Fundraiser's strategy shift spurs success

Sees 'destination,' not just the 'tools'

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Jennifer McCrea is so well connected as a philanthropic adviser that she counts among her clients Dean Ornish, the diet doctor, and musician-producer Quincy Jones.

But the Allison Park native clearly recalls the day that she almost abandoned the fundraising profession.

It was the late 1980s and she had spent the day traipsing through New York City where her first employer, Allegheny College, had assigned her to call on alumni and ask for gifts for a new science building planned for the liberal arts school's campus in Meadville, Pa.

As she dragged herself up Fifth Avenue -- arms and legs aching, and blueprints for the proposed building in her briefcase -- Ms. McCrea decided that asking for money was terrible work and she resolved to find a new job.

But later that night, in a small, Manhattan hotel room, she had a revelation that she could convince people to give to Allegheny if she shifted her focus away from asking for dollars and instead engaged potential donors in the significance of the innovative technology and possible medical advances that would be accomplished in the new science facility.

"That was my aha moment," Ms. McCrea said. "I was making money the center of the relationships and forgetting about the importance of the work. I just shifted my approach, and that's been my worldview ever since."

The change in strategy has served her well.

After that career-altering moment more than two decades ago, Ms. McCrea, 47, who graduated from Allegheny with a degree in English and philosophy, continued to work for the school's development office for a few more years, then went on to a series of fundraising jobs at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Washington University in St. Louis, and Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she was vice president of development.

For the past 10 years, she has been based in New York where she runs a nonprofit that works to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa; consults with high net worth individuals about charitable giving; and commutes to Boston to teach a class in fundraising at the Hauser Institute for Civil Society at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

Her teaching and her work as a senior research fellow at the institute led her to co-author a book, "The Generosity Network," published in September by Deepak Chopra Books, an imprint of Random House.

The co-author is Jeffrey Walker, a former top executive at JPMorgan Chase who also chaired the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and now serves as a nonprofit board member and adviser.

In the book, the authors dispense fundraising strategies they believe apply to organizations of all sizes -- from neighborhood Girl Scout troops to major foundations and hospitals.

In a telephone interview from New York, Ms. McCrea said the core takeaway is this: "Never ask anybody for help. Ask them to work together so you're not in the supplicant position" and dependent on them writing a check.

In fact, she avoids referring to philanthropists as donors.

"I use the term, 'partner' ... because the money is just the gas that goes in the car. It's not the destination. It's just a tool."

Some specific tips include how to conduct a first meeting with a potential contributor so that he or she feels connected enough to commit to a second meeting; and why small, inexpensive dinners may be more effective fundraising tools than traditional black tie galas.

"Fundraising galas are a complete waste of time and money," said Ms. McCrea. "The return on investment is very low, they're incredibly labor-intensive and some people are moving away from them. Organizations can get budget-dependent on them and can't get rid of them and then you are a prisoner to these events."

Instead, she suggests nonprofits organize what she and Mr. Walker have dubbed "Jeffersonian Dinners." These gatherings of 10 or so individuals in private restaurant dining rooms or at someone's home are modeled after Thomas Jefferson's dinner parties at his Virginia estate, Monticello, where he invited luminaries of the time and insisted that guests participate in lively conversations around the table.

"It's a vehicle to connect people, not around whose bio is most influential but how we are all humans," she said.

At a dinner organized to raise funds for Teach for America, for instance, guests talked about their favorite teachers.

"I've done hundreds of these dinners, and every time you can just feel this invisible web of connection being created. Once you set that landscape, there's a space where people can ask where they can add value" to a worthy project or nonprofit, she said.

A career in philanthropy wasn't on her radar when Ms. McCrea was a student in the Shaler Area school district. Her late father spent his whole career in the pension and benefits department at Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s headquarters, and her mother -- who still lives in the North Hills -- was a homemaker. Her two sisters also reside in the Pittsburgh area.

"Like all fundraisers, I just fell into it. I needed a job when I graduated from Allegheny; times were tough for liberal arts majors. I was so young and green, and hadn't traveled much at all. Maybe I had been on an airplane once before."

She credits Allegheny's former president, Daniel Sullivan, with inspiring her despite her early trepidation about asking people for donations.

"He told us that you can't raise money sitting behind a desk. He said to go out and make 300 face-to-face visits a year. That was a lot of time meeting with people, but it was such a gift."

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.

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