As the Director of Lowell Observatory, Jeff Hall didn't intend to become a fundraiser. He has a B.A. in physics from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Penn State. He joined the staff at Lowell in 1992 as a postdoctoral research fellow, probably intending to spend the rest of his career studying solar phenomena.
But over the years of his career evolution at Lowell, he became a fundraiser. And a pretty darn good one at that.
We're going to periodically have conversations with Jeff about his path as an Accidental Fundraiser and various topics from his perspective as the director CEO of a nonprofit business. Please subscribe to this series on our YouTube channel and here.
Episode 1: How Jeff became a fundraiser
Summary and transcriptAlice: Hello, and welcome to the GoalBusters YouTube channel and video vlog series, and our first ever Accidental Fundraiser vlog entry. You may be wondering what the heck is an accidental fundraiser, and that's what today's episode is all about. It's about figuring out what that is. I'm Alice Ferris. I'm the founder of GoalBusters Consulting with me is Jim Anderson, partner of GoalBusters. And the accidental fundraiser himself, Jeff Hall. Hi, Jeff.
Jeff Hall: Hi, Alice. How are you?
Alice: Good. Great. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jeff: Always a pleasure to join you and Jim.
Alice: We tease you because we call you the accidental fundraiser because, in real life, you're the director of Lowell Observatory. You're also a Ph.D. in astronomy, but you also happen to be, frankly, a kick-ass fundraiser. So, how does that happen? How did you become a fundraiser?
Jeff: It was this gradual evolution. I've been at Lowell since the late Cretaceous! I came here in 1992, as a dewy-eyed postdoc, fresh out of grad school on a three-year research appointment entirely funded under an NSF grant. But the nature of that research program is very long term. So we got the grant renewed in 95. Then in 98, got it renewed again. At that point, the director, Bob Millis, asked me if I would take over managing the outreach programs because I enjoyed outreach. So then I was 50/50 [between research and outreach]. Then, I started meeting with the occasional donor to talk about my research and got more involved in fundraising. Then, I became the project scientist for our huge new telescope and gradually sank deeper into the molasses, you know. At the end of 2010, I was appointed the Observatory's director. And at that point, you know, we were no longer the little observatory I came to in 1992, when we had maybe 40 or 50 employees. All of a sudden, we had 100, and we had added a $53 million asset to the balance sheet in this new telescope. So yes, we're still an observatory. But we are now a full-fledged, nonprofit business specializing in astronomical research and communicating that to the public. So I'm a nonprofit CEO, in addition to being an astronomer, and we all know what nonprofit CEOs have to do a lot. And so I've ended up doing a lot of fundraising because we have a lot of ambitions and a lot of generous donors and loyal supporters. You have to go out and talk to them and inspire them about the mission, and it's a lot of fun.
Jim: Was it always a lot of fun? Did you always enjoy it?
Jeff: No, no, it was definitely an acquired skill. Because early on, it was, "I'm going to sit down with people and asking them for their money?" And it was uncomfortable, especially when you were talking about planned gifts, and sitting down with people to talk about that. I practically felt like I should have my big black robe and a sickle. But you know, over the years, I've learned that that is entirely not the case. And it's a very enjoyable and incredibly honorable thing to be able to do.
Jim: That's an interesting pair of words. What makes it enjoyable? Why do you think it's honorable?
Jeff: Because you get to go (well, when we can go all over the country) all over the country and meet the most interesting people who are so genuinely interested in astronomy. And sometimes you don't even get to talk about the fundraising pitch because they're just peppering you with questions about the universe. Then I get to be an astronomer again for a little while. It's honorable, I think, because...well, let's go back to the planned gift. You both knew Don, and he left us virtually his entire estate after a terrible decline and death from bone cancer. I was able to visit him a few weeks before he died and show him pictures of the facility he had endowed. It was a deep honor to be able to bring him happiness and that the kind of joy that he saw that his gifts were bringing us in the final weeks of his life. And that is a privilege to be able to do that.
Alice: You know, it's interesting you mentioned Don because, as you did say, we both knew him. And in fact, he became a donor of Lowell Observatory way back in the Cretaceous when I was the development director for Lowell Observatory. The thing that I appreciate about him was that, many years later, when I had the opportunity to interact with him at an advisory board meeting, he came up to me and said, "Alice, you may not remember me." I'm thinking, are you kidding me? He was my first major donor! So I was like, "of course, I remember you." And he said, "I want to thank you." I said, "Why do you want to thank me?" He said, "Because you helped connect me with this organization. And I've had just a wonderful experience being part of the Lowell family. And, and I want to thank you so much for making me a part of this." I started to cry. And it's totally that human connection that you make with people.
Jeff: Absolutely. And we were his family, you know. He was a lifelong bachelor who would very loyally come to all the board meetings and interact as much as he could. And it was always nice to go up to Seattle and see him. So yeah, you realize, after you gain some experience, meet with people and hear what they want to do, it's not like you're picking their pockets. It gives them joy to help you. [Fundraising] is empowering them to do something very meaningful to them. And that's just really fun.
Jim: I can't think of any better words of encouragement for those people who might be accidentally fundraising and who may still be at that point where it's a little uncomfortable. So what you shared is how you're not asking somebody to do something they don't want to do. In most cases, if you're talking to them, they've already made the decision. They want to help you. You're just helping them figure out how they can do it.
Jeff: Right. And what's the best way. That's one of the fun things about doing this at Lowell because we do all these research programs, outreach, historic preservation, capital projects, and every donor is a little bit different. Some people love to support the science, and others really want to enable us to reach lots of kids in the outreach programs. It's nice to have this menu that you can roll out in front of them.
Alice: Well, that's great. And thank you, Jeff, for taking a few minutes out of your very busy and very Zoom-y day.