Why Is This Think Tank President So Good At Fundraising?

When Arthur Brooks landed a $20 million gift for the American Enterprise Institute earlier this year we were pretty surprised. That kind of money may be no big deal for colleges or hospitals, but it's not often that think tanks pull in such big gifts.

Which made us wonder: Why is Arthur Brooks so good at raising money?

It's not like he came to the AEI with a long track record in this regard. The guy was a college professor, with no previous experience running a nonprofit or heading up a big development operation. AEI took quite a leap hiring an academic to bring in the bacon, but Brooks has delivered since he started in his job in 2009. AEI pulled in $32.1 million in 2011, $37.4 million in 2012, and $44.4 million last year. That's quite a run. 

Now, granted, this has been a period when the stock market has come roaring back. It's also been a time when AEI looks like a bastion of sanity in a conservative universe dominated by Tea Party nutcases—including the guy who took over at the Heritage Foundation. And, of course, it helps—as we notedwhen that $20 million gift came in—that AEI defends the financial interests of wealthy people and has a board composed largely of said people. I can say from experience that it's a lot harder to get the rich to support think tanks that focus on defending those near the bottom of the income ladder. 

If Arthur Brooks woke up tomorrow and decided that, say, capital gains should be taxed at the same rate income is right now, he'd be down a bunch of donors by lunch time. 

But there's obviously more to Brooks' fundraising success, and recently he let us in on his secret in aNew York Times op-ed: He actually thinks raising money is fun. Or, more accurately, that charitable giving bestows deep benefits on all involved—those who give and those who get. Brooks came to this insight while writing his important book on charity, Who Really Cares. As Brooks explained in his op-ed:

Charitable giving improves what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” one’s belief that one is capable of handling a situation and bringing about a desired outcome. When people give their time or money to a cause they believe in, they become problem solvers. Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstance.

These insights changed Brooks' own life, and he began investing more time and money in charitable activities. But when he took the leap to big-time fundraising at AEI, he discovered things went even deeper:

In this role, I have found that the real magic of fund-raising goes even deeper than temporary happiness or extra income. It creates meaning. Donors possess two disconnected commodities: material wealth and sincere convictions. Alone, these commodities are difficult to combine. But fund-raisers facilitate an alchemy of virtue: They empower those with financial resources to convert the dross of their money into the gold of a better society.

Wow, that's a pretty good mindset to have when you go out to cultivate donors: That you're helping these folks out by facilitating an "alchemy of virtue." My own experience before talking to donors was always a yucky dread about asking people for something they probably didn't want to give. 

There's another big reason that Arthur Brooks is good at his job: he's a great salesman for AEI's products, which are ideas. Why? Because he's an ideas guy himself—a distinguished scholar and articulate public intellectual.  

Like venture capitalists, nonprofit donors love to invest in talent. And there's no more compelling pitch than one that comes from that talent.