Imagine a major gift for your school that comes by itself, with no preparatory work on your part. It happened to Hartford Seminary this year, to the tune of $6.2 million, which is now safely nestled in the school's endowment fund. The donor, George A. Gay, died in 1940, and made a bequest in trust that came to the school after his last heir died. "We knew that there was a gift," said Heidi Hadsell, Hartford's new president, "but we didn't know how much or when." Gay had no special connection to the school that anyone remembers. He was the senior partner at Brown Thomson, a department store where he was first employed as a stockboy after moving to Connecticut from his native Scotland at age 18. During his lifetime, he gave to the arts and to hospitals in Hartford and to a library in his hometown. "There's no way of knowing exactly what attracted him to the school," said Hadsell.

Fortunately, there are major donors who are still alive and willing to talk about what inspired them to give to a particular school. Interviews with several of them show some strong commonalities in their experiences. They are strongly rooted in local congregations. They tend to have a close relationship to a graduate of their school of choice. Visits to campus have enabled them both to see needs and to build relationships with people who have continuing affiliation with the school. And their giving is rooted in prayer.

Look to the Board

Connie Fulmer shares a secret with preschoolers in her Sunday school class. Her greatest joy is seeing a light go on when the children grasp who Jesus is.

Photograph by Ryan Conrad

"We've never made a gift like this before," said Craig Fulmer of the $1 million he and his wife Connie just gave to the capital campaign at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Fulmer, owner and chair of the Heritage Financial Group, says that it was a matter of thought and prayer for several months. Now that the gift is made, though, "We know we're doing the right thing," he said. As Craig and Connie Fulmer tell their story, it seems that they're doing the inevitable thing.

The Fulmers have been active church members most of their adult lives, mostly at Trinity United Methodist Church in Elkhart, Indiana. They've been "on all the boards and all that," said Craig, "and we've learned that as you reach out for the church and do things you get back far more." They've taught Sunday School for twenty-five years, Craig specializing in high schoolers and Connie in preschoolers. Her favorite moments happen "when I'm telling a Bible story to a little one. You can see a light bulb come on and they connect. They realize who Jesus is."

Eight years ago, another member of the congregation was stepping down from United's board. He recruited Craig, who was interviewed by Leonard Sweet, then president of the school. Connie went along: spouses of board members at United are encouraged to be as involved as they like, including attendance at meetings. "Sweet's a visionary," said Connie, "and you just get caught up. It's fun to get excited."

Craig Fulmer accepted the invitation to join the United board, and over time the Fulmers developed friendships with fellow board members, with students, with faculty. "Early on, we were on a committee with Kathy Farmer (United's professor of New Testament)," said Craig. "We've shared meal fellowship with her and her husband since. Her spirit is amazing, her energy level incredible. And that's the thing—we've spent a little time for this place. But the people who work here have dedicated their entire life and being. We are in awe." Connie also cites their friendship with current United president Ed Zeiders. "He has a deep faith that just exudes," she said.

Granted the Fulmers' longstanding commitment to the school, what finally tipped their decision to give now rather than later? The fact that their friend on the board, Richard Zimmerman, just gave $2 million. Examples matter. "There's not a better place to spend your money than where the mission is building Christ-centered leaders," said Craig. "After the Zimmermans announced their gift, we thought, "'Why not now? Maybe we can set an example, too.'"

Cultivating the Vision

Of course you can't invite all of your potential major donors onto your board. You don't have to—some people can catch the vision fairly quickly, given some seeds planted along the way, a few well-spoken words, and a chance to see a need. Wilson Smith, retired founder of the Food Lion grocery chain, and his wife Evelyeen recently gave $2 million to Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary as seed money for construction of new student housing. Here's how he described the process that led to the gift.

"A number of pastors at our church have been Southern graduates, of course, and they've shared stories of their student years, and what they had to put up with in terms of housing," he said. (The Smiths are members of St. John's Lutheran Church in Salisbury, North Carolina.) A few years ago, the St. John's Golden Opportunity Club, a senior citizens group, took a two-hour bus trip to visit the school. "I was very impressed with the congeniality of the students," said Wilson, "and when we toured their living quarters, we saw the need for improving them." (Lutheran Southern hadn't built any housing since the 1950s.) The trip was also the beginning of a friendship with Mary Ann Shealy, the school's vice president for development and seminary relations. Shealy describes Smith as the sort of person who, upon hearing that a student from his town is attending the school, will call her and say, "Take good care of him."

Why the big gift? "We need pastors," said Smith in slow and gentle tones, "and we need to encourage more people. They need to be trained in a very inviting environment, especially second-career people."

The Wilson L. Smith Family Village—named for the whole Smith family—was dedicated last fall. "It was one of the most wonderful days of my life," said Smith, "to see something that was an idea become a reality. It's a very inviting place, and the students said it felt more like home." He especially enjoyed and admired one of the units that was designed for total accessibility. "We had a good friend who was a handicapped pastor," he recalled. He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was full of joy. "This is something we should have done years ago."

Day by Day

Some major gifts don't come all at once. Richard and Jo Miller aren't anywhere near the million-dollar mark yet in their giving to Dallas Theological Seminary, but they've been giving significantly and steadily for ten years. "We'll give to them as long as they stay true to the Word," said Dick Miller.

Dallas might not be the place you would expect an Illinois couple to do their major giving. But Grace Bible Church in Washington, Illinois, the congregation the Millers belong to, has had a series of pastors who are Dallas graduates, and, as Dick Miller puts it, "We agree with what they teach." Agreement with the principles of the organizations they support is important to the Millers, who don't give to their local United Way for fear they'd be funding abortions.

The Millers' ties to the school got a little closer when one of their pastors was looking for graduates to mentor as they began their own churches. He took a group of church members to Dallas to help with the interview process, and Miller, a pilot, flew them. What did he find at the school that appealed to him? "No frills, just good solid students," he said. He's made the trip a number of times now, and feels that his first impression has been confirmed. Some of the students they interviewed stayed at the Millers' house upon their arrival in Illinois. He's gotten to know the school even better because Dallas professors are sometimes invited to their church to teach.

Miller is a lifelong Christian who was—as he put it—"taught from Day One to lay up treasures in heaven." He said, "We've always had plenty to share, even when we didn't have anything."

The Millers' giving to the seminary has taken a number of forms. They've done general giving and donated to building programs—but the program Miller likes to talk about is the International Leadership Scholarship Program, which funds study at the school for international students and their families who have ministries waiting for them at home. Miller speaks with pride of Russian students whose training he has underwritten.

Kim Till, Dallas's executive director for advancement, said that the Millers fit the pattern of their donors, most—indeed, nine-tenths—of whom are not graduates of the school or family members of graduates. "The number one reason listed by our donors for giving to Dallas is a life impacted by one of our graduates," she said.

An Exemplary Giver

Some major gifts aren't measured in millions of dollars. They are measured by the commitment of the giver's heart. Grace B. Carnes steadily gives several thousand dollars a year to St. Bernard's Institute in Rochester, New York, a Roman Catholic school that provides training to lay people in ministry and continuing education for laity and clergy. She will not be a member of anybody's million-dollar club—but Sister Patricia Schoelles, St. Bernard's president, identifies her as an example of what it means to give. 

Grace B. Carnes's generosity is an outgrowth of a lifestyle that includes service to the poor, the imprisoned, and to the church family, too.

Carnes, 82, spent her working life as a "correspondent" for Kodak—dictating answers to customer complaints, and training others for the same job. "It was a staff job, but women were not paid very well then," she explained. Employees could earn Kodak stock, though, and she did. When Carnes's husband died ten years ago, she determined to live modestly on her pension and Social Security, and to give everything else away. "I had a calling," she said, "to make my life count."

Her parish church is Rochester's Sacred Heart Cathedral, in whose life she has been deeply involved. When a priest of the diocese remarked, "You ought to live in the cathedral," she breezily replied, "I'll settle only for a cot in the rectory."

"I came from the old school," she said, "and many people my age are still living there. But my growth toward social ministry and social justice is due to prayer and to daily mass."

She is also deeply committed to education. "I was fortunate to have a scholarship to a girls' school," she said, an experience that taught her the power of education and the necessity of supporting it.

So, when Carnes read in the diocesan newspaper that St. Bernard's was raising money for scholarships, it was an obvious giving choice for her—a Catholic educational institution with a social justice commitment. The only problem was that the fund-raiser was a dinner, and "I don't believe in these great big deals." So she sent a donation with a tongue-in-cheek note explaining that she didn't own a party dress and was a little suspicious that her donation might underwrite dinner. She and Schoelles became instant friends.

Her giving is part of a lifestyle that includes volunteering in a soup kitchen, serving as greeter at the cathedral, and writing longhand letters to prisoners, including a death-row inmate in Texas. "I wrote till Texas murdered him," she said. "Now I write to his family."

Recently Carnes wrote a letter to her diocesan newspaper celebrating her experience greeting a gay rights group to the cathedral, and her delight that they were able to receive communion. "At my funeral," she said, "they're going to read the gospel where Jesus asks Peter, "'Do you love me? Feed my sheep.' If you want other people to do that, you have to teach them how." That's why she supports St. Bernard's.

A Common Road

These donors are very different people. But what they have in common is a clue to what motivates generosity. They all have a lifelong pattern of generosity, with childhood models. They are all deeply involved in their congregations. They all have fond relationships with people at the schools they support—both graduates and staff. They have all visited the institutions and come away with a sense of what is needed there.

It seems awfully simple. Their giving is organic. It grew out of naturally occurring relationships and patterns of sharing that have deep roots. None of them became donors because of a fancy electronic campaign. There doesn't seem to be a formula to be applied.

Except, perhaps, for the self-evident one. People give when they are shown a need that speaks to their heart by someone they trust and care about.

Probably that's what happened to George Gay.


Words of Encouragement

"What advice do you have for someone considering a major gift?"

Connie Fulmer: "It doesn't hurt. We've been blessed by it"

Wilson Smith: "My son is a financial planner, and he's very outspoken about annuities. It's a way that older people can give."

Dick Miller: "Know the school. You have to believe in it and know what they teach."

Grace B. Carnes: "Look into your heart and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance."

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