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Marlies Sullivan on Leadership Giving

Executive Director Regional Advancement University of Rochester

There was no hesitation in Marlies Sullivan’s answer when asked to name the key elements of an effective and sustainable leadership annual giving program.

Marlies manages a team of major gift officers for Regional Advancement at the University of Rochester.

Building a program that meets or exceeds campaign goals (which U of R recently did, surpassing a $1.2 billion campaign goal by $168 million) requires a well-structured program, a well-trained and highly skilled team of advancement officers and volunteers, clearly defined metrics based on thorough market research, a solid stewardship plan and a strong commitment from University leadership including president, trustees, and faculty.

Easily said, not so easily done. We’ll let Marlies break it down:

“Our gift officers are key.” Assembling a team of talented gift officers is paramount. Candidates are carefully vetted, followed by a meticulous process of onboarding and ongoing training. Expectations for gift officers are high. Officers maintain an active schedule of donor visits, as many as 22 in a month, and to be effective they must be well versed in all aspects of the University.

Central to the advancement program at U of R is the George Eastman Circle (named for George Eastman, humanitarian and founder of the Eastman Kodak Company). Membership in the GEC is based on donors making a five-year pledge in one of five categories of membership with annual gifts ranging from $1,500 to $50,000. The five-year pledge is a key strategy in Marlies’ opinion. She observes that some colleges and universities worry that asking for a five-year pledge would be an obstacle for many donors, but that U of R has not found that to be the case. Securing a five-year commitment simplifies the renewal process, but of course it also means you must keep the donor engaged over five years, which means solid and consistent stewardship.

To attract recent graduates to the program an Associate level membership was introduced a few years ago. Associate membership starts at $4,000, but members can customize their payment schedule over five years. This program is available to those who have graduated over the last decade.

Volunteers are central to the program’s success across the country. Many major U.S. cities have George Eastman Circle Volunteer Councils in place. Among the many benefits of engaging volunteers is “more feet on the street; people who are willing to open doors for the purpose of supporting the university. “Volunteers are given the opportunity to engage at a high level with university faculty and leadership, giving them access to inside information,” states Marlies. “They actively participate in their council’s strategic plan and are regularly updated on the impact of their participation.”

Peer-to-peer engagement is a priority for volunteers, who can leverage their personal and professional relationships to expand the GEC. Knowing how to motivate volunteers, make sure they feel useful and that their time matters and is impactful is a gift officer’s responsibility. “I think we do a really great job of communicating back the impact their introductions have made and we’re constantly acknowledging their great work in person and via email,” Marlies continues, “as well as giving special recognition when volunteers go above and beyond.”

An interactive map shows the location of GEC members all over the world:

Asked to characterize the success of the GEC, Marlies believes it works because there are giving opportunities to suit the varied interests of their donors, allowing them to pledge where they are most passionate. There are currently hundreds of GEC eligible funds and donors can allocate percentages of their total gift to multiple programs if they so choose.

And of course, the GEC is a pipeline for major gifts. Getting to know a donor and where his or her passions lie leads to conversations about making a larger commitment. The stewardship piece is key. By regularly communicating with and tracking your donors’ personal and professional growth, you then know when it is appropriate to ask a donor to take the next step. Marlies relates that in a recent meeting with a donor who paid his five-year $10,000 pledge off in the first year, she felt it appropriate and timely to ask the donor to consider making a new five-year pledge of $10,000 annually. The donor accepted, based on his growing engagement with the University.

Asked to summarize the University’s recent campaign success (The Meliora Challenge concluded in June 2016), Marlies offers that it was “a combination of things.” The volunteer network, well-trained gift officers, a solid marketing and stewardship program, the five-year pledge, and commitment from University leadership were all integral to the campaign’s success. Now in post-campaign mode, with over 3,300 GEC members, the advancement team will be focused on making sure current members are well-taken care of and of course, growing the GEC membership.

You can learn more about the University of Rochester and the George Eastman Circle at

Marlies is the Executive Director- Office of Regional Advancement at the University of Rochester. She manages major gift officers and support staff and oversees the Rochester Philanthropy Council. She also carries a pool of major gift prospects and collaborates on gift projects with colleagues across advancement.

Previously Marlies was the Senior Director of the George Eastman Circle, the University of Rochester’s Premier Leadership Giving Society where managed the day to day activities of the GEC team. She also managed the GEC Leadership Councils.

She created the “Plus 1” fundraising events as a tool to engage prospects through the use of volunteers. Her program won the CASE Circle of Excellence bronze award in 2015.

Marlies has been with the University for over six years and prior to joining she spent 20 plus years in the private sector as a sales manager in the payroll and human resource industry.

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