"Unsurpassed." The Fundraising Profession Loses a Gruff But Gentle Giant

He seldom, if ever, met with any donors.

Yet Kent E. Dove, who passed away Sunday morning, “was unsurpassed in his understanding of the process of fundraising,” says Curt Simic, a close colleague and president emeritus at the Indiana University Foundation, in Bloomington, where the two men worked.

Both men attended Indiana University as students and served together at different institutions off and on for decades. Kent Dove and Curt Simic—with their different but complementary personal and professional styles—inspired me to write an unusual profile about their work. I’d never before written about a duo in my long career covering the leading lights of the fundraising profession.

But it was always Kent who I turned to whenever I needed to understand something about raising money. And that was often. In response, he was unfailingly patient and generous with his expertise.

“His mind was a steel trap,” says Eileen Savage, a former colleague of Dove’s who is now the chief fundraiser at Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Dove, recalls Savage, read every donor contact report submitted to Indiana’s voluminous database system. “He had it all committed to memory and could talk to you about strategy. It amazed us that he read every single contact report.”

At senior staff meetings, Savage says, “there was no dialog, Kent just talked. It was all important and valuable information.” His ego, she adds, “was not tied to being on the front line. He was a teacher, the processor, the strategist, and the mentor to staff.”

Staff could walk into Dove’s small, utilitarian office with its linoleum floors and bare walls at any time, she says. “He would talk strategy, and you walked out smarter than when you walked in.”

Among Dove’s many accomplishments: He wrote five well-regarded, comprehensive textbooks on fundraising. Amazon sells all of them in a collection called the “Dove on Fundraising Set.”

Along with Simic, who still focuses on the personal contacts with donors he avoided, Dove spent the last 15 years of his career back at Indiana University, building the development program of his alma mater from its reliance on modest annual gifts to one of the nation’s top fundraising powerhouses, routinely attracting multimillion-dollar donations.

The secret fundraising sauce that Dove helped pioneer was Indiana’s reliance on “continuous lifetime giving,” pursuing contributions that might start with an undergraduate’s participation in a bike-a-thon or other event and stretch through that donor’s life. The result: many huge donations like the $80 million bequest to Indiana from one deceased alumnus, entrepreneur Jesse Cox.  

Along the way, Dove organized studies to better understand donor behavior. His research into alumni giving, for example, helped Indiana realize that its long-held practice of contacting alumni only by the school from which they graduated was misguided and ineffective.

But Dove, also in demand as a consultant and speaker at fundraising conferences, was not perfect, colleagues say. “He came across as gruff,” says Jeff Lindauer, another former colleague who still works at Indiana University. “He would tell people exactly what he thought, he didn’t care whether you agreed with him or not.”

“He was very headstrong,” Savage agrees.

Adds Simic: “Kent didn’t manage up very well. He could get in trouble for speaking his mind.”

But in the end, those characteristics paled in comparison with Dove’s vast fundraising knowledge and other professional talents. One was identifying and recruiting what Savage calls a “dream team” of fundraisers who helped propel Indiana into a top fundraising institution. Some of Dove’s recruits went on to contribute chapters to his textbooks.

“Kent took seriously that larger organizations have the responsibility to populate the profession with people of integrity,” Simic says. “We agreed that we had a responsibility to ensure ethical fundraising.”

He adds: “Kent discovered a lot of people. His lasting legacy is the number of people he influenced and brought into our profession.”