An Urban Legend for Fundraisers

A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun and threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston, and walked timidly without an appointment into the President’s Office at Harvard University. The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard. She frowned.

“We want to see the president," the man said softly. "He'll be busy all day," the secretary snapped. "We'll wait," the lady replied.

For hours, the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would become discouraged and go away. They didn't, and the secretary grew frustrated. She finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted. "Maybe, if they just see you for a few minutes, they'll leave," she told him. He sighed in exasperation and nodded.

The president, stern-faced and with dignity, strutted toward the couple. The lady told him, "We had a son who attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus."

The president wasn't touched. "Madam," he said gruffly, "we can't put up a statue for every person who has attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery."

"Oh, no," the lady explained quickly. "We don't want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard." The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, then exclaimed, "A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have more than seven and a half million dollars in the physical plant at Harvard."

For a moment, the lady was silent. The president was pleased. Maybe he could get rid of them now.

The lady turned to her husband and said quietly, "Is that all it costs to start a university? Why don't we just start our own?" Her husband nodded. The president's face wilted in confusion and bewilderment.

Mr. and Mrs. Stanford got up and walked away, traveling to Palo Alto, California where they established the university that stands as a memorial to the son who had attended Harvard, but whose parents were dismissed as nobodies by the president of Harvard University.

I first heard this story on Paul Harvey, whom I’ve always assumed provided well-researched stories. Come to find out, this one is a bit of a stretch. (Leland, a former Governor of California, and Jane Stanford established the University in 1891. When their only son died just two weeks before his 16th birthday, Leland turned to his wife and said, "The children of California shall be our children." These words were the real beginning of Stanford University.)

Nonetheless, the morals of the story are numerous and custom-made for fund raisers. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. See the possibilities in everyone. Be gracious in receiving every gift, large or small.

Fund raising is as much about meeting donor needs as it is about meeting organizational needs. Perhaps more. Let’s be fund raisers of character:

You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who they think can do nothing for them or to them."

- Malcolm Forbes