By Todd Cohen
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates famously likened his job to that of a midwife.
Just as a midwife works to help women bear children, Socrates saw his role as helping people give birth to their own answers to life’s questions.
For over 35 years, Charles Collier served as a philanthropic midwife, helping donors create gifts that would make an impact on causes they cared about, while at the same time protecting the financial security of their families.
Collier, who was diagnosed two years ago with Alzheimer’s disease, retired in December as senior philanthropic adviser at Harvard University, where he worked for 25 years and advised the school’s wealthiest donors.
His illness, now in the early-onset stage, may have slowed his speech a bit but not his thinking.
Reflecting on his career, Collier sees two key abiding strategies for generating major gifts and planned gifts, regardless of the size of the charitable organization or the gift.
The first is to understand donors and their connection to the organization, and the second is to understand the problems and concerns facing donors’ families.
Fundraising for the Ivies
Collier spent most of his career raising money for higher education, including four of the Ivy League’s eight schools.
After majoring in religion at Dartmouth and receiving a master’s degree in divinity from Harvard, Collier initially worked as a teacher and coach at Proctor Academy in New Hampshire before embarking on his fundraising career.
His first fundraising job was at Dartmouth, where he worked for a year for the annual fund before serving for three years as a major-gift officer at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., his alma mater.
He then spent two years at Brown as a planned-giving officer, and five years at Princeton, where he was head of planned giving, before joining Harvard in 1986 as director of planned giving.
Five years later, Harvard named Collier to the new post of senior philanthropic adviser.
Gratitude as motivation
The length of time it takes to engage a donor and secure a gift typically is shorter for a university, college or independent school than for a nonprofit “because people either went to the schools or their children have,” Collier says. “And this has been important to their life story, and so gratitude is a huge motivation.”
So a major-gift officer can “go straight to talking about what the organization did for you or your family,” he says.
That is an approach that a fundraiser at any nonprofit can use, he says.
“Find out their life story, and what was meaningful to them,” he says, “and build on the things that were really important to them.”
Collier says major gifts and planned gifts, regardless of how a nonprofit measures them, take longer to develop, and require more work with a donor.
“That means you want to have a relationship which in my view should be deeper than money,” he says.
Family wealth, anxiety
In Wealth in Families, a book he wrote that Harvard published in 2001, with over 114,000 copies distributed, Collier talks about a family’s human and intellectual “capital.”
Taking that perspective is “not just a way to be with donors,” he says, but it also is a way “to help them make important decisions.”
A big question and concern for many wealthy people is how much money to give to their children or spouse, says Collier.
A son or daughter still may be in college or facing personal problems, for example, and his or her financial future may not be clear.
A parent also may want to make sure not to give a child too much money, or too little.
For many donors, Collier says, concern about finding the adequate level of support for children or a spouse can be the major obstacle to making a major gift, or making it significantly larger.
“Family comes first,” he says.
In the face of those concerns, he says, many fundraising professionals simply may push the donor to make a gift immediately.
But his advice is to think about a major gift as a long-term process.
That requires having a “difficult” conversation, but that kind of conversation “builds a bond with the donor,” he says. “If you ask good questions, they will figure it out for themselves.”
Collier credits his study of family-systems theory as helping to engage in those tougher conversations with donors.
Once described as a “financial therapist,” Collier says he is not a therapist.
“But I ask therapeutic questions,” he says.
“A lot of money in a family is an object of anxiety,” he says. “So you have to address that anxiety and think about it.”
Collier has seen several trends in major-gift and planned-gift fundraising, including an increasingly more complex aspect to the technical side of creating a gift, the importance of collaboration on the part of the fundraising professional, and a desire on the part of the donor to want the gift to make a big impact.
Those trends reflect what is happening at nonprofits of all sizes, regardless of what they consider a major gift, he says.
Donors want to know who will be responsible for developing and carrying out a project they are funding, for example, as well as the reason and aspirations for the project, the logic and evidence behind it, what its impact will be and how that impact will be measured.
That effort requires a team approach, including not just fundraising professionals, but also program staff, a nonprofit’s legal advisers, and the donor’s professional advisers, including lawyers, accountants and financial planners.
“When you’re doing bigger gifts, a lot of people are involved,” Collier says. “It’s a team.”
Making a difference
He says his career gave him the opportunity to “work with colleagues and donors who are wonderful people” in trying to help make a difference.
“It’s really meaningful that you can make the world a better place,” he says.
And his focus on planned giving gave him a chance to engage in “a little bit deeper conversation” with donors about their personal and philanthropic aspirations, and their families, he says.
Collier now is helping to raise money for a gift to Andover from his class, which celebrates its 45th reunion in June.
He also is volunteering for the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund.
“What I’m doing is probably not much help for them,” he says, “but just being with them has been really helpful to me.”