Fund-Raiser Knows Who Has Big Money, Big Secrets

Times Staff Writer

"Want to know how to get someone to tell you his innermost secrets?" Chuck Lawson asked as he walked briskly down Central Park West at sunset.

"I mean tell you secrets he wouldn't tell his wife--like how much his mistress costs. . . ?" Lawson said, breaking into a broad grin and stifling a chuckle so he could take another drag on the cigarette that affixes to his left hand like an ashen-tipped sixth digit.

"It's easy. . . . Just ask someone to donate $100,000 to a charity."

Asking people to write six-figure checks to nonprofit organizations is Lawson's business, and when people start telling him their secrets it usually means they're casting about for reasons not to give.

Lawson, 49, is the president of Brakeley, John Price Jones Inc., the nation's second-largest fund-raising firm. He is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the $74-billion-a-year business of raising money for charity.

But while Lawson spends much of his time with the rich, he does not expect to rise into the economic stratosphere. "To become a millionaire in this business," he observed, "you'd have to be a crook."

Many of the nation's estimated 25,000 fund-raisers work on the staffs of non-religious charities for a salary--often the highest or second-highest salary in the organization--or work on contract for a share of the money they raise.

Not Lawson. Just as attorneys give legal counsel for an hourly fee, Lawson gives fund-raising advice for a daily fee. He even calls himself a "fund-raising counsel." Like many professional fund-raisers, Lawson considers taking a share of the pot unethical.

Major Role

Fund-raising advisers play a major role, rarely even mentioned in the press, in shaping the finances of many nonprofit organizations. Their skill often determines whether a charity flourishes or folds.

Hospitals, colleges, symphonies and other charities often turn to people such as Lawson for advice on whom to approach for donations and how much to request when they want to erect new buildings, sock away an endowment or raise their annual donations significantly.

Most paid fund-raising advisers operate behind the scenes. But their influence often far exceeds that of the prominent volunteers whose names fill society columns.

Lawson's firm, which he is buying from its founders, has 47 professionals on its staff and offices from Stamford, Conn., to Newport Beach, Calif. The company provides three basic services: studies for clients to determine whether a campaign is likely to succeed, advice on conducting a campaign and campaign management.

Brakeley, John Price Jones' client list stretches from USC and the Music Center in Los Angeles to Harvard University, with scores of hospitals, private colleges and assorted do-gooder groups in between.

When the Music Center raised its annual campaign goal from $5.6 million in 1983 to $7.6 million in 1984, it hired the Brakely firm to provide "basic research" about the giving habits of many executives in Los Angeles, a Music Center spokesperson said, adding that the information involved "things we should have known long ago but didn't have in our files." Public records show that the Music Center paid $165,000 for the firm's services.

To help clients identify prospects, as potential donors are known, Lawson draws on a deep vein of information in Brakeley, John Price Jones' library at its Connecticut headquarters. Biographies of rich industrialists, volumes of Who's Who, past feasibility studies, government reports on the economy and other dreary documents line the library walls.

But the most valuable nuggets are stored in manila folders that Lawson affectionately calls his "POWs" for Pools Of Wealth. Considering how often the rich complain about getting hit up for big bucks donations, he said, the files might better refer to Prisoners of Wealth.

These POW files are filled with news clippings, records of past giving and unpublished tidbits, often provided by rich givers, about what causes might prompt an individual to write a check with lots of zeroes.

One POW report lists each time that one of the Rockefellers was a patient in a particular Manhattan hospital between 1930 and 1975 and the names of the attending physicians. In all, 16 Rockefellers were born in the hospital and there were 72 other hospitalizations, the report showed.

Armed with that information and other confidential data gathered by Lawson's firm, hospital volunteers have gotten millions of dollars in donations from the Rockefellers listed in the report.

Lawson told about how rich people sometimes reveal their innermost secrets, which invariably become excuses for not opening up their checkbooks.

"Sometimes," Lawson said, "you get a guy who will go on and on about his health and his wife's drinking and his kid who's on drugs and his no good brother-in-law he's got to help out and all sorts of stuff you don't even want to hear, and you just want to tell him to forget it just to get him to shut up."

But this had been an exceptionally good day because it was Lawson who was revealing secrets.

Lawson's day began in Lower Manhattan in the new but Spartan offices of a national charity with 2 million participants in 49 states. The organization, which allowed a reporter to sit in on its fund-raising strategy meeting on the condition that it not be identified, hired Lawson's firm to help raise more than $10 million over several years for its endowment.

One of the Rockefellers had been asked for $2 million and, one of Lawson's associates said, would probably give half that sum. A woman who had been counted on for $100,000 offered to give $1,000--with strings attached.

Then there were plans for a Park Avenue party where Katharine Graham, the Washington Post Co. chairman, promised to make a pitch. The staff said it wasn't certain that all the prospects would come, especially those who knew they were going to be hit up for a second gift. And efforts to enlist Sen. Barry Goldwater in softening up Arizona's elite for major donations had not even netted a personal meeting with the senator.

Lawson listened to the glum talk and then told the client's representatives and his staff members to look at the bright side. Why just 15 years ago, Lawson told them, the organization couldn't have raised a dime for every dollar it already had in hand.

Then one of Lawson's associates told how Shell Oil Co. had been persuaded to double its $100,000 gift and how Xerox Corp. agreed to triple its initial $10,000 contribution.

Another company didn't want to give a penny, but after three meetings had agreed to a $20,000 grant for a specific program that, the company warned, would cost at least $50,000. "Turn them down," Lawson advised. "You've got to maintain integrity and taking this would cost you money."

Then the talk turned to General Motors, which rejected the charity's request for $100,000. The charity's top volunteer fund-raisers, believing there was no appeal from the turndown by the manufacturer's giving officers, were distressed.

One of the volunteers suggested bluntly pointing out to GM how many of the charity's participants bought its cars.

"Well . . ., " Lawson said, wincing in disapproval and then suggesting there were more subtle ways to exercise some influence.

From memory, Lawson named several of the manufacturing colossus' directors. Then he showed how they were connected by marriage, blood or private club to some of the charity's directors and major donors. Soon the volunteers expanded on the list and offered names of people with closer ties than those Lawson knew.

Within 20 minutes Lawson and the others developed a strategy: those in the room would contact the charity's key supporters, who in turn would try to get five of the company's directors to speak to the corporation's board chairman directly.

GM Chairman Roger B. Smith later got all the nudging, but GM didn't budge.

Failed strategies such as that do not faze Lawson, who has adopted the view that "no campaign ever failed because too many said 'no,' but only because too few said 'yes.' "

For his next meeting Lawson hailed a cab to the offices of J. C. Geever Inc., one of only two fund-raising firms owned by women that belongs to the 30-member American Assn. of Fund-Raising Counsel, a nearly all-white and all-male old-boys network of big league fund-raisers.

Lawson led the drive to get both firms admitted to the association, which forms a powerful network of contacts and which annually publishes "Giving USA," the best-known source of statistics on charitable contributions.

The American Assn. of Fund-Raising Counsel requires members to follow a code of fair practices designed to ensure that its members serve their clients and the public's interest as well as their own. Association members are barred from taking a percentage of the money they raise as their fee and from unsavory, but common, fund-raising practices such as paying people for introductions to prospective donors.

Lawson and Geever discussed how an event designed to solicit professional fund-raisers for donations to a scholarship fund had been mishandled.

"They blew it," Geever said fuming. She explained that no one had distributed pledge cards at the meeting, the sort of amateur foul-up that she couldn't believe had occurred with professionals soliciting their own kind.

"But Chuck expects the drive will go over its goal anyway so. . . ," Geever said, shrugging.

Then Lawson was off to see Robert Sarnoff in his Central Park West apartment to talk about the Morris Fund for Animals, an Colorado-based charity that finances veterinary medical research for "companion animals" such as dogs and cats, plus horses and zoo animals.

"I'm fascinated by the Morris Animal Foundation," said Sarnoff, the former chairman of RCA and a man who in the past has headed national fund-raising drives for the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross.

Asked how he moved from these big league charities to the Morris Fund for Animals, Sarnoff, toying with a pillow embroidered with his wife soprano Anna Moffo's name, puffed on his long black cigar and gazed out the window of his spacious apartment.

"Your interests change," Sarnoff finally said, "just like you change your clothes, you change your friends."

Keeping up on those changing interests, knowing which charities appeal to which rich people at the moment, is a big part of Lawson's job.

"Did you know that colic is the No. 1 killer of horses?" Sarnoff asked, going on to talk about that and other areas of research the foundation is funding, including non-surgical sterilization for dogs and a cure for cat dermatitis.

The Morris Animal Foundation wants to build an $11.5-million endowment so it will have $1 million to distribute annually, a goal that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

"Their board lacked clout, but what they are slowly doing is attracting people with clout," Lawson said as he and Sarnoff discussed how to use Sarnoff's connections to hit up chief executive officers of pharmaceutical firms that sell veterinary drugs.

And then Lawson bid Sarnoff goodby and started marching determinedly down Central Park West to make another connection, hoping to leave with a check rather than a list of personal secrets.

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