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Emails reveal Bresciani’s role as NDSU fundraiser-in-chief

North Dakota State University fundraising. Trygve Olson / The Forum

By Kyle Potter

FARGO – As the Bison football team cruised to a second-straight national championship last January, North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani had a shot at his white whale.

After weeks of planning and dreaming, oil tycoon Harold Hamm, the biggest player in the Bakken region and one of the richest men in America, was in his suite.

It wasn’t the right time to ask for a big donation to NDSU – Hamm was in the midst of a divorce and had just turned down a request from Bill Gates at his lawyer’s urging, according to an email sent to Bresciani.

“But … we should start developing the possible gift by cultivating relationships and a plan,” a key Bison booster wrote to Bresciani.

Those emails and others, obtained through an open records request, provide a glimpse into how NDSU’s president courts new donors and keeps the old ones happy. And they peel back the curtain on the modern university president’s growing role as fundraiser-in-chief.

Bresciani goes on weekend hunting trips with Fargo business leaders and power brokers. He hosted a post-Thanksgiving soiree at his residence last year, giving Bison football backers a chance to chat with coaches while sipping on expensive wine. When Taylor Swift played the Fargodome this summer, Bresciani brought a mix of big-ticket donors to the concert.

As state support for public universities stagnated or declined across the nation, securing private donations has become one of the duties of the schools’ presidents, experts say. Add in what one fundraising consultant called an “arms race” between schools to expand campuses and boost national profiles, fundraising prowess has become a necessary tool in a modern university president’s tool belt.

Those who have worked closely with Bresciani say his belt is stocked.

Jim Miller, former executive director of the school’s nonprofit fundraising arm, said the president knows how to make donors comfortable and has leveraged NDSU’s success on the field as a fundraising opportunity. But most importantly, Miller said, Bresciani puts in the time.

“There was never a question,” he said. “It was … ‘Whatever you want me to do, let me know and I will do it.’ ”

With Bresciani’s help, the NDSU Development Foundation pulled in $17.2 million in gifts last year – up 85 percent from its $9.3 million haul in 2010, the year he took office.

The power suite

Well before the Bison secured another trip to Frisco last year, Bresciani started mapping out his guest list for his suite in Texas.

It would be, as Bresciani called it, a “power suite.”

A bipartisan slice of North Dakota’s political elite were in the box along with their families, including former Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat, and Republicans Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg. Gov. Jack Dalrymple and his wife, Betsy, had to turn down an offer.

Another oil executive, Mike Cantrell, joined them, as did his wife.

But Hamm was the guest of honor.

Hamm, the CEO of Continental Resources Inc., has an estimated net worth of $12.4 billion, according to Forbes. Last year, he gave the University of North Dakota $10 million.

Connie Nicholas, co-chair of the Bison Caucus and another guest in the president’s Frisco suite, was Bresciani’s emissary to get Hamm to Frisco for the game. Nicholas urged Bresciani in an email to put his staff “into beginning the dreaming and imagination mode” to secure a donation.

“One idea would be to work through polymers and coatings to develop new uses for oil,” Nicholas wrote. Hamm’s company is the largest leaseholder in the Bakken oilfields of western North Dakota.

Nicholas also noted Hamm, who has diabetes, “is also very interested in developing a ‘cure’ for diabetes during his lifetime.”

In a phone interview last week, Bresciani declined to discuss his conversations with Hamm and whether a donation to NDSU was in the works.

“At times, we are looking to develop relationships with those people and would want them at events that would help give them a perspective and enthusiasm for what we’re doing,” he said.

Jim Langley, a former university foundation director who now runs a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, said there’s a misconception that university presidents simply coax money out of wealthy supporters with meals and a sharp tongue. There needs to be a project or campaign the donor believes in, he said.

“It’s a matter of aligning interests with entrepreneurs, with corporations,” Langley said. “You don’t entertain your way into more significant support.”

Bresciani said he knows he can’t simply schmooze a donation out of someone.

“You’ve got to find the thing that they’re interested in and want to support,” he said. “If you don’t have that thing … you’re probably not going to be successful.”

‘Captains of industry’

The president’s Frisco suite was artfully composed, but the stadium was filled with dozens of big-time donors and Bison supporters. Bresciani and athletics director Gene Taylor spent days taking care of them all, juggling their VIPs between suites and premium seats, emails show.

It was a who’s who of North Dakota’s well-to-do, many of whom have shared their riches with NDSU. Among them:

-- Potato king Ron Offutt, one of the richest men in North Dakota.

-- Steve Scheel, CEO of Scheels All Sports and a prolific donor to Bison athletics.

-- Tim Corwin, president of the Corwin Automotive Group.

-- Steve Swiontek, president and CEO of Gate City Bank.

-- John Klai, an NDSU alumnus and Las Vegas-based architect with many of the Strip’s top hotels in his portfolio (plus an architecture building on campus with his name on it thanks to a $1.5 million donation).

-- Harry McGovern, whose recent $1 million gift put his name on the school’s new alumni center.

“In any major research university community, the president’s social circle … is going to be the other captains of industry around them,” Bresciani said. “That’s the social circle that I oftentimes find myself in.”

Bresciani, Taylor and foundation staff planned a handful of weekend events for those “captains of industry” who traveled to Frisco: barbecues, cocktail hours and more intimate dinners.

The president and an Alumni Association official toyed with organizing a private dinner for supporters who could give – or had already given – the school $5 million or more, with a social for $1 million-plus donors afterward.

“Don’t try to make a square peg fit through a round hole,” Bresciani wrote in an email as the dinner plans crumbled. “Them being happy with WHATEVER they are doing is what matters.”

X’s and O’s

In Fargo or Frisco, Bison football is a staple in Bresciani’s donor relations repertoire.

The president hosts pre-game socials at his residence before every home game, spending between $1,000 and $2,500 of foundation funds for each party. The foundation also shelled out nearly $40,000 over the summer to renovate Bresciani’s suite at the Fargodome, where he invites special guests to take in Bison games.

Bresciani went above and beyond after Thanksgiving last year, throwing a special party for “major supporters of the football program.”

“I think it will be a really nice gesture … the big donors rarely get to ‘hang’ with the coaches,” he wrote in an email.

The president even considered putting out chalkboards on the lawn outside the president’s house, “so folks can play X’s and O’s with the coaches if inclined.”

There’s no indication in emails of who made the VIP list, but they had a thirst for good wine.

“We’ll probably want to reconsider what wine to serve, though, as that’s a crowd that the regular stuff won’t do for,” Bresciani wrote, later sending a note to his assistant with a wish list of $50 to $100 bottles of cabernet sauvignon.

In an interview, Bresciani said he doesn’t think Bison football’s winning ways have brought more potential donors into the fold.

“Our major donors were there before we were ever successful,” he said.

But there’s an energy surrounding the school – and the Fargodome in particular – that makes it easier to connect with donors.

“They’re more passionate than ever before,” Bresciani said.

Keeping donors happy

Bresciani has also treated top donors to some March Madness.

The president invited three couples he called “exceptional friends to the University” to watch the Final Four with him in Atlanta this spring – tickets and lodging his treat. His would-be guests were among the school’s biggest supporters: Steve and Eileen Scheel; Robert and Sheila Challey; and Jim and Amy Alexander.

Scheel’s sports company put $5 million toward renovating the Bison Sports Arena. Nodak Mutual Insurance, of which Alexander is vice president and chief executive officer, donated another $2 million for the project. Robert Challey, an NDSU alumnus and real estate maven, and his wife previously donated $2.2 million to the school’s music department for scholarships.

The Final Four has become a go-to donor event for Bresciani. He did the same in 2012, using almost $4,000 from his personal foundation fund to cover game tickets and hotel rooms for guests at the tournament in New Orleans, according to foundation records obtained through an open records request.

“It’s really nice to know such well-connected people. This should be great fun,” Bob Challey responded in an email. The Scheels and Alexanders couldn’t make it.

But Scheel did accompany the president on a trip to the East Coast in March. Bresciani had to miss a legislative hearing in Bismarck that month, he wrote in an email, because he was “in a very rural area entertaining major donors.”

The entertainment? Hunting quail on horseback in southern Georgia.

Bresciani joked in an email after his trip: “Some aspects of the job are hell, but I’m willing to take a bullet for the team?”

NDSU spokeswoman Laura McDaniel said the hunt was a personal trip, which the president paid for personally.

Keeping up with longtime donors like Scheel and Challey is just as important as wooing new ones like Hamm, said Langley, the fundraising consultant.

Doug Mayo, the new executive director of the NDSU Development Foundation, called it a “perpetual process.”

“You’ve got to keep donors informed. You’ve got to get them engaged,” he said. “And really only then can you ask them to get involved.

Or as Miller, Mayo’s predecessor, put it: “Once somebody makes a gift, you certainly don’t move on and say ‘Thank you very much.’ ”

Growing part of the job

A university president’s involvement in fundraising is nothing new. Nor is it limited to NDSU.

It’s been trending that way for decades. Jim Miller, who left his position as executive director of the school’s Development Foundation this summer after more than 30 years on the job, has watched it happen.

When he started the job in 1982, the role of NDSU’s president “was more of the academic oversight and operation of the educational side,” he said. “As time went on and budgets got tighter, it evolved to where fundraising and stewardship is a major part of the job.”

Langley said a public university president today spends about a third of his or her time on fundraising and donor relations, if not more. Recruiters and college boards look for fundraising prowess in every candidate.

Bresciani said he couldn’t remember specific fundraising questions as he interviewed for the job back in early 2010, but he knows his background at Texas A&M University – where he worked on a $1 billion fundraising campaign – was a selling point.

At NDSU, Bresciani figures he spends about a third of his time on “the mechanical running of the university.” The remainder, he said, is spent talking about and representing the school – up to and including fundraising.

“I’m the liaison between the university and everyone that we need to attend to,” Bresciani said.

Mayo said Bresciani is deeply involved in every aspect of the school’s fundraising: from dreaming up a new campaign or project and sometimes all the way to making the request for a donation.

“Fundraising is always about connection,” Mayo said. “As the captain of the ship, many donors want to hear that vision and want to have that impact laid out for them by the person who’s most likely to make it happen.”

Bresciani said it’s difficult to pin down exactly how much time he spends on current and potential donors. He doesn’t have hours blocked off on his schedule to solicit donations.

“When am I fundraising?” Bresciani asked rhetorically. “In some senses, I’m never fundraising or I’m always fundraising. I’m always in settings where I’m talking about the university.”

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