Donors, staff reflect on campaign

Mai Hoang

During a friendly golf game in 1998, Gordon Ford, a Louisville businessman, told Lee Robertson, a former Western alumni director, that he wanted to give a gift to Western’s capital campaign.

The golf game would result in a payoff for Western – a $10.6 million gift, the biggest ever.

Western announced at the Guthrie Bell Tower this morning that its five-year capital campaign has raised more than $102 million. The university’s original goal was $78 million.

As they announce this milestone, those who have given and received remember what made gifts like Ford’s possible.

A new attitude

During the five-year campaign that ended in June, Western received 27 gifts of more than $1 million.

Some on the Hill remember a time when getting a five- or six-figure financial gift was a challenge for Western, a university that was once timid about fund raising.

One donor, Pete Mahurin, senior vice president for Hillard Lyons in Bowling Green, said Western’s attitude about fund raising has changed since the mid-’90s, when Western was engaged in its last fund raising effort for the Preston Center.

“I think people thought you didn’t give to state-supported institutions,” he said.

Tom Hiles, vice president for Institutional Development, said most people usually give a gift to a university because somebody from the institution asks them to.

Hiles and his staff took on that strategy – they weren’t going to wait for donors to come along. Instead they would look people “in the eyeball,” state Western’s needs and explain how a financial gift could help the school meet them.

President Gary Ransdell was confident that he could raise money for Western, Mahurin said. Ransdell wasn’t afraid to ask anyone for money.

In 1998, Ransdell met with Mahurin over a meal. There, Ransdell asked Mahurin if he would be willing to give a $1.5 million gift.

Mahurin was surprised. He’d given gifts to Western before but not at that level. It was a huge amount of money in his eyes – his father never made more than $2,000 a month.

“For somebody to ask you to give that much money is culture shock,” Mahurin said.

But after talking to a friend, Mahurin knew the money would help his alma mater. He gave the $1.5 million to the Center for Gifted Studies, which his daughter participated in.

“He told me I could do it, and I would not miss it,” he said. “I figure that with that narrow focus in the gifted studies program, I can make a difference.”

Don Vitale, the chairman of Manchester Capital and co-chair of the campaign cabinet, said that before Ransdell came to Western in 1998, no one had ever asked him to give a financial gift.

But when Vitale met Ransdell, who told him several goals that he wanted to achieve, Vitale knew he wanted to be financially involved.

Vitale and his wife gave $2.6 million in scholarships and faculty-award funding.

“I was motivated by Dr. Ransdell and the importance of Western to the south central Kentucky area,” he said. “I felt a responsibility to give some of what I had obtained in this region back in the form of an investment in the region.”

Developing relationships

Ransdell said developing a relationship with potential donors is essential.

Even if the relationship does not initially lead to a gift, it will benefit the university in the long run, Hiles said.

“We have to go earn the right to ask people for a gift,” he said.

As in any other relationship, Hiles, Ransdell and others try to learn as much as possible about a potential donor. Hiles’ development staff keeps a database of the top 200 potential, current and past donors, which includes information about the donors such as where they live, what they do, their ties to Western and their hobbies.

Ford: Friendly friend to big donor

Ford’s database entry shows that he was 1934 alumnus. He owns a major accounting business in Louisville. His birthday is in September. He has given gifts to Western before.

And of course, he enjoys golf.

“That level of personification is what people appreciate,” Hiles said. “In the long run it puts us in the position to ask.”

Ransdell said that he and Hiles visited Ford several times to learn more about his interest in Western. As they were developing a friendship with Ford, they shared the needs of the university with him.

Eventually, Ford expressed an interest in giving a significant gift to the business school, Ransdell said.

“You just know by someone’s responsiveness to your overtures,” Ransdell said. “You can tell by their enthusiasm or their lack of enthusiasm in cases where you’re heading down the right road.”

Ford said he wanted to show his commitment to education.

“I just want to support the education at Western,” Ford said. “I think education is the hope of the world. Unless they have a good education, they’re not going to go very far.”

After several talks, Hiles, Ransdell and Ford talked about naming the business college.

“I had the money, and they needed it, so I gave it,” Ford said.

Finally, on Oct. 23, 1998, Hiles and Ford ate lunch together to talk about the gift one more time. Later that afternoon, Hiles received a note – handwritten – from Ford. The note was short, but it was official.

Ford would donate $10.6 million.

It was Homecoming weekend. Now Western had something to celebrate.

The impact

The momentum of that Homecoming weekend five years ago hasn’t died. Ford’s eight-figure gift led others to dip into their savings accounts and provide financial gifts as well, Hiles said.

Western has opened the gifts and put them to use.

With Mahurin’s gift, gifted studies will have permanent funding for the executive director position that is currently held by Julia Roberts.

Few gifted studies centers have such professorships, said Tracy Inman, assistant director of the Center for Gifted Studies.

“What his gift ensures is that the center will be around as long as Western Kentucky will be around,” she said. “If and when Dr. Roberts retires, that money ensures that we get a top-quality director that has the same passion and vision.”

At the Gordon Ford College of Business, gifts from both Ford and Vitale have created new programs, scholarships and more funding for faculty and student development, said Bob Reber, acting dean for the business college.

The gifts have enabled them to grow and maintain their academic quality despite less state funding, he said.

“We probably couldn’t operate without them,” Reber said.

Ford said he is pleased with his role in the campaign and Western.

“I wanted to set the pace,” he said. ” I wanted to give the lead contribution. Every campaign requires that to be successful and to raise the amount of money you want to raise.”

Tomorrow night at the President’s Circle Gala, Ford and other donors will celebrate raising $102 million in the last five years.

Vitale said Ford’s gift made the campaign go much smoother for those who are directly involved.

“As progress began to be easily perceived by the alumni and friends, it made the campaign volunteers’ efforts easier to convince large donors to make these gifts,” Vitale said.

Reach Mai Hoang at [email protected]