How Michael Ward and the NC State Team Made It Happen
It all started with a $1,000 gift. What drew notice at North Carolina State University’s development office was the age of the donor. The check was written in November 2016 by Rede Wilson, a freshly minted graduate from the College of Textiles.
How this gift became the gateway to a $28-million-dollar philanthropic investment from the Wilson family—in less than two years' time—has become the stuff of legend, not only on campus but in development circles nationally.
“The first I heard about the gift was when I got a call from Joey Wilkerson, my colleague in Central Advancement,” says Michael Ward, senior director of development at the North Carolina Textile Foundation and the person who is widely credited with orchestrating the transformative gift. A former Eagle Scout, Ward invariably downplays his own role, citing the contributions of “the team” in the context of a healthy and affirming culture at NC State.
Because the gift was earmarked for the College of Textiles, Wilkerson asked for Ward’s blessing before calling on the young donor. After several meetings, the magnanimous, big-picture Wilkerson determined that Rede Wilson’s passion was for textiles, and he handed the engagement opportunity to Ward.
A first meeting in November 2017, in which Wilson and Ward sparked to each other instantly—and jousted to outdo the other in the listening department—led to more face time and a deeper bond. Getting Rede’s “Aunt Cres,” Elizabeth Wilson Calabrese, a 1989 College of Textiles graduate on board eventually led to an introduction to and, ultimately, full-blooded commitment from the family patriarch, Frederick “Fred” Eugene Wilson, Jr., Class of 1961. The headline-making gift, announced on Nov. 2, 2018, was the largest ever made to the 120-year-old College of Textiles and represented only the second time that a college at NC State was renamed for a benefactor.
With any major fundraising victory, a number of factors must come into play: a qualified and willing donor; an initiative that connects in deep ways with the donor’s “why”; the right chemistry between the development personnel, institutional leadership and the donor; and, finally, excellent timing.
I recently reached out to Ward to ask him where he found the “magic dust” that was sprinkled all over the Wilson legacy gift. While Ward punted on that question, he did offer a behind-the-scenes look at how it all came together, from which you can draw useful concepts for your own efforts to impact lives through philanthropy.
Look for Openings
Fred Wilson, the enormously successful CEO of the High Point, NC-based Piedmont Chemical Industries, Inc., a family-owned business offering chemical manufacturing services for the textile industry domestically and overseas, had been on the NC State’s radar for some time. Advancement officers knew that Fred Wilson had a charitable heart, having made a multi-million-dollar commitment to High Point University back in 2011. However, repeated attempts to reach him had fallen short.
The arrival of Fred Wilson’s grandson’s gift provided a new opening. As the relationship developed between Rede Wilson and State’s advancement team, it was clear that the young man had “an enormous love” for his alma mater and the College of Textiles. Rede Wilson readily agreed to join the Dean’s Young Alumni Leadership Council. “But probably the most auspicious clue early on,” says Ward, “was his expressed desire for his family to get ‘more involved.’”
Ward understood that he needed to get better acquainted with Rede Wilson and, ultimately, the entire family. The development officer’s heart soared when a devoted board member offered up four coveted courtside seats to the January 2018 State-Clemson game, where Ward was able to host Rede Wilson along with David Hinks, Wilson’s former college advisor, now dean of the College of Textiles. (In fact, it was Hinks who had signed the initial letter that had brought in Wilson’s $1,000 gift.) Providentially, the game turned out to be riveting, a real nail-biter. “It was an amazing opportunity for bonding,” Ward recalls. “We were so close to the action you had to watch out for tripping refs. Talk about exciting—State won by one point!”
On that magical evening, Hinks asked Rede Wilson how the team could get “in front of your Aunt Cres.” The following month, Ward found himself in the Chancellor’s box for the State-Carolina game, along with Rede Wilson, Calabrese, her husband, Mike, and son, Will Davis. Ward will never forget the date—Feb. 10—which serendipitously turned out to be Rede Wilson’s 25th birthday. Ward recalls getting a private moment with Calabrese and apologizing that The Textile Foundation had dropped the ball in engaging with the family and resolving to do better in the future.
Several more meetings followed over the next several months, including an in-depth campus tour for the Calabreses of the College: lunch with students and a touching visit with Calabrese’s former advisor, Gary Mock. At that meeting, Mock presented Calabrese with an autographed copy of his book, "A Century of Progress: The Textile Program, North Carolina State University: 1899 – 1999." The book placed this cornerstone industry in an historical perspective for the state’s economy, Ward recalls. “Calabrese’s emotional reaction told me how deeply she felt about the College and Gary Mock.”
Not long after, Ward asked Calabrese if she would commit to getting her father on campus in the summer. She agreed, but cautioned him not to pull any students out of class or roll out any red carpet. Buy him a hot dog for lunch, she joked.
Ward is nothing if not a good listener. “I’ve always believed that people tell you what they really want,” he says, “and your gift to them is listening.” Ward took to heart Calabrese’s insights about her father’s down-home tastes. Never let your assumptions about what a high net-worth individual would want, he says, override what people tell you.
When Fred Wilson came to campus in July 2018, Ward was able to make an impromptu hallway introduction to chancellor Randy Woodson, who didn’t wait for the guest to be announced but came out into the hallway to greet him.
Fred Wilson was dressed in casual slacks, layered with a dusting of Carolina dirt.
“I apologize for looking so dapper,” the chancellor quipped. “I dressed for a Kiwanis lunch.”
Wilson retorted, “I put on my cleanest, dirtiest clothes for you!”
After more light-hearted banter, the chancellor invited Wilson into his office along with vice chancellor Brian Sischo, Ward recalls. It was obvious that the men had really hit it off.
Afterwards, the team invited the Wilson family for a casual lunch at Lonnie Poole Clubhouse.
Establish Trust—Be Authentic
Ward felt immediate chemistry with Rede Wilson, Calabrese and when he finally met Fred Wilson, with the textile magnate himself.
“Our values are the same,” he explains. “My father is a product the Great Depression from rural Eastern North Carolina, so I got Fred instantly. We have the same down-home values; he just has a larger pocketbook.”
What’s essential when dealing with donors, Ward says, is to establish a personal connection, to be authentic to who you are. It’s wisdom that was shored up for Ward through his coaching sessions with Bill Crouch, CEO of BrightDot. “Bill helped me refine my skills of emotional intelligence. While there’s a need for more data-driven science integrated into fundraising, data is useless if you are not able to connect with people. Bill helped me realize that being myself was a key to success.”
Being yourself, in turn, allows donors to be who they are. It’s essential, Ward advises, that you get this part right, before even thinking about “the ask.”
Speed to Ask
Once you’ve established that all-important trust with your donor, the development professional needs to “trust the process and let the speed of the process be dictated by the donors,” Ward says.
In the case of the Wilsons, once it was clear that three generations of family members were on board and passionate about building the College’s position as the global leader in textile education and innovation, there was no compelling reason to wait to present a proposal.
In consultation with vice chancellor Sischo and the team, Ward says, the ask was discussed at length. After some internal back and forth, in the end, Sischo deferred to Ward who was closest to the donors. “We settled on a meaningful number that we thought aligned with the values and the impact the family wanted to make,” says Ward. “I cannot tell you how humbled I was when the vice chancellor trusted me to make the call on the amount and then move the gift forward.”
Whatever Ward’s magic formula, he and the team at North Carolina State hit just the right note. In a gathering of College of Textiles constituents, not long after the gift was announced, Calabrese, who has since joined the board of the Wilson College of Textiles, called Ward “the relationship-builder-in-chief, (my) newly adopted brother. His approach of a handshake and a hot dog won our hearts!”
Wanda Urbanska is a performance consultant at Crouch & Associates, a nonprofit coaching firm serving clients across the U.S. Urbanska is also an author of 37 books, former host of an award-winning PBS television show, "The Simple Life," and a corporate social responsibility guru.
She is also heading an American-based philanthropy initiative in support of the Polish History Museum in Warsaw. Urbanska is a Harvard University graduate.