Interview with Mrs. Naomi Levine

 Rick McKay began fundraising as a teenager when he founded a program called “Kids Need Camp,” which brought children from the South Bronx to summer camp in the Catskill Mountains of NY State. Since then he has raised funds professionally for a number of organizations, including the YMCA and the Boy Scouts of America. After volunteering in Kenya, Rick decided to attend the Heyman Center of Philanthropy at NYU where he graduated in 2012 with an M.S. in Fundraising.  Rick currently works with a highly successful school and orphanage in Kenya called St. Mary’s.

In addition to being the Chair and Executive Director of the George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, Naomi Levine is special advisor to the President of New York University and Chair of the boards of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and the Taub Center for Israel Studies at NYU. For 22 years, she was Senior Vice President of External Affairs at NYU, where she helped raise over $2.5 billion for the University. Previously, Mrs. Levine was the national Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress.
As we look forward to a new generation of philanthropic leaders, Mrs. Naomi Levine’s opinions and insights regarding philanthropy will help inspire the future while remembering lessons from the past.
The following interview with Mrs. Levine covers a wide variety of philanthropic topics including—changes in philanthropy, how technology and globalization have influenced philanthropy, the changing role of women in philanthropy, the role of continuing education in advancing the fundraising profession, and the pending intergenerational transfer of wealth.
Rick McKay: The theme of the upcoming NYUPhilanthropy Journal is the next generation of philanthropy and fundraising. As I look back at my own experience at the Heyman Center, I remember many of the insights you had to offer to the new generation. How do you feel philanthropy, specifically fundraising, has changed since you began your career? Could we start with your thoughts about major gifts?
Mrs. Levine: I think that the basic principles for major gifts will not change because major gifts depend so much on interpersonal relations, keep in mind that no campaign has been successful without some big gifts. That is the area that makes or breaks a campaign. And in the world of major gifts, the changes have been minimal. With the economic crisis it is a little more difficult to get big gifts, but the rich continue to be rich. There are over 400 billionaires in the US and many millionaires; so there is plenty of money around.
McKay: How about technology, such as the Internet and social media?
Levine: Technology will clearly play a role; it is playing a role now for small gifts and advocacy. Technology gives the donor an opportunity to find out a great deal more about organizations and to make gifts more easily on the Internet. At this point these gifts are still small, but some are going up to $5,000 or $6,000.
McKay: Has the role of women in philanthropy changed?
Levine: Women are now indispensable in any fundraising campaign. They own the majority of wealth in the country. They not only inherit money but also earn much more than in the past. Usually, they are not shy about achieving publicity for major gifts they give to institutions. In my experience, men were more likely to be shy about receiving this kind of publicity.
McKay: Have you seen changes in young people regarding philanthropy?
Levine: Younger people generally like to target their own areas of interest and are not happy with umbrella groups like the “United Way” or the UJA (United Jewish Appeal- Federation of Jewish Philanthropies). We have a great many more young people who want to make the world better and are involved in philanthropy at a younger age. I never underestimate the ability of younger people; when we give them the right education, I think they will be prepared to take over the leadership with the same ability as the leaders of yesterday.
McKay: How has the phenomenon of globalization influenced philanthropy? 
Levine: There is an increase in what we would call the globalization of philanthropy. More people from abroad are coming to the US to learn the American model of philanthropy and then going back to their countries to engage in fundraising and philanthropy. Many governments are cutting back on the budgets for museums, universities and other programs. Philanthropy and fundraising have become increasingly important. Another part of globalization is that many in this country are now giving to causes abroad, mostly in Africa where poverty, disease, etc. are so prevalent.
McKay: What lessons have you learned in your career that you feel this new generation of fundraisers should know?
Levine: Remember that you are always dealing with people. You have to enjoy people, and genuinely like them – and become an educated, informed human being. When you develop relationships with donors, they have to enjoy their conversations with you. They must believe that you are totally committed to the cause in which you want their financial support. You must know the laws and be very sensitive to ethical issues. 
There are a great many ethical problems that have arisen; I don’t believe that this is because fundraisers are evil. It generally comes from their lack of knowledge and being under the pressure of raising money. They often forget that trust sits in the heart of fundraising.
For the last seven years, I have tried to get a bill passed in Albany that would make it mandatory for anyone hired as a professional fundraiser to take one course, just one course in their professional career in the law, ethics and board governance of nonprofits.
I think that if fundraisers young and old were more knowledgeable about those issues, we would have less difficulty in presenting an ethical face to the community.
McKay: How do certificates, master's programs, and continuing education in general assist philanthropic professionals in advancing our profession and the philanthropic industry in general?
Levine: Hardly anyone in the community looks upon fundraising as a profession. I can’t think of any mother saying to their child, “I want you to be a fundraiser when you grow up.” Yet, fundraising today is a profession. It requires education, knowledge, and an understanding of many things – you have to know the federal and state laws, as well as planned giving. You have to be able to understand a budget, the investment policies of the organization, and the meaning of “conflict of interest.”
Those are the things a good fundraiser must know, that is why I was so pleased that NYU permitted me to create the Heyman Center. In order to make fundraising a real profession, courses should be given in a university. A great university that sets aside a center for philanthropy and fundraising makes development an important academic pursuit. And that will help in the long run to make it a profession.
Keep in mind, 1.4 to1.8 million nonprofit organizations exist in the US. Last year, they raised close to three hundred billion in financial support. Our society could not function without them. Our museums, universities, hospitals, medical research facilities – Lincoln Center, the opera, and thousands of nonprofit organizations in New York City are critical to how the city functions. The over one million nonprofits in the US are also critical to the way our country functions.
McKay: What are your general opinions on the pending intergenerational transfer of wealth? How can organizations and individual development officers prepare to harness this phenomenon in bringing greater financial resources to the philanthropic sector?
Levine: Today, there are many places and techniques to gather research information. It seems to me that if younger people are inheriting the wealth of their parents, it is important is to find out who they are and what their interests are. Whether these young people will have the same values as their parents, you really can’t tell. Values are transmitted in a home, not by telling, but by doing. These younger people will continue to be philanthropic if they see their parents deeply involved in philanthropy and if their parents involve them as early as possible in the process.
I know many very affluent people because of my twenty-five years of fundraising for NYU. In the vast majority of these families, the children are interested in philanthropy. They don’t always give to the same causes as their parents, but they give. Often, the children are very concerned about the environment and tragedies overseas; but many continue to support many of the same institutions that the older people support such as hospitals, universities, and medical research.
The skill of a good development person is to find the names of these younger people, cultivate the relationships, and find out their philanthropic interests. Then the development professionals should try to involve them in the organization. There is no magic bullet, it is a difficult and slow process, but it is happening every day.


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