The art of the deal
Insights into fundraising ... and the time Marian Miner Cook pulled out her checkbook
By Jack L. Stark '57 GP'11
You didn’t conduct business deals in The California Club dining room. That was the rule.
But that didn’t mean that you couldn’t take someone there and talk about business over a nice lunch. You just had to finish the actual deal somewhere else.
I liked the Club, and it seemed like a good, pleasant place to have lunch with Marian Miner Cook and talk to her about an important CMC campaign: a new home for our Athenaeum.
Originally, the idea of an Athenaeum—a place where students and faculty could mingle and listen to visiting speakers—had been Donald McKenna’s idea, and for several years we’d already had an Athenaeum on campus. It had become so popular that it had quickly outgrown the old president’s house. With our new campaign, we planned not only to build a new home for it, we also wanted to protect the Athenaeum by building an endowment, too—even in lean times, an endowment would preserve its program, and its impact on students, from any cutbacks or reductions.
At the time that we were planning to raise the money, Marian was a CMC trustee back in the late 1970s, and she was also a friend of mine. I knew her well, and I felt that she would have a special feeling for this project.
I’d known Marian and her husband John for a long time. Until his death, John had been a Scripps Trustee (there was even some talk of his coming over to the CMC Board before he died). She and John had always appreciated the importance of having speakers visit the colleges. With a new Athenaeum and a bigger, better program, we were going to do something really special. We would invite an even broader range of speakers on all kinds of controversial issues. Liberal, conservative, and so forth. We wanted to try to present a balanced program for our students. I didn’t know of anyone else who was doing something approaching that. And that’s why I thought of Marian as a key supporter.
Often, when you met with someone, you didn’t go alone. You’d bring along your V.P. of Development, or maybe another Trustee, but in this case, I didn’t do that. I knew Marian too well. I realized that if I had brought someone else with me to the Club, she would have felt that we were ganging up on her. So I made arrangements for just the two of us to meet. It was, how can I put this, a very memorable lunch.
Marian was very enthusiastic and receptive about building a new Athenaeum. The project excited her. She told me, “yes, I will give you money for this.” But it wasn’t just any money. She was agreeing to give us $1 million, which was an incredible sum, especially in those days.
I was delighted, and I thanked her, but I wasn’t prepared for what she did next. As we finished our meal, she took out a pen and her checkbook and started to write me a check . As I explained at the beginning of this piece, you weren’t supposed to do this kind of thing at the Club. The establishment frowned on business deals conducted there, and I think Marian remembered because she suddenly stopped writing and looked around us. “Oh, I shouldn’t be doing this here!” she said.
It all happened so fast. I looked at her. I looked at the checkbook on the table.
“That’s all right, Marian,” I told her with a chuckle. “You just go ahead and write that check. I’m sure no one’s going to stop you.”
She smiled and handed it to me. I can’t describe how I felt when I left the Club that afternoon and drove back to Claremont. I had our future Athenaeum literally in my pocket. In all my years as a fundraiser, that’s the only time that I ever had that kind of thing happen to me.
Plenty of people, I’m sure, will say that doing this sort of thing is difficult for them. Asking someone for financial help is hard. But I don’t agree with that. It really wasn’t difficult for me. I know that some may say it was easier for me because I’m a CMC alumnus. But I don’t think that’s true. Being an insider certainly has helped me with certain issues over the years—making the case for coeducation, for example, in the 1970s—but when I look back on my own successes as a fundraiser, the key to my success boils down to something that anyone, alumnus/-na or not, will understand: I’ve always thought that CMC is a really special place. I believe in CMC and in what we are trying to do.
That’s what it has always come down to for me: a faith in our work. And as a fundraiser, that’s what you want to give to your supporters. You want them to share your faith in the importance of our mission.
For the most part, people know full well what you are doing when you meet them to talk about the school. It’s not a big secret. That doesn’t mean that you’re always going to be successful and receive a big pledge from them. I didn’t always win. I made a number of calls and asked for some very hefty gifts, and I was turned down. But that’s the name of the game. The old saying in development is, “Don’t insult someone by asking for too little: You don’t want them to think that you question their commitment or their ability.” I always thought long and hard about this before meeting with anyone. Never underestimate your supporters.
On the other hand, never underestimate what they’re receiving in exchange for their gift, either. There are so many organizations in the world today asking for financial support, but what’s different about supporting a college is that society moves forward because of educational institutions. Progress is made. People want opportunities to be involved in something special that’s making real contributions to society. It was true when I was president of CMC, and it’s still true now.
Jack L. Stark ’57 GP’11 is president emeritus of Claremont McKenna College (1970-1999) and a life member of the College’s Board of Trustees.