Development pro Scott Nichols received this plaque from grateful colleagues after leading Boston University’s record-breaking fundraising campaign.
In the fundraising profession—a field marred by rampant turnover and loose standards for counting donations, among other problems—Scott Nichols is an anomaly. In more than 30 years, the veteran fundraiser has worked at only two institutions: Harvard Law and Boston University.
Amy Bronson, who worked for Nichols at both organizations, is among the friends and colleagues congratulating the fundraiser as he ends his long development career at Boston University after leading the institution’s first-ever fundraising campaign, which raised the astonishing sum of nearly $2 billion.
“I have never ever seen a day when Scott didn’t have a relentless focus on raising money,” says Bronson, who predicts that her colleague will “never unplug completely” from development work—even in retirement. “He has fun with it, he loves what he does,” she says. “I have never seen anyone so good on his feet. I never go to a meeting or see him in action without learning something.”
Entry and mid-level fundraisers can also learn from Nichols’ experience: the importance of actively participating in professional development groups, keeping abreast of the literature on fundraising, and pursuing educational opportunities. Nichols’ dissertation for a doctorate in education examined, among other things, how the pursuit of athletics driven by donors can interfere with university operations.
Those professional pursuits on top of his full-time job made Nichols into an expert sought out by others, says Peter Kimball, a retired planned giving officer who worked with Nichols at Harvard Law and saw some of his fundraising presentations.
Nichols “saw things differently than those of us in the weeds,” Kimball says. “Often his modus operandi was to say, ‘Here are the seven or 10 principles I have observed.’ He could pull back from the day-to-day and look at the work in a philosophical way. He is a big-picture guy, based on his ability to see fundraising trends, along with being a master professional.”
Nichols began his fundraising career at Bucknell University, his alma mater. Early in his career, he says, two mentors impressed him with their high principles. One mentor, Nichols recalls, “taught me that effective cultivation of donors begins with doing the thoughtful and courteous thing. It’s something your mother would say. It is so simple but true in our work.”
In another case, a mentor threatened to sue a student newspaper for defamation when it planned to publish false information about Nichols. “He stood on principle and backed me,” Nichols recalls. “Having the highest principles was really embedded in me.”
Bruce Flessner, a longtime fundraising consultant now working in a leadership role at the American University in Cairo, has relied on Nichols over the years to explain to nonprofit leaders why certain accounting practices that inflate campaign results should be avoided.
“He’s been an articulate voice against silly counting,” says Flessner. “He helped me explain to presidents and others that this is the wrong thing to do. He has a lot of integrity.”
Even so, Nichols says, he regrets that he didn’t do more in his career to establish credible standards nationwide for capital campaign reporting, which remains a hotbed of inflated, misleading fundraising claims.
“I came up short in producing standards of gift accounting and reporting for the profession,” says Nichols. “Seeing a lot of the fudging going on, I wish I’d done a better job. I followed best-practice guidelines at my own organizations, but I wish I’d had a bigger impact on the profession at large.”
Among other workplace challenges Nichols has faced are demanding colleagues. At Harvard Law, where he spent 20 years as the school’s chief fundraiser, Nichols worked with and learned from famous (and sometimes difficult) leaders and constituents like former Harvard president Larry Summers, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who was Harvard Law’s first female dean, former president Bill Clinton, and Robert Trump, the president’s brother. In the Harvard job, Nichols led two big fundraising campaigns that, together, raised $660 million.
Joining Boston University in 2006 as its senior vice president for development and alumni relations, Nichols was recruited by BU’s new president, Robert A. Brown, the former provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was Brown’s determination to raise an eye-popping $1 billion that got Nichols’ attention, convincing him to leave Harvard to test his fundraising mettle in an institution with no track record of aggressively raising money.
Traditional campaign planning at BU was not an option, Nichols recalls. “We couldn’t even do a feasibility study, because we had no donors.”
The goal of the BU campaign, after some early successes, was later expanded to $1.5 billion. By the time Nichols stepped down from his official full-time role last fall, the fundraising drive had secured more than $1.85 billion.
(To usher in a new fundraising chapter for BU under his successor, Karen Engelbourg, Nichols maintains a consulting role with the institution.)
The BU campaign led by Nichols stands out for multiple reasons. For one, the drive was the university’s first-ever fundraising campaign since the institution was founded in 1839.
Second, Nichols insisted on high standards to ensure that the campaign yielded cold, hard cash sooner rather than later, unlike some institutions that count donor commitments that take decades to realize.
For example, in counting promises of bequests—gifts made from donors’ wills after death—some of BU’s peer institutions count bequests at full value if the donor is 60 or 65 years old. But knowing that BU might not see such gifts materialize for 20 years or more, Nichols initially insisted that bequest intentions not be counted. Only later in the campaign were documented bequest pledges counted for those aged 72 or older at a discounted or net present valuation. Bequests from younger donors were never included in campaign totals.
Think Globally, Ask Globally
A third stand-out element of BU’s campaign: Foreign donors gave 20 percent of the money raised, an unusually high portion for capital campaigns raising $1 billion or more at American colleges and universities. American campaigns raise 3 to 5 percent of their goals from foreign donors, research has found.
BU’s campaign raised more than $362 million from 117 donors in other countries. Their donations dwarfed domestic gifts from faculty and other staff, whose campaign gifts came to about $54 million.
“Earlier in my career, fundraisers would talk about whether to try and raise money overseas,” Nichols says. “The answer was always no. They would say that foreigners don’t have the same culture of philanthropy as Americans, or they could raise more money at less cost just by going to New York City.”
The BU campaign, Nichols adds, proves them wrong.
Without pursuing foreign donors, Nichols would never have met philanthropists like Rajen Kilachand of India, a 1974 BU graduate whose campaign gifts have totaled $150 million for projects including the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering, a new facility that will eventually house nearly 500 researchers.
Nichols first met Kilachand, the leader of a huge multinational conglomerate, when the alumnus accepted an invitation for the two men to meet in Dubai. Nichols knew his staff’s research on affluent overseas alumni was on track when Kilachand picked him up in Dubai driving a Maybach, a multimillion-dollar Mercedes Benz and one of the world’s most expensive cars.
Soon, Nichols set up another trip to Dubai to introduce Kilachand to BU President Brown, and the connection between the Emirati businessman and BU grew, with Kilachand eventually joining the university’s board. BU’s relationship with Kilachand “has been wonderfully surreal in terms of his generosity,” Nichols told Bostonia magazine last summer.
High-net-worth donors, Nichols explains, often take decades or even generations before they and their families feel comfortable enough to give as much as Kilichand, who made his record-breaking contributions in a five-year period after Nichols first met him. “That’s been remarkable to me,” the fundraiser says.
Nichols might never have pursued the relationship with Kilichand if he hadn’t served on the board of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a membership organization for college and university fundraisers.
As a trustee, Nichols led a committee to help CASE expand membership overseas for higher education fundraisers in Europe, Singapore, South Africa, and other regions. He soon realized that foreign fundraising professionals were tapping into significant wealth outside the United States, convincing him that BU could find donors abroad among its international alumni, which number in the tens of thousands.
To build relations overseas, Nichols has encouraged BU’s efforts to offer events such as a semi-annual Asian Alumni Festival overseas and an economic forum in Beijing for BU alumni, an event conducted entirely in Mandarin.
In recognition of his international accomplishments, Nichols received the John Lippincott Award for Global Advancement and Support of Education from CASE last summer. Named for CASE’s longest-serving president, the award honors people who make significant contributions to enhancing fundraising worldwide.
The People Factor
As a seasoned fundraising leader in charge of big, multifaceted development operations, Nichols knows that a big reason for BU’s fundraising success is that he was able to build an exceptional development staff. And thanks to the fact that BU agreed to offer key fundraisers a financial “longevity bonus,” almost all of them stayed for the duration of the campaign.
At the same time, Nichols’ least favorite part of the job is what he calls the “personnel aspect” and the fact that he increasingly sees fundraisers who are bent on serving themselves rather than their institutions. Many development officers, he says, push too quickly to become vice presidents rather than spending time in the trenches to become well-rounded fundraising professionals.
“When I go to conferences, I see programs about the science of well-being rather than fundraising fundamentals,” he says, adding that he finds this trend irritating.
“One session I railed about was on ‘How to Get That Raise You Deserve,’” Nichols says. “People are all about serving themselves rather than really helping their organizations. One sign is all the job-hopping you see among people who change jobs every two years—or even more frequently. This has gotten worse over time, when I had expected it to get better. The biggest challenge in our field is that folks want jobs that are good for them rather than being good at the jobs they’re in.”
An extreme example of the self-serving fundraiser is a major gift officer who worked under Nichols at an off-campus satellite office some years ago and was seldom in his office. At first, Nichols thought the gift officer was a go-getter and out meeting with donors, one hallmark of a high-performing fundraiser.
But when the gift officer kept finding excuses to avoid meetings on campus, Nichols initiated a discussion with his colleagues about whether and how to let the gift officer go. That very same day, BU received a call from the leader of another nonprofit organization who wanted to know if the gift officer had attendance problems while working for BU. As the two parties compared notes, it became clear that the gift officer was working for both organizations, drawing two salaries, and not showing up for either job! They both immediately fired the fundraiser.
Nichols can recall other cringeworthy moments in his long career. Once, for example, a wealthy donor confided in Nichols that he wanted to learn more about Middle Eastern culture. So Nichols arranged for a meeting with a professor, an expert in Arabian affairs, and accompanied the professor on a visit to the donor’s New York City office.
“The best Arab is a dead Arab, don’t you agree?” the donor blurted out when he met the professor. Fortunately, the Middle East expert handled the situation graciously, Nichols recalls, but he later found himself apologizing to the professor for the man’s remarks. And, he says, the incident made him more determined to separate the bigoted donor from what ultimately became a $6 million scholarship gift.
“I have used this motivation a lot” with other donors, Nichols adds. “What is more noble than separating people from their money and putting it to good use?”