By answering your email when someone offers your organization millions of dollars.
Some months ago a woman living in my home state of Ohio unexpectedly inherited a substantial estate when two of her relatives passed away. (Apparently she had no idea the relatives were so wealthy, so the inheritance came as a considerable shock.) The woman decided that part of the inheritance--several million dollars--should be given to charity, and she gave her two daughters the job of choosing suitable charitable causes and handling the actual transfers. As people who value higher education, the daughters approached several colleges and universities. They did so, straightforwardly enough, by going to the web sites of various such institutions and emailing the appropriate offices to express their interest in making a bequest.
Several places, they discovered, didn't even so much as hit the reply button to ask if they really meant it.
Luckily for Ohio State, a development officer working for our university got such an email--which, trust me, is an unusual way to hear of a potential bequest of that magnitude--and did hit the reply button. Which set in motion a chain of events that culminated last week in a meeting between myself, the heir, her two daughters, my colleague Peter Hahn, and several OSU development officers with a holy-cow-we've-hit-the-jackpot gleam in their eyes.
The heir and her daughters--I'll call them, respectively, Mary, Molly, and Maureen Benefactor--were pleasant and utterly down-to-earth. I have had enough involvement with development matters to know that usually people who make sizeable bequests do so only after an elaborate courtship by the university. The courtship generally involves a series of meetings and dinners with important university officials and dog-and-pony shows in which professors like me give special presentations designed to showcase the talents of the faculty--the talk I gave in October on "The Long Shadow of Sherman's March" was just such a presentation. The courtship often goes on for months, frequently a couple of years, before the potential donor is ready to sign on the dotted line.
The Benefactor family weren't like this. They had something they had decided to do and they just wanted to do it. Mary sat quietly while Molly and Maureen talked briefly about the bequests they had made earlier that morning to the veterinary school and to physical anthropology--as OSU alumni they had had earlier personal involvements with both entities. They were also interested in making a bequest to history--military history, to be exact--as a way to honor their brother who is an officer in the U.S. Army Special Forces.
I was in the room for obvious reasons. Peter was there in his capacity as department Vice Chair--the Chair himself would have been at the meeting except that he was out of the country. Peter talked a few minutes about the strengths of our department, noting, for example, that it was one of a handful of departments at OSU to win a Selective Investment grant: an award of several million dollars given by the university to departments identified as being so close to the top tier of excellence at the national level that an infusion of a few senior faculty hires would vault them into that tier. We got such a grant a few years ago. The infusion process--which has gotten us the likes of Kevin Boyle, Cynthia Brokaw, John Brooke, Alice Conklin, David Cressy, Alan Gallay, Donna Guy, Barbara Hanawalt, Steven Kern, Geoffrey Parker, and Dale Van Kley--is now almost complete.
Peter finished his remarks and I filled them in on the military history program: the faculty, the number and type of grad students, the audiences for military history and the ways in which our program addressed each. Because their brother was active duty military, I laid special emphasis on the fact that we train officers who will teach at the various service academies and that all of the faculty can and do engage with the armed forces and the strategic policy-making community.
Before the meeting we'd been told the Benefactors planned to give the military history program $500,000--enough to endow a graduate student fellowship. It turned out that each sister controlled half of the inheritance and, since Maureen agreed to match Molly's $500,000 offer, we got $1,000,000, enough for two fellowships. And what else would be of use to the program? Peter instantly suggested that an endowed professorship would allow us to hire an additional top-flight scholar, who would in turn help us to attract the very best grad students. The amount currently required to endow such a professorship, he continued, was $1.5 million. The Benefactor sisters chatted briefly across the table and agreed to give an additional amount sufficient to endow a professorship. Thus, by the time the meeting adjourned, the military history program stood to get $2.5 million.
Not bad for hitting the reply button when a generous donation offer hits your in-box.