As director of a $3 billion fundraising campaign that took New York University from the brink of financial disaster to lasting success, Naomi B. Levine offers 16 simple rules for consultant-free fundraising in her new book, From Bankruptcy to Billions: Fundraising the Naomi Levine Way.
Starting in 1978, Levine served for 25 years as NYU’s senior vice president for external affairs, and also founded the university’s George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. As NYU’s lead fundraiser, she led one of the first billion-dollar campaign in higher education. When she arrived, NYU was a commuter school for students who lived at home. With no central library and no recreation center, it was not anyone’s first-choice school.
But now, Levine writes, it’s raising more than $400 million a year and has completed one of the largest—if not the largest—higher ed building endeavors of the last decade, including construction of a “magnificent” sports center, a new student center, six new dormitories, and scores of new laboratories and classrooms.
The subject of Levine’s book is this “miracle” of a near-bankrupt university becoming in so short a time a great one with a balanced budget, more applications than it can handle, distinguished faculty, and outstanding fundraising.
Takeaways from NYU’s Rise
Her 16 rules are grounded in the absolute necessity of Rule 1: fundraising is everyone’s job. As if to underscore that principle, raising money is the job of the university president (Rule 2), the board chairman (Rule 3), board members (Rule 4), a centralized development staff (and they must be well paid and respected) (Rule 5), and deans and faculty members.
Levine makes the case that fundraisers must be “interesting human beings,” well-read, socially engaged people who are also knowledgeable about current affairs (Rule 6). Asking for money is only a small part of what fundraisers do, Levine writes. They must understand people, discern what their interests are, and develop trusting, mutually respectful relationships with those who have the capacity to become supporters.
Another Levine fundraising principle is verbalizing how a charitable organization or cause is unique (Rule 8), a task at which NYU excelled. Starting with the assumption that its biggest competitors were the City University of New York (CUNY) open-enrollment colleges and Columbia University, NYU distinguished itself. NYU described Columbia as an elitist school in upper Manhattan “with a wall around it.”
To set itself apart from CUNY open-enrollment colleges, NYU cut its size, raised its SAT requirements and academic standards, consolidated its operation on Washington Square, built its College of Arts and Sciences, attracted distinguished faculty, and presented itself not as a “last resort university,” but an academically demanding one recruiting top students and distinguished faculty.
A Big Apple Focus
Founded in 1831 as a private university, NYU now touted itself as part and parcel of New York City, a “private university in the public service.” Each of its schools developed programs with New York City institutions. The School of Education, for example, worked in the public school system, while the law school developed programs to help the poor with their legal problems and the dental school sent vans to provide dental care to residents of nursing homes. As a result, Levine writes, “New York City itself became the campus of NYU.”
Such rebranding was exciting to donors, many of whom had attended NYU and were proud of the success they had achieved there and in their subsequent professional lives.
Understanding how and whom to ask for money (Rule 14) is an anxiety-inducing endeavor that makes many people uncomfortable, Levine notes. For that reason, she advises not asking for a dollar amount at first, but for the donor’s “support” for a particular project.
“While it is difficult or impossible for me to ask for money for myself,” Levine says, “it is not difficult to ask for something I believe is of importance.” She tells people to prepare carefully, have as much knowledge as possible about a potential donor, and prepare a written script.
Trust: A Crucial Ingredient
The idea that fundraisers must be knowledgeable about the laws governing nonprofits and sensitive to ethical issues (Rule 16) looms large in Levine’s advice. “More than any other group,” she says, “fundraisers know that donor trust and confidence is critical.” Donors who do not trust an organization will stop giving. She discusses cases of unethical behavior at the Red Cross, the Baptist Foundation of America, the Smithsonian, the United Way of America, and several others that have upset donors and potential supporters. Levine urges comprehensive education for all fundraisers on ethics and more government oversight to ensure continued support for nonprofits.
An addendum at the back of Levine’s book provides useful information on contemporary problems in philanthropy, including the need for the training and licensure of fundraisers, the case brought by William Robertson against Princeton University, which the author regards as “the most important case in higher education over the question of honoring the wishes of the donor,” stories of conflict of interest, issues concerning women in philanthropy and whether they will change its direction, and fundraising in a time of financial crisis.
Jane F. Karlin, Ph.D., a decade-long member of the NYU Levine team, provided a blurb on the book’s cover: Levine, she writes, “would fuel NYU’s extraordinary academic rise, shaping the university’s destiny for decades to come… she elevated fundraising as a profession, guiding countless women and men to pursue careers in institutional advancement… She was a transformational leader who continues to inspire.”