Jerry May: Selling blue for green

Teresa Mathew/Daily
Jerry May, the University's vice president for development Buy this photo

By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published November 12, 2013

Jerry May’s office is huddled in a corner of Wolverine Tower in south Ann Arbor, a diminutive location for the head of a multi-million dollar operation.

Ryan Reiss/Daily
Students, alumni, and staff participate in the Community Festival portion of The Victors for Michigan kick-off celebration on Friday.
Ryan Reiss/Daily
University President Mary Sue Coleman presents alumni, students, and donors with the goals of The Victors for Michigan campaign at the launch event at Hill Auditorium Friday.
Virginia Lozano/Daily
Real estate mogul Stephen Ross, talks about the importance of philanthropy.

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Statement Cover

May, the University’s vice president for development, is a smooth talker — but not slick. He has a sort of intensity and fluidity that comes with lots of practice. Quick to deflect praise, he is humble yet forceful in his words, confident but not brash. He dresses to the occasion — but usually with a little more flair than most. A black suit isn’t enough for his official portrait, sky blue will do.

What makes him unique, perhaps, is that he’s at home in front of strangers. Working a room is second nature for him, building relationships with donors and others that will (hopefully) last well beyond the end of his career. All the while, he’s working toward something tangible, a gift, a pledge or a commitment to meet the University’s pressing needs.

“He’s extremely strategic,” said University Provost Martha Pollack. “He has extraordinary people skills. Development officers connect. That’s what they do. If Jerry meets you once, he’ll remember your name, the name of your friends, your cats, your dogs — he has incredible people skills.”

With more than 30 years under his belt in development, he’s been at the University longer than most top-level executive officers and administrators. Despite his rise to the top of the office, May has continued to work with many of the same donors that he began with more than a quarter-century ago. All that time, he’s been selling the same product: The University of Michigan.

Whether that entails a building, scholarship or a $20 bill is up to the donor, with some gentle nudging from May or one of his accomplices.

May now faces the greatest challenge of his career: the $4 billion Victors for Michigan campaign, one of the most ambitious fundraising efforts in the history of public higher education.

The campaign will, in many ways, determine the course of the University’s next decade and beyond; whether or not it can find support for research, innovative teaching techniques and student aid will enable it to excel in the higher-education fundraising arms race or fall behind.

By way of cocktail parties, receptions and lighthearted jokes with donors, it’s up to May to help make sure the University thrives.

The need, the need, the need

In 1989, then-University President James Duderstadt published a report titled, “The Bleak Outlook for State Support of the University of Michigan.” At the time, the state’s support for the University had dropped from almost 80 percent of the state general fund in 1960 to about 45 percent in 1990.

And those were the good days.

Today, state appropriations make up only 17 percent of the general budget — the money used to pay most instructors, cut the grass and keep the lights on. Over the course of the last decade, the state’s appropriation for the Ann Arbor campus has fallen from about $363 million in fiscal year 2002-2003 to about $279 million in fiscal 2013-2014 in nominal dollars. In real terms, if the 2002-2003 appropriation had grown only at the rate of the Consumer Price Index for Detroit, the University should be receiving about $450 million from the state for this year’s budget.

One of the defining legacies that former University Provosts Paul Courant, Teresa Sullivan and Phil Hanlon left from their tenures as the University’s second-highest leader was the creation of a budget model capable of weathering the enormous decline in state appropriations and a national recession — some considerable tuition increases notwithstanding. However, with the budget increasingly squeezed to maintain only what already existed, the flexibility to invest in new projects and endeavors became increasingly difficult.

Out of the crucible of year-over-year declines in state support, the need for external and voluntary support rapidly became more than a luxury — it was a necessity. Though a refocusing on development was underway well before the drastic cuts began in the 2000s, it gained a new sense of urgency.

The man who makes the money

The man who leads the University’s development activities is no stranger to a challenge. May began his career in fundraising in 1979 — when the University’s fundraising staff was on half of the top floor of the Student Activities Building.

Today, there are 550 people working in development at all three University campuses and across the nation. Nearly 175 of those people are full “development officers” — those that go out and engage with donors directly. May oversees all of them.

May graduated with an English degree from Michigan’s Hope College before earning a master’s degree from the University of Vermont. In his mid 20s, he served as a dean of students for New England College before applying to the University for a doctorate in Higher Education Administration. While he was wrapping up his studies, a job in the University’s nascent development operation opened up. Since his wife was already working in student affairs, he decided to try something different.

It worked.

“It was absolutely the perfect fit,” May said. “I tend to remember names, I tend to remember people, I love meeting strangers, I love relationship building, and I’m not afraid to sell. I’m not embarrassed about asking people. The vast majority — most people are. Not everybody likes to ask people to give away money.”

May said when he began in the fall of 1979, the University’s endowment was less than $150 million and development raised between $15 to 30 million per year — a far cry from the hundreds of millions raised annually in the last decade. According to Judith Malcolm, senior director of the University’s executive communications, last year the University brought in $357 million in cash donations, and many millions more in pledges to be paid over coming years.

Historically, private schools have a stronger tradition in development than public institutions, which usually benefitted from strong and growing state support. Faced with economic hardship and budget reprioritizations, many states have gradually reduced the amount they spend funding flagship state institutions, often reallocating funds to technical schools and community colleges.

The University saw a major revamp in development practices in the early ‘80s under the stewardship of Jon Cosovich, a vice president for development recruited from Stanford University.

At his first meeting with the staff, Cosovich laid out his plans for the University’s development: focus on transformational gifts, not incremental ones. At the time, that was $100,000 or above.

“The room was silent, everybody went ‘$100,000?’ ” May said. “You know, at that point, it was scary to think that was all you were going to work on instead of like $5,000.”

Building a tradition of giving back is one of May’s long-term goals. Even though the University has the seventh largest endowment in the nation, which this year totaled $8.4 billion, the University’s Office of Public Affairs estimated that it ranked 101st on a per-student basis.

As an example, in 2011-2012, Harvard’s $30 billion endowment amounted to about $1.43 million per student. In the same period, the University’s endowment was valued at about $7.6 billion — or $174,000 per student.

“Endowment gifts have a benefit in perpetuity versus an expendable gift,” said Tim Slottow, the University’s chief financial officer. “Which is wonderful — and we desperately need expendable gifts for professorships and financial aid — but an endowment actually provides support in perpetuity, and he gets that.”

The goals for the University’s next fundraising campaign, Victors for Michigan, are expansive. Finding support for research and progressive learning techniques are at the top of the list. A billion dollars for student aid, a billion dollars for the hospital system and $400 million for the Ross School of Business are among the more targeted goals. Looming behind it all is the endowment — a gift that keeps on giving. The Michigan Difference campaign raised between $925-940 million for the endowment.

Victors for Michigan will be May’s fourth fundraising campaign, and with a $4 billion goal, perhaps his greatest challenge.

Blue’s aura

Working with potential donors is part strategy, part finesse.

It’s no Machiavellian machination, but development officers will routinely meet and strategize about how to best present their case to would-be benefactors and what kinds of authorities can help their case. Picking the right tactic, though, is just part of the job.

One of the most high-level duties of development officers is to generate a positive feeling about the University. The most obvious target is alumni — but unaffiliated “friends” of the University also make up a significant portion of annual donations. Sponsoring events across the country to spread the message about research, work and programs at the University is part of the trick.

As an example, May said, a hypothetical event sponsored by the University’s Cardiovascular Center that attracts a variety of alumni probably won’t motivate graduates of the law school to give to the CVC, but it builds a glow or aura around the University as a whole. That can come in handy when the Law School is looking for donations down the road.

For large donors, it’s often about creating connections with visionaries and evangelists who can convincingly make the case for a University program or research endeavor. Development officers frequently arrange meetings between potential donors and deans, directors and faculty to give them a chance to talk about their work while building credibility with the would-be benefactor and illustrating just how a donation can make a difference.

“You know we’re not selling used cars here, you’re talking about one of the best academic enterprises in the world, and we feel it’s a privilege to work here and take that responsibility really seriously,” May said. “We’re not just going to go in and interested in coming away with a quick $100,000. We’re interested in a lifetime relationship. Any good development officer will spend a year getting to know the people there and asking questions like, ‘There’s a campaign coming up, would you be interested in talking with us about something?’”

If the answer is a “maybe,” May or one of the development officers will arrange a meeting with a person in the donor’s interest area — whether it’s a dean, researcher or museum curator. Intensifying and substantiating the conversations with donors, and showing them the value of the relationship is critical.

Down the line, it also makes the “ask” easier.

May said some faculty, like Deborah Ball, dean of the School of Education, and Internal Medicine Prof. Max Wicha, a noted cancer researcher, naturally have the panache to work with donors. Some need a little more coaching to get their message across.

“I put Max in front of donors, and within days, somebody says, ‘I want to support what that guy’s doing because he makes sense,’ ” May said. “He just has this wonderful style — what a gift, to be a great researcher and be able to talk with people. Those things aren’t always together, some people are just amazing researchers but they might have trouble explaining the complexity of that to a layman.”

The hours can be long, especially in the fall. May said many development officers routinely work 70 to 80 hour weeks, including football Saturdays. Some Fridays, he’ll attend three dinners before the night is through.

When May focused on planning the Victors for Michigan campaign, his job was about 70 percent internal, focused on planning the campaign’s rollout and coordinating with development officers around the country. In the run-up to the immediate launch of the campaign on Nov. 8, it was between 60 to 70 percent external development again, directly engaging with donors.

He added that University President Mary Sue Coleman, widely lauded as one of the most successful fundraisers in higher education, will spend about 40 percent of her time around the campaign’s launch on development.

“She loves meeting strangers, she loves building relationships,” May said. “From that perspective, she’s an ideal fundraising president.”

May said the University’s deans will spend as little as 20 percent and as much as 40 percent of their time on development for their unit.

In the Wolverine’s den

For donors at the highest level, a trip to Ann Arbor can be a whirlwind of advisory meetings, dinners with deans and faculty, or even an exclusive Friday night soiree with President Coleman, her husband, Ken Coleman, and May. Football weekends add another element to the mix.

“All we do all night is just have a good time,” May said. “We talk about things, they get to do a Q&A with Mary Sue at the end of the evening, then the next morning, they may have a breakfast meeting with a dean, or if it’s an early game, they might go straight to the president’s tailgate … I might introduce them or other people might introduce them to other people who are in the same profession that they didn’t know. It’s a networking kind of thing.”

May usually sees only ten plays in a football game. Being at Michigan Stadium usually means he’s on duty — engaging with alumni and donors, their families, and building relationships.

“Usually those weekends are fun weekends — especially if they bring their family,” May said. “We want to know their spouses, particularly the spouses that didn’t go to Michigan, because we want them to adopt Michigan. We want them to have fun here, we want them to have a good experience.”

One of the most powerful stories is that of students. Since student support is the Victors for Michigan campaign’s top priority, giving donors a narrative that will inspire them is critical.

Friday’s flagship kick-off event at Hill Auditorium was meant to do just that: flashy performances, professional motivational videos and well-scripted student speeches, all designed to impress the University's biggest donors and motivate students for the campaign ahead.

Shifting focuses

The Michigan Difference Campaign raised $545 million for scholarships and student support between 2004 and 2008.

Phil Hanlon and Martha Pollack asked May to (nearly) double it. The goal for the Victors for Michigan campaign will be $1 billion for student support.

“I just have to say, we swallowed hard,” May said. “We thought, well, we might be able to get to $800 million, with a lot of hard work and some really big gifts — like $25 or $50 million gifts for scholarships — but the provost made the case that we needed to work harder … They have said to the deans that, ‘We need everybody here to know that this is our number one priority.’ ”

While May said raising money for “people” was something that donors have always been interested in, Richard Rogel, the Michigan Difference campaign chair, said garnering support for scholarships before that campaign was extremely difficult.

“If you had asked me two campaigns ago, I would have said it was very difficult to raise money for scholarships,” Rogel said. “It was just not something people were that much interested in. As they’ve seen the cutbacks … scholarship support has become increasingly important focus of our alumni.”

Since student testimonials and energy will be critical to the success of the overall campaign, the Office of Development has created an 18-member student campaign committee to help motivate students to get involved in the initiative.

LSA junior Monique Becker, one of the members of the committee, said since one of the main goals of the campaign is student support, reaching out to students (and soon-to-be graduates), is building the groundwork for a new generation of philanthropists.

“The Michigan Difference was the campaign previously, but no (students) knew that was a campaign,” Becker said. “We really wanted to get students involved and know what’s going on and know that it has an impact on them.”

The committee works closely with the Office of Development — which has made sure that the students on the committee have had plenty of face time with donors as well. Last semester, the Office of Development quietly held a planning event in Crisler Center with some of the University’s biggest donors, including Stephen Ross, Penny Stamps and Richard Rogel.

“Recent alum support is pretty low for U-M, even compared to other institutions,” Becker said. “I hope that since this campaign is showing that U-M is going to help … future students, hopefully that will increase morale and giving and alumni support will increase.”

Matching the needs of the University with the interest of donors is not always a perfect fit. Niche research needs are difficult to raise money for — as is endowment support for maintaining existing buildings and structures.

“Sometimes a faculty member wakes up in the morning and says ‘I’d love to have a building that does X, or a program that does Y,’” Slottow said. “But the feasibility of that may be close to zero. There may be no donor in the world who is interested in giving to that thing.”

Victors for Michigan will also focus on providing students with new engaged learning opportunities, both field excursions and non-traditional ways of interacting with professors, technology and peers on campus. The final goal is fundraising for “big ideas” that can confront global issues like sustainability through research.

As federal funding for research declines due to the federal sequester, an across the board cut to federal agencies, including those that support research endeavors, the University will increasingly rely on donors to support and expand its research portfolio.

“This is a pretty high pressure business,” May said. “I’ve made it out in a way that I see it — and that’s that it’s a lot of fun. But it’s a business. And it’s a high pressure business.”

“We have to remind people that the donor is the most important person in the process.”

Expanding Blue’s reach

As the University looks to the future, development will continue to play a key role even after the conclusion of the campaign. One of the benefits of a campaign is that after it concludes, annual giving stays up higher compared to its previous level. People get in the habit of giving more on an annual basis than before.

May said there’s some discussion of locating development officers overseas — with East Asia as the first target. While it’s prohibitively expensive to do so now, he added that it may become worthwhile to permanently station University representatives abroad in the not-to-distant future.

“It’s very expensive to do international fundraising, it’s a longer time horizon because we’re dealing with different cultures, and some of those cultures don’t have the same philanthropic spirit that America has,” May said.

The University’s bicentennial celebration — which will begin in 2017 — will also be a huge part of motivating donors and thinking ahead to the future. The yearlong celebration will have a time horizon spanning back two hundred years. Jerry May is already looking forward to the next two hundred.

“Whatever the motivations are, there are people who then say, ‘Ok, we realize Michigan is in this for the long run, we know Michigan is going to be here hundreds of years from now, we can look in the long term in our investments, I guess I’ll give to one of those things.’ ”