By Todd Cohen
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In October, the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chapel Hill announced a $10 million gift commitment — its biggest gift ever — to fund early-stage cancer research.
The form of the gift represents the holy grail of fundraising: It is unrestricted, giving Lineberger’s leaders discretion to apply the dollars to areas of research they believe are most promising.
Ken and Cheryl Williams of Burlington, who are making the gift, are the kind of donors who fundraising professionals dream about, says Eli Jordfald, director of major gifts at Lineberger, who says the gift is the largest she has helped secure in her 30-year career in fundraising.
“Not only have they made this gift,” she says. “They want to help us solicit other gifts and be right there with us.”
Long-time supporters of athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and and of the Educational Foundation, the sports booster and scholarship organization at UNC better known as The Rams Club, the couple first got involved with the Cancer Center in October 2010.
Cheryl Williams, whose mother had died from breast cancer at age 52, volunteered that year to help raise money for Tickled Pink, a month-long fundraising effort the couple supported with a small gift.
Ken Williams, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees from what is now the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC and is a retired senior vice president at Durham-based Quintiles, the world’s largest provider of biopharmaceutical development and commercial outsourcing services, also has a personal connection with cancer: His father died from mesothelioma and, last year, the couple brought his 94-year-old mother to Lineberger after she was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
In 2011, the couple joined Lineberger’s board of visitors, a group of 135 couples who serve as ambassadors for the Center throughout the state. And in 2013, they joined the board’s development committee, which provides volunteer input and support for the Center’s fundraising efforts.
“They been very engaged in development conversations and development initiatives,” Jordfald says.
The Williamses also have been involved in early planning during the silent phase of a comprehensive fundraising campaign at UNC that is expected to set a goal totaling billions of dollars.
Since joining the board, Jordfald says, the Williamses have worked closely with many people at Lineberger, including Debbie Dibbert, its former executive director of external affairs.
Last April, Jordfald invited the couple to lunch at the Carolina Club at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center at UNC for what they understood “was going to be a gift conversation,” she says. Also at the lunch was Martin Baucom, who had been named executive director of development and communications to succeed Dibbert after she became chief of staff for UNC Chancellor Carol Folt.
“We talked about some of the really big and bold plans for the Cancer Center and the importance of philanthropy and how critical it would be to have board members step up and support these important initiatives,” Jordfald says.
The Williamses said during the two-hour lunch that they were “starting to think seriously about their gift,” Jordfald says, and indicated they were “thinking about a significant gift” that would be earmarked for unrestricted research.
Then, in July, standing in the lobby of the Center at the close of a 90-minute tour, the couple said “they were very close to finalizing a gift” and indicated “it was going to be a multi-million-dollar gift.”
They also asked how large a gift would be needed to name the lobby for their son Tony, who had died tragically two years ago.
“When they heard the figure of $10 million,” Jordfald says, “Cheryl said it would be so wonderful to be able to name the lobby for Tony.”
Final details of the gift were worked out, and papers signed, at two lunches at a restaurant in Burlington, and the gift was announced in October.
Key to the gift, Jordfald says, were the active role the Williamses played on the board of visitors and development committee; their engagement with and support of staff leaders and faculty; and their substantive knowledge about the Center’s work and vision, and desire to participate in advancing it; and conversations they had with Folt and David Routh, UNC’s vice chancellor for university advancement.
Equally critical was “listening carefully to what their goals were,” she says. “They wanted to establish a legacy. They wanted to find answers to complicated cancers.”
The Williamses “are truly a development person’s dream,” Jordfald says. “They are rainmakers.”