and insightful and I was fascinated to hear thoughts from a professional fundraiser’s perspective. I’ve had a great response from people in the development world, in fact. Some have come to readings or sent emails. Even in my own institution (Columbia University) I’ve gotten support from people in the trenches of the job. One woman said she kept a copy of the book in her desk for moral support.

Thing is, I had written hundreds of pages of the novel and they weren’t working and I threw them out and started again. And I decided the job Milo had in that version of the book wasn’t working. (As I recall, he was in a financial aid office!) Then one day I find myself at a meeting where some development people are making a presentation.

It only took a few minutes of hearing them talk about the asks and the much-desired gifts that I knew what world Milo should be part of. I tried to remember some lingo as well. That was the research, for the most part. The rest was really just imagining what it would be like to have that job. Because on the one hand the cause is usually a good one, and it’s not like asking somebody for money out of the blue because all the parties know why they are there, but still, I imagined, there must be some awkwardness, and also there is the strangeness I’ve always found being around rich people when they are holding all the cards. It can be frustrating I’d imagine, especially if they are dithering and you have pressure from your bosses, and so forth. And I then imagined what it would be like if an old friend was the ask, how much worse it would be. Basically it’s extrapolation. And then I started to see the dynamics as a metaphor for other relationships in our lives. We are all making asks, dancing around certain issues to get the deal done, etc. Anyway, I knew that as long I stay tuned to the real feeling of the characters, and not treat them (for the most part) as the drones they must pretend to be, I could get at the absurdity, the hurt, and the comedy.

But it all stemmed from a chance presentation. And now, bizarrely enough, I may have to take a potential donor to lunch in a few weeks and I’m scared. Any tips?




October 6, 2011

Professor Sam,

Thank you for commenting on my review of your book, insight into your creative process, and supporting the profession of fundraising in writing this literary fiction.

And don’t be scared about going on a donor call. Rather: you’re going to lunch with a new friend (tip #1: pass on the ribs, spaghetti and corn dogs). Advancement means advancing the academic mission of your institution, and this is achieved through the development of relationships with donors. Toosh dev. Break bread.

That you have asked for cultivation tips already sets you apart. You are a distinguished faculty member who knows the capacity building that can be achieved through successful partnerships between academics and development staff: endowed faculty support, endowed student support, endowed and expendable research support and expendable support for capital building expansion.

Herewith are my tips on your role in the philanthropic continuum at the university

1) Your job is to present the institutional vision with passion and urgency. Explain the challenges; the advancement officer will then explain the donor’s ability to solve them. Be relaxed and personal and enthusiastic. Prospects will match your passion.

2) Make the time to read and consider everything your advancement colleague prepares for you. You’ll be given research with the prospect’s critical background info; their history of support; notable relationships; and areas of interest. You’ll be invited to participate in a full briefing and strategy session before and after the visit. Before the meeting, know precisely why you are you going on the call: are you cultivating, stewarding, soliciting feedback on your institution’s goals, or asking for a gift? After the rendezvous, your advancement colleague will advise concrete steps to follow up. Please do them.

3) Respect your advancement colleagues. We’re here to bring value to your Faculty, and we have the unique skills to be able to do so. As you are an expert in your field, so are we in communications, marketing, events planning, and relationship building: connecting volunteers, faculty, alumni and students. But we can’t do this on our own. We need you to articulate the vision. You will benefit directly.

4) Linger on the small talk. And then ask strategic questions to better understand the personal motivations of your donors/prospect: Can you describe why you got involved with the university? In what positive ways has Columbia influenced your life? How well do you know our programs?  Which ones?  How did that come about?  What are your impressions? Are you involved with other organizations beyond ours? What are your top three philanthropic priorities? Do you involve your children and your spouse in your philanthropic decisions? How did you learn about giving and volunteering?

5) Read #1 again. Again, your role is to share your dream: If money was no object, this is what we could do. If we don’t have the money, this (mediocrity) will or (greatness) will not happen.Remember you are asking on behalf of the academic community, not for yourself. Knowing this, in my experience, should abate your discomfort.

Your advancement officer colleague will gauge the meeting and signals and know when the right time is to ask (e.g. the prospect exudes a sense of commitment, expresses desire to help, conveys understanding of the needs, or relays a story about their experience that supports why funds are needed).

….and when not to ask (through the prospect’s language, and his or her lack of participation in the discussion or outright objections).

Be a leader, the professor who makes institutional development part of his academic legacy. Good luck!


Rebecca Davies, B.Mus (Honours)

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