Stephen Rodriguez

Stephen Rodriguez is the Director of Leadership Annual Giving at MIT
Stephen Rodriguez is the Director of Leadership Annual Giving at MIT

Listen to the Interview with Stephen Rodriguez.

Interview with Stephen Rodriguez, the director of annual giving at MIT 

Mandy:  If you’ve ever tried raising funds for anything, you know how important it is to be as effective as possible. Every piece that you send out needs to bring in as much money as possible. That’s why we’re talking to Stephen Rodriguez.

He’s the Director of Leadership Annual Giving at MIT. Every day, he uses his creativity to produce measurable results for MIT. Stephen, can you tell me a little bit about your career in fundraising?

Stephen Rodriguez:  Sure. I’d be happy to. Currently I work at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My role at the institute is to secure resources for the institute to fulfill its mission.

That really just entails sitting down with alumni, parents, and friends of the institute, and talking to them about the role that they can play in the vision and the mission of the institute and ask them to join us in trying to make the world a better place.

Previously to MIT, I had a similar role at a different university in the Boston area. But prior to that, the majority of my career has been at Berklee College of Music where I was charged to similarly raise money for the institution.

That entailed more direct marketing, a lot more fundraising over the phone that involved student callers, and doing a lot of event‑based fundraising to get people engaged and excited about what Berklee was trying to accomplish at the time.

Mandy:  Cool, and also it was that you did phonathon at Lawrence University. Did you know that you’d be so involved with fundraising when you took that job at Lawrence?

Stephen:  [laughs] In hindsight, it would have been wonderful to know, because then I could have focused a little bit more when I was doing that [laughs] as a student. But no, I didn’t.

Mandy:  No, I was just jealous of you because I was thinking, “Gosh, I should have taken that job.”


Mandy:  What was I thinking working in the cafeteria?

Stephen:  It actually was a wonderful opportunity because it helped me in numerous ways. One of which was just being apprehensive to approach people I didn’t know or afraid to ask them questions that were personal or asking them to commit to either give their time or their finances. It taught me a lot about one of the key points of being a strong fundraiser.

One of the most cited reasons as far as why people make a gift is because you ask them. I learned a lot about just making that ask, whether it was asking someone to volunteer to host an event or asking someone to actually come to an event or asking someone to make a gift. It was really about making that ask and getting over that hurdle of being afraid that they might say no.

Mandy:  All right. Tell me a bit about the organization that you’re raising money for. It sounded like the leadership annual fund, is it?

Stephen:  Most definitely. We’re charged with engaging alumni parents and friends face‑to‑face. There’s a team of six of us that travel on a regular basis and sit down with interested people that might support MIT. MIT is a very vast organization. There’s 12,000 employees, 129,000 alumni, 11,000 current students. There’s five different schools. There’s numerous institutes across MIT that are from cancer research to Alzheimer’s to energy to the environment. We’re charged with being that sort of front line.

We talk to as many people as we can when we travel. On average, we’re meeting with about 200 people each of us over the course of the year. On an annual basis, we’re sitting down with about 1,000 people and spreading the mission of MIT and asking them to invest in what the institution is trying to accomplish.

Mandy:  Who are the people that you’re sitting down with? Why do they donate is because they asked, but what else?

Stephen:  Yeah. For a college or university, one of the most common reasons people give is because they just want to give back. They want to provide a similar opportunity to a future student that they had when they are at this institution. A lot of it is about getting them to reminisce about a positive experience that they had or letting them know about the impact of philantrophic dollars in higher education.

The tuition doesn’t cover the full cost of education and alumni can step in there. The other part of it is really just finding people that are interested in very complex problems and seeing if they want to invest in MIT to pursue following those. You can think of climate change, it could be controversial whether or not. Most people agree that something is happening with the climate that is changing. [laughs] Trying to find people that is interested in that…

Mandy:  Yeah.

Stephen:  …and asking them that MIT is in unique position to be able to focus on solving some of the world’s biggest problems with our faculty, with our students and our grad‑students. We’re in a place where we can really push some boundaries that are in the pursuit of solving the problem, not commercializing a product that might come out of it.

There is a little bit of that unaffiliated cold calling that does occur. If we do research people in a specific geographic region that might be interested in something, we do reach out to them. If they’ve made a gift to a local organization that is about water preservation, we might reach out to them and say, “I’d love to sit down with you and share with you some of the research happening to MIT around desalination or transportation or climate change or energy.” MIT is unique.

Mandy:  The alumni who just want to give back and they want to give other student a chance to get the education that they got. Then, there is also people who have may be donated to climate change in the past you and find them poor, people who have donated to a certain course but then MIT is also at the forefront of that, so they see me, say, “Oh, you are student here? Why not give to MIT as well?”

Stephen:  Definitely. It’s a unique position because MIT is just so well recognized, that we are in a position where we can make that call. At different institutions I’ve worked on, it’s a little harder to do that just because name cashet might not have as much weight.

MIT is very unique in that we attract people throughout the world that are interested in what MIT is trying to do. They support us financially, so we have a large group of people that never went to MIT, never stepped foot on campus, but really care about the institution is trying to do and if they’ve made a gift in the past we go out and we thank them for profusely in person and encourage them to continue supporting and possibly think about having a bigger impact overtime.

Mandy:  What role does they think people play?

Stephen:  It is a huge portion of what we do. There is a really great guru and donor relations and stewardship whose name is Penelope Burk. In her book that’s entitled, “Donor Centered Stewardship,” she talks about, “In order to ask somebody to make an additional gift, on average, you should be thanking them seven times before doing hurt.”

That can be very direct, “Mandy, thank you so much for your gift last year to institute. It truly made a difference for our student.” It could be really soft so we send you a vineyard of a student talking about their experience.

Stewardship plays a huge role because you really want to let the person know how their gift was used. Did it turn on the lights? Did it paved the side walk? Did it enable a student to finish their degree? Did it support carrying a research? Be really creative in how you tell the story about how did that 1,000$ gift make a different.

Mandy:  I realize that developing relationship is one of your personal skills that you bring to the job, steps that you made to cultivate relationship with these donors.

Stephen:  Yeah, that’s a great question.

Mandy:  Do you know them personally?

Stephen:  When we sit down with them, we get to know them personally. Behind the scenes, what we are trying to really do is understand at the base level who that person is and what they care about and what they support.

For a college, it’s pretty easy because you can see what they dorm they lived in, did they received scholarships in the past? What faculty members did they have? How many gifts they’ve given overtime?

Going in to each conversation we have a pretty detailed understanding of who this individual is, what their experience was like as a student, and what they support now. So when we go talk to them, it’s really about getting to know what they are passionate about.

When we have these conversations and try to develop the relationship, it’s really a lot of listening, a lot of asking questions, a lot of just being there if they have concerns or questions about things that are happening at MIT.

But we all just really want to find out what motivates them, not only to make a gift, but just what motivates them on a larger picture. What are they personally trying to accomplish through their work, through their philanthropy, through their volunteer work?

The one thing there that is kind of tricky is I’m not necessarily in the business of making friends, so cultivating that relationship is really the relationship that they have with the institution that I work for. It’s not about me, it’s about that individual and the impact in the role that they’re playing on the institution that they hopefully care a lot about.

Mandy:  It sounds like you’re keeping the friendship between the individual and the school?

Stephen:  Most definitely.

Mandy:  Not you, the individual that’s you, Stephen Rodriguez.

Stephen:  There’s a reason to really think about that in a very strategic way, because the average tenure of a fundraiser either at a college or university is around 18 months. If you develop the personal relationship, that might not withstand the transition of staff over time, as the more people I can introduce donors to here at MIT, the better it is for the institution long‑term.

Again, it’s really not about me. It’s about that person coming back to campus, attending an event in their community, hearing from the students or getting a hand‑written “Thank You” note from someone on campus. It’s really about that relationship with MIT.

Mandy:  How do you get unengage alumni to participate? Is the effort worth it?

Stephen:  Yeah. That is the challenge for every institution in the world. [laughs] I would say yes, it is worth it. The way to get unengaged alumni to participate is, It can happen through a multitude of different ways on tactical basis.

A lot of people are inspired because of different reasons. They might be inspired because they received something. They might be inspired because they see their peers do it and they want to be a part of that peer group. They might be inspired because a switch was flipped in their mind as far as reminiscing about their transformational college experience.

There’s different ways of thinking about how to motivate a particular population. But I always encourage in previous roles in here at MIT that you just want to get to know that person and those types of people. Not every person is created the same as a donor, and they are motivated by different reasons.

It’s really asking questions, picking up that phone and talking to that person and saying, “If you have a few minutes, I’d love to speak to you about your institution. If I may be so bold to ask, what has stopped you from supporting the institution over time? I’d love to hear what MIT can do to increase that likelihood that you’ll make a gift in the next year or in the next couple of years.”

It’s really thinking about there’s likely a reason why they have not made a gift. To get them to talk about it.

Mandy:  They might have a hang‑up of some sort.

Stephen:  Exactly.

Mandy:  So when you ask, does that actually breaks through the resistance?

Stephen:  It does on occasion. I mean, there’s always going to be lost causes that you can’t do anything to get them back on board with the mission. But a lot of them is just hearing and saying they might have had a incredible painful experience with a certain professor or certain class, or they felt that they didn’t get enough support when they needed it.

That’s a door to say, “You know, I’m really glad that you said that. Here’s what we’re doing with our students now. Here’s the support services that we have on campus. We’re only in the position to do that because alumni like you support the institution. With that in mind, let’s make the student experience even better, and with your gifts, we’re going to be able to do that.”

Mandy:  Even if they have a painful experience, they might want to turn that around for someone else. If something bad has happened or they didn’t get this kind of support, it hurts so they want to not let that happen to someone else. Is that what you’re saying?

Stephen:  Most definitely. Yeah. A lot of that comes down to generationally, there’s some differences there. The idea of kind of making it on your own or we are all part of the big community. We’re here to help each other. It finding out what motivates that individual and then finessing that spill to that person to really find out, can I turn this person from not being a supporter to a supporter. Or if they are never going to make a gift, at least we’re leaving them in the position where they know a little bit about the institution and hopefully, some of those wounds have healed.

Mandy:  Yeah. Do you have a different approach when you’re talking to people at different generations?

Stephen:  Most definitely.

The biggest one would be there’s sort of formality that you kind of assume if you’re talking to somebody that might be celebrating their 40th or their 50th reunion. They graduated middle 50’s, 60’s, early 70’s versus someone who just graduated 5 years ago or 10 years ago or even 15 years ago. I can communicate much more informally. A lot more things can happen via email versus really sitting down or having a phone conversation with somebody who graduated 40 or 50 years ago.

They are much more accustomed to operate in that way. But also, a lot of it is the older, the longer time, the more time that passes between someone’s experience at MIT, the more you can talk about the reminiscing of, “Tell me about what it was like to attend MIT in the mid 60’s,” versus if it happened 5 years ago. Their memories are so fresh that by reminiscing, it might not…a spark might not go out.

It’s really talking about their career. I’d love to hear how MIT has played a role in the success you’ve clearly had. What did you pick up in the institution that has allowed you to progress?

Then, getting them to make that kind of relationship between “Yeah. Education I received is clearly helping me and my career in how I’m progressing in this company.” Then, making that connection to say.

Mandy:  Yeah. That is maybe generation X or something there. They are in middle of it, they are in the middle of their career right now.

Stephen:  Yeah, yeah. Getting them to make those statements about affirmation like, “Yes, my time in MIT really did help me. I know how to solve problems. I know how to build relationships. I’m creative. That connection between their success and the experience they had, that makes it really clear provide that opportunity for other students like you.

And then talking to someone that graduated 50 years ago, it sort of getting them to be nostalgic about their time, and the horrible winters that we have in New England, walking across the courtyards or go to class, sitting in the lecture hall. It kind of pull out the heartstrings a little bit. That works a little bit better because they are retired, they are out of their career. They have established what they care about and what kind of person they are.

Mandy:  Right. You’ve used a lot of different tactics, fundraisings. What types of campaigns worked the best for you and what types of campaigns just didn’t work?

Stephen:  Yes. I’ve had some great successes and some really incredible failures over time and you really learn quickly from those. I would say what I learned very quickly is if you’re thinking about broadbase marketing effort, whether it’s a direct mail appeal or an email solicitation, you really have to think about your audience in different pockets.

Everyone is not the same. Therefore, everyone should not get the same message. What I was trying to say is hope is not a strategy. If I send a direct mail appeal to 10,000 people and I hope that they respond, it didn’t do a very good job in pulling that together.

When I think about that population of people that have never made a gift before, if I send them all the same message, the likelihood of that being successful is limited versus if I spent some time and analyze the data to see, OK, there’s a population out of that 10,000, there’s 3,000 that were varsity athletes. There’s 2,000 that were in this particular major or there’s a thousand that lived in this side of campus. Maybe I should taylor the message distinctly to different groups and see if they respond, and see if they respond differently.

What I picked up overtime is you really have to test those ideas. If you’re going to send an email to 5,000 people, the day before you send that, test a couple of different subject lines, test some different pictures, try to personalize as much as you can. What works for one institution doesn’t work for the other.

I’ve definitely experienced that when I worked at different college at Berklee where I would hear these soliciations, these mailings that would go out that would bring in thousands and thousands of gifts and dollars. Then I would try it and fail miserably. That really taught me that what works in one place might not work with other, and you really need to understand your audience.

Mandy:  Yeah. Because you know, Berklee, Lawrence, MIT. Am I missing anything in else in this institution?

Stephen:  Boston University as well.

Mandy:  How was your approach in each…Huh?

Stephen:  I also worked at BU, at Boston University. Yeah, every institution is different.

Mandy:  How would you change your approach for these different schools? Maybe explain that quickly.

Stephen:  Yeah. Yeah. For my time at Berklee, it was really trying to understand the populations that we talked to. Being a musician myself, that helped have that conversation and get kind of in the mind of the people that we’re reaching out to.

A lot of the work there is about the power of arts and music, and keeping that tradition alive. The message at Berklee was really about this is such a unique place in the world, and music plays such an important role in the lives of everybody, and we need to keep that moving forward.

We need to keep a place like this in the world that’s educating musicians so they can go out there and try to make the world a better place with their music, try to find ways to communicate cultures across music and language. For Berklee, it was really what role does music play and how our populations can keep that moving forward?

My time with BU was much more challenging just because of the size of the institution, the culture of the students’ experience over time. There was a big divide between what was the administration in bold capital letters and the students in small capital letters, or small letters. That was a little bit challenging to find how to talk to alumni about giving back to the institution that they might not have trusted as much as the students do now.

Mandy:  They don’t…The trust wasn’t there?

Stephen:  That was a little bit more challenging because a lot of it was simply just about education. Hearing an alumni tell a story and say, “I acknowledge that your experience might not have been what you wanted this to be, but that’s why I’m here. I’m here to listen. I’m also here to tell you about why the institution is different now. Here’s what we’re doing to students, doing for students are like you. We’re providing our scholarship, funding has increased 10 times when you were a student. Our students are not burdened with as much debt when they leave. We’re hiring and recruiting cutting‑edge faculties.”

We’ve done all these great things. There was more about education and just trying to let them know the differences that happened on campus. Here at MIT, it’s really wonderful because our alumni care so much about the institution. That it’s really talking with them about what role they play in the future of the institution and how we need alumni to invest in the vision of the new presidents, get them to invest in the goals of the institution in the next 5 to 7 years.

We can be a little bit more direct and a little bit more forward about our thinking here. The evolution of the institution is very much different. But one thing that I’ve picked up and I always try to find when we have a new staff position is somebody that can really think on their toes and turn on a dime and really know that you have to learn your audience and learn your institution really quickly. Then, make changes when need when talking to certain people.

Mandy:  Right. There’s a lot of listening. Just from even looking over years, sometimes analyzing data and using that in your fundraising efforts. What role does it play? I’m almost wondering, it seems like you have a lot of data available to you, if there’s another organization that may not have as much data, how would you advice them to get it together?

Stephen:  Yeah. Data drive everything. I mean, everything that we do is based on the information that we have. If there’s two people that I could reach out to, the distinguishing fact between each of them is while I reach out to one first and wait to hear back before I reach out to the second one. Every institution has their own data that drives what they do. But the more that you can capture on anybody, the better off it is.

I really mean if there’s a smaller organization that only has 1,000 people in their database and they are trying to keep track of those people, how much they give, jobs they might have, to just be really committed to the accuracy there and to do the research. Most organizations that do fundraisings have staff that are dedicated to researching their constituents.

That really means digging down, when did you purchase your home? How many kids do you have? Do you have a pilot’s license? Do you own a vacation home in Colorado or Hawaii? Is there a family history of philantrophy? Do you guys have a family foundation? To really get to know your audience and keep that data together.

But here at MIT, it’s really exciting because we have a hundred and thirty thousand alumni in our database. Giving history for every single one of those people, we know whether or not they attended an event, we know what dorm they lived in, we know what student club they were part of, we know what sport they played, we know what fraternity or sorority they were in, we know if they were involved in arts or music on campus.

The list goes on and on that if you were to look at in one individual, you can have a thousand or different characteristics of that person. A place like MIT can be very, very sophisticated. There’s teams dedicated to data analytics here in fundraising that developed progression models to see, of these thousand people who should reach out that has a likelihood of making a gift? Then, we test it and we reach out to those people. Then, that informs the model and the model might be changed.

Big organizations can be very, very sophisticated, but small organizations can do a lot of the same. That really just goes back to not every person is the same. Really finding out who you’re talking to, what motivates them, and then keeping meticulous records is very important.

Mandy:  OK. That sounds like a whole subject that gives us type of knowledge. I think you already discussed the answer. I would like to know, what advice you would like to give someone who’s struggling to raise funds for their organization or to some who’s just trying to bring in more funds, what advice can you give?

Stephen:  Yeah. I think it’s about when any organization is trying to increase their fundraising dollars or look at their revenue and see what the mix is and see how can they grow each individual piece of the pie, it’s really thinking, what we say is that pyramid of donors. 90 percent of the dollars are going to come from 5 or 10 percent of the donors.

If I were to work at an organization that’s thinking about “We need to raise a hundred thousand dollars.” It’s not going to be successful if they’re trying. It could be but most likely if they’re trying to get a hundred thousand people to give one dollar, it’s going to take a lot of work. But in likelihood, they’re going to be able to investigate who they know and who’s interested in them that can give that $50,000 gift. That can be celebrated, encourage 5,000 people to give $10,000. And then, those 10 people can reach out to 10 people that they know to give 500 bucks or $100.

It’s really developing that strategy that is based on this concept, the 90/10 rule and really trying to find out, do we know who this person is? Are they interested in our mission and will they support us? A little bit of what ends up happen in this, the kind of the Kevin Bacon game, the six degrees of separation [laughs] wherein an organization might say, “Does anybody know Bill Gates or the wealthiest person in their town or their region.”

They’ll try to connect that organization to that person in the hopes of. Yeah, if we’ve got this incredibly wealthy person, they’re going to make really big gift to us. You can get trapped in that a little bit in that you kind of you’re chasing the purple rabbit or whatever mythical creature that you’re trying to capture.

But if you look internally and look at everyone that the organization has affiliated with and develop that priority of who should you reach out to first, who should the executive director call, who should a volunteer call, how much should we ask them for, you can really develop a very strong strategy to help you achieve a specific dollar goal that you’re trying to raise. But again, I would really just go back to you’re going to raise more money when you ask for more and when you ask more people.

Mandy:  Yes. It’s really a confidence thing. You need to be asking for $50,000 or $50.

Stephen:  To be honest, it ends up happening. This is something I picked up as a student caller at Lawrence. If you want to get that person to give a thousand dollars, you can ask them for a thousand dollars and again, really hope that they agree to the first gift when you ask for it. But there’s lots of strategies that you can use to end up at $1,000 dollars.

You could ask them for $10,000 and they are going to say, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” Then you can come back and say, “Well, you know, I realize that might be more than your wanting to give it this time. But a lot of them are like you are deciding to support our mission with a gift of a thousand dollars. How does that sound to you?”

It’s really thinking about not only making that ask but what is that ask. What do you ask them to do? What level are you asking them to give? But you are going to raise more money when you ask more people to give more.

Mandy:  Yeah.

Stephen:  [laughs]

Mandy:  OK. Do you have anything else? Before we wrap this up, I really appreciate this interview. You’ve given so much information.

Stephen:  Yeah. No, it’s my pleasure.

I think outside of my professional life help, some small organizations think about achieving their goals and what they’re trying to do. Really, the best advice that I can give to a smaller place that’s trying to increase their revenue model from the fundraising inside, it’s to really do that homework and do that research, and find out who do we know right that could make a difference for us today this year.

Then really getting those key people involved. If there’s a board of directors, those are your closest friends. They should be the ones that are investing in the vision of the organization. Then, it’s driven out there. It’s really that concept of a pyramid. You can’t be everything for everybody.

Be really thoughtful about who you’re spending your time on and know where the resources are being allocated so the potential return is much higher if you’re talking to people with a different message.

Mandy:  Right. OK. Well, thank you. I’m going to end this here. Again, this is Stephen Rodriguez from MIT. Thank you once again.

Stephen:  Thank you.
Transcription by CastingWords

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