University of Sydney is one of the leading Australian organisations doing principal and major gifts fundraising. Jeremy Bradshaw interviewed Mary Ellen Rielly to find out their secrets to successful donor stewardship.

Sydney University’s Founders’ Circle event recognises all donors who have given over $1 million cumulatively.

Mary Ellen Rielly, Deputy Director of Donor Relations at Sydney University, is clearly in the right job. “I’m in the third act of my career and I have the best job in the world!” she declares. Her warmth and enthusiasm shine through when you speak with her – you can really hear the smile in her voice. I’m not even a donor to Sydney University but I feel like a I want to be after interviewing Mary Ellen for half an hour. 

The former News Corp and American Express executive has the responsibility of leading the stewardship of the university’s 450 biggest givers. Which means nurturing major donors (those giving over $100,000) and principal donors (those giving over $10 million). She has a team of seven  including herself to carry out this very important function. 

Mary Ellen joined the university in 2018, a time when the university was winding up its astronomical “Inspired” fundraising campaign which raised $1 billion over 10 years. She began to put in place the building blocks for a greater emphasis on donor stewardship, which is now reaping rewards. Despite the pandemic, the 2020 financial year was the best fundraising year ever for the university and 2021 is on track for another successful philanthropic effort.  

What does stewardship mean at USYD? 

Mary Ellen says the university has a well-articulated approach to donor stewardship. “Our vision is to change our donor’s world through a meaningful giving experience. And our mission is to accelerate these connections between donors, the university and its people through thoughtful engagement.”    

This is all nice in theory, but what does it actually mean. “Our overarching strategy is to communicate the impact donors are making back to them in order to encourage them to give again – for the second and third time – this really accelerates fundraising. On average, a second major gift is given within 24 months of the first gift. We have a laser-like focus on principal and major gift donors.” 

Some of the key elements of the strategy include developing bespoke treatment of major donors; having a detailed acknowledgement plan; rolling out a tiered stewardship program; providing donors with detailed impact reports; and creating a Founders’ Circle event that recognises all donors who have given over $1 million cumulatively (about 100 members).        

The Founders’ Circle event is “magical” says Mary Ellen. “In normal pre-COVID times about 140 people attend. It’s a black-tie dinner that starts out in the Great Hall. All the donors are dressed in academic gowns. New members are inducted by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. Citations are read out. It’s early evening, everybody walks across the famous university quadrangle, violinists are playing, there’s dry ice and tea lights – it’s a wonderful ambience. We all walk past the Founders’ Circle plaque which names all the members. And then we have an amazing dinner in MacLaurin Hall.”   

In 2020, with events off the table because of COVID, Mary Ellen had to come up with an alternative to the Founders’ Circle event. She decided to send beautiful hampers to all the new members of the Founders’ Circle. The hampers contained specially designed puzzles of the university quad, bespoke chocolates, champagne, a letter from the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor, signed books from academic staff and more. With donors holed up in their homes because of the pandemic the hampers were a very welcome surprise!   

Engagement equals creativity 

Mary Ellen knows how to wow her donors, and she’s very creative in coming up with ways to thank them and show the university’s appreciation.   

When three donors gave a combined $6.5 million to establish a new mathematics initiative, Mary Ellen organised for a ceramic moulded icosahedron (a geometrical shape with 20 identical equilateral triangular sides) to be given to them. This went down a treat because it was such a personal nod to the donors’ interests and passions. Development staff continued to cultivate these donors over the following two years and all of them have since increased their commitments.  

Another example of Mary Ellen’s genius in acknowledging donors was the way Susan Wakil was remembered. Susan and her husband Isaac made a donation of $35 million to the university in 2016 to fund the building of the Susan Wakil Health Building. It remains the largest donation ever given to the university. A year earlier the Wakils had made a donation of $10.8 million to fund nursing scholarships at the university. 

Susan passed away in 2018 aged 84 years old, and to commemorate her passing, Mary Ellen organised a special surprise for Isaac – a distinguished businessman, philanthropist and humanitarian. Unbeknown to him, Mary Ellen arranged for Isaac’s favourite portrait of his wife to be recreated and printed onto one hundred cards. On what would have been Susan’s next birthday following her death, one hundred nursing students gathered in the foyer of the Susan Wakil Health Building. On a given signal they raised the cards above their heads. When seen from above, this created an enormous picture of their generous benefactor. The message at the bottom of the portrait was “Happy Birthday Susan!”.  

A video of the occasion was sent to Isaac and it was warmly received. If you’re looking for some inspiration in how to acknowledge and steward your donors – it’s hard to go past this for uniqueness, creativity and donor connection.  

Mary Ellen’s top 5 tips to nurture principal and major gift donors 

 1. Focus on the donors’ passions and link these to the university in a meaningful way. 

2. Acknowledge donors’ gifts genuinely and in a timely fashion—most often from the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University—and from the academics that were involved in the gift. 

3. Share the impact of and the gratitude for donors’ gifts through consistent stewardship reporting:  impact to the university, to scholarship students and to the wider world. 

4. Mark donors’ milestones:  significant birthdays, births of grandchildren, graduation anniversaries. 

5. Recognise the importance of donors through societies such as Founders’ Circle—when donors reach a significant giving amount, celebrate this! 

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