What happens when a staff member steps into the shoes of a donor?

By Staff

Imagine you suddenly had $1,000 to give away. What would you do?

This was the situation Liz Lenz, CU Foundation development associate, found herself in. At a recent meeting, foundation staff talked about their personal passions and how they connected with CU programs they would be inclined to support – as an exercise to help the staff relate to the mind-sets of the donors they work with.

It concluded with an exciting but daunting assignment for one of them: Give $1,000 to a University of Colorado unit of your choice, and return later to tell the 180-person staff about your experience. A drawing was held, and Lenz was randomly chosen. A former trustee donated the money for this purpose, outside the purview of the CU Foundation operating budget.

"How do people find their passion? What's their personal path to reaching a philanthropic decision?" asked CU Foundation President and CEO Wayne Hutchens. "We figured a real-life experience, told by an employee, could be a great route to talk about that."

Lenz says her decision wasn't easy. As a Boulder alumna currently serving Denver campus development efforts, she has allegiances to two CU campuses, and the CU Foundation manages nearly 4,000 funds composed of gifts toward a specific allocation at CU.

But then she had a chance meeting with Sam Cole of the Center on Domestic Violence in the School of Public Affairs.

"He said that when it comes to this issue, most people think of giving to the service providers, but they don't think of giving to the research that drives their work," Lenz said. "That was a really powerful statement for me: I hadn't thought of it that way."

Lenz's talk with Cole about the center's work particularly resonated with her. Before joining the CU Foundation in 2008, she had been a therapist working with families affected by domestic violence and substance abuse. Lenz recalled a family she had worked with for several hours a week. Day by day, she watched a mother struggle to choose between the safety of her five children and the attention of the children's abusive and criminal father, who nonetheless exerted a pull on her. Fortunately, the mother eventually chose her children.
"It's amazing to see a family grow and move past that," Lenz said.

After the discussion with Cole, Lenz decided to give the $1,000 to support the Center on Domestic Violence. The center's activities include a degree program in domestic violence – one of the few of its kind in the U.S. – that credentials public service and criminal justice leaders to work to end violence in the lives of women and children. The gift is among the larger individual gifts the center has received; it must raise its $700,000 budget predominantly through public grants and private gifts.

As CU and the CU Foundation approach a critical period for raising and inspiring private gifts to the university, Hutchens says, it becomes ever more important for those working on the university's behalf to put themselves in the shoes of the donors who support their work.
Lenz says the experience changed how she thinks about philanthropy, and has increased her appreciation for donors who put time and effort into maximizing the impact of their gifts.

"I was already in tune with the Center on Domestic Violence because of my prior work," she said. "Now that there's money invested there, I will follow what they do a little more."