When it comes to raising money for nonprofit groups and other worthy causes, few people have been more successful than Dallas’ William “Bill” Lively. After more than two decades in various revenue-generating positions at Southern Methodist University, Lively agreed in 2000 to oversee the fundraising campaign for the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, which will open its doors in October. During his tenure more than $334 million was raised for the center, including 130 separate gifts of $1 million or more. Last year, Lively was appointed president and CEO of the North Texas Super Bowl XLV Host Committee, which has already secured more $1 million sponsors than any Super Bowl Host Committee in history. We sat down with Lively recently to talk about the keys to his success.

D CEO: You’ve attracted 10 $1 million “founding sponsors” for the 2011 Super Bowl in North Texas so far, and you’re shooting for 15 by year’s end. How have you gone about approaching potential sponsors?

BILL LIVELY: We’ve divided the host committee into standing action teams, and one of those teams is a sponsorship action team chaired by Ross Perot Jr. That team includes people like host committee chairman Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Elaine Agather, Mike Berry, and the CEOs of corporations that have already made sponsorships: Alan Boeckmann of Fluor, for example, Matt Rose of Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The way we do it is, we make an appointment with the CEO of a corporation and then, if the company’s in Fort Worth, Mayor Mike Moncrief, Roger Staubach, and I may go visit with the CEO; if it’s in Dallas, Mayor Tom Leppert and Troy and I may go. Every time we do this it’s a group effort.

The economic recession must be affecting these visits, isn’t it?

The economy is without question suffering. But what we’re finding is, because this region is a headquarters region, lots of these companies understand the market value of being a sponsor of the first-ever Super Bowl here, and are committing their sponsorships to be paid over a two-year period.

Have you been forced to do anything special to get a handle on your own expenses with the host committee, given the recession?

We put together our business plan for the Super Bowl as volunteers last fall. And the plan was very frugal right from the beginning, so we haven’t had to change that appreciatively. We’re very cost-conscious with this, because we can’t afford to be otherwise. We’re spending very little money on our staff; we’re getting most of what we do underwritten with in-kind gifts of various kinds, ranging from paper and printing to soft drinks and furniture.

This office furniture we’re sitting on, for example, was donated by PlainsCapital Bank. So we’re trying not to spend any money that we don’t have to spend, so we can spend the money on things that will make the Super Bowl an enormous event for the entire region.

PlainsCapital also donated the office space you’re using, didn’t it?

Yes, and that’s been a huge help. It’s saving us several thousand dollars for two years.

BillLively_1 From 1975 to 1988, Lively led the Dallas Cowboys band. photography courtesy of Bill Lively

How willing have companies been in general to donate money in this environment?

There is a great sensitivity in the entire country right now among companies to announcements of sponsorships or philanthropic support, because there is a keen awareness that companies have a responsibility to their shareholders, to their employees, and to the future of the company, and they’ve got to be able to defend any kind of sponsorship or gift they might make.
In the case of the Super Bowl, sponsorships are awarded by companies from their marketing budgets. They are a kind of advertising and marketing. So our task is to make sure that we convey to the marketing people at these corporations all the unique benefits they can derive from this. Then they can explain to all parties that this is a good investment to market the company to the region in a way that they couldn’t do more effectively otherwise.

Have you noticed the objections ramping up lately?

Yes. I’ve seen more—not objections so much as just sensitivity. If we’re going to do this thing, they’ll say, let’s determine the most appropriate way we can announce it to all audiences so that we posture the company in a favorable light. I don’t know how it’s working right now in the philanthropic arena, because I don’t do that now. I’m sure that there’s a paralysis in the philanthropic arena to a degree, where people are taking a step back to wait and see when this thing will begin to turn around before they make huge gifts that affect their assets.

You’ve ridden out several downturns during your career, haven’t you?

Yes. We had the downturn to the economy in the 1980s. We had the football scandal, for goodness sake, at SMU that completely ended an operative capital campaign. In the campaign to build the performing arts center, we had the tragic death of the chair of our building committee—Vin Prothro—nine days after the campaign was launched in 2000. Then we had 9/11, which affected the entire world; and the Enron debacle, which was not insignificant. Then we had ups and downs in the markets and with public companies.

I think the goal, though, is to have a sound business plan and good volunteers involved and have the courage to persevere and move on. We had every reason to stop the performing arts center campaign at least twice, and we didn’t do it. We didn’t slow it down, we didn’t stop it. We had ups and downs in terms of new commitments, but we never stopped. We persevered and, because they persevered—the volunteers, that is—there was never an interruption. And that was psychologically essential, because an interruption can suggest failure to some people. I mean, you can’t have failure. You just can’t go there.

Let me ask how you got to where you are now, career-wise. You attended SMU before you worked there, didn’t you?

I did. I went to SMU for my first degree. I graduated in 1965, and then I was a band director in the Dallas Independent School District. I taught high school band in DISD for seven years. Then I went back to SMU as director of the Mustang band, and I stayed at SMU for 25 years. I was on the faculty for 11 years and in the administration for 14 years. I was the director of bands for the Meadows School of the Arts. I became the associate dean of the Meadows School and, later on, in 1984, I became vice president for development and alumni relations and public affairs.

You were originally a musician?

I played trumpet through high school and college, and had a great ambition to be a composer. I didn’t have enough talent to be a composer, but I enjoyed being a conductor and teaching young people. The joy of teaching was children, and teaching was going to be my life’s work. Then I got sidetracked in 1978, when I was asked to become one of the deans of the school of the arts at SMU, and I never looked back.

BillLively_3 THE COMPANY HE KEEPS: Bill Lively (in red tie) escorts newsman Dan Rather to a symposium to help kick off an SMU fundraising campaign in 1997. photography courtesy of Bill Lively

Is that where you developed your fundraising talents?

I don’t know what talents I had, to be honest with you. I don’t know how I ended up doing what I’m doing; it certainly was no career path. When I was asked to become director of the SMU development program, I didn’t even know what that meant exactly. The university wanted to change its fundraising culture, though, and I was a change agent.

The university invited me to in effect reinvent the institution’s fundraising culture—the way it raised money. We computerized our fundraising, for example, because PCs hadn’t been in existence for long at that time. More importantly, we started looking at fundraising in a different way: we had to focus on the university as a whole, as opposed to its different parts. We also had to understand how to market the university for philanthropic purposes, how to take our story to the community. Then we had to overhaul our stewardship program—how we said thank you, for instance—and we had to develop more of a business-like approach. We needed accountability and transparency.

Why did you leave the university?

I’d been at SMU 25 years. I told the university’s president, Gerald Turner, that I’d done everything I was qualified to do—and some things that I wasn’t qualified for—and that it was simply time for a change. Meantime Tom Cruikshank, who had just retired as CEO at Halliburton, was living in Dallas and serving as chairman of the board of the Up With People group, which is based in Colorado. Tom found me and recruited me to be the president and CEO of Up With People. So in 1998 we went to Denver and did that for two years.

BillLively_4 MAN ABOUT TOWN: Lively (kneeling) with Howard Hallam and Caren Prothro just after breaking ground for the performing arts center. photography courtesy of Bill Lively

How did you come to be involved with Dallas’ Center for the Performing Arts?

I received an invitation from Dr. Kern Wildenthal to come back to Dallas to organize the infrastructure required to mount a campaign to build a world-class performing arts center in the Dallas Arts District. Being a native Dallasite, and one who valued culture, I was intrigued with the project because of its historic significance. So in 2000 we moved back to Dallas and went about the process of organizing the structure to build the campaign.

The success of that project is directly attributable to the common denominator of all successful projects like this: the volunteers. At the very beginning, we recruited 26 intrepid volunteers to be the founding board of directors for the center. Some of these people were passionate about opera, some were passionate about theater, all were passionate about Dallas. And they all had the financial capacity to make a generous gift to help build the center—or they had access to wealth.

So we charted an ambitious nine-year course to engage internationally renowned architects, to raise 90-plus percent of the money in the private sector, to contain campaign expenses to less than a nickel of each dollar, and to build a “new Lincoln Center” in downtown Dallas.

Did you personally pick the core group?

I handpicked the founding board, based on the criteria I thought were essential to our success—balance being one of the primary ones. And then, over the last nine years, we augmented the board to keep it fresh, to bring in younger people and other people. Only one person resigned—and that was planned—and then we had three deaths on the board in the last nine years. Otherwise the founding board is still with us today. We went from 26 founding directors to about 63 on the board today. Because, with a campaign of this breadth and length, we needed a board to keep everybody energized and excited—to not let the fatigue of the exercise begin to show itself.

Did you oversee the entire effort? 

I was the president and CEO, but I was one among many. My whole philosophy about this project—and SMU and the Super Bowl—is that you’ve got to engage the right kinds of people. When they write the book about the performing arts center and that great campaign, there’ll be chapters dedicated to the volunteers who kept their promises. When I left in December, that board I reported to had given $160 million of the money that we’d raised by that time.

What do you mean when you say some of the board members had “access to wealth”?

They were people who couldn’t make a million-dollar gift themselves, but their stature in the community—what they’ve done for Dallas in different ways—opened doors for them to go with me to ask for gifts of that size. There were directors who helped shuttle me around the corridors of City Hall, for example. I didn’t know anything about City Hall—I hadn’t needed to, at SMU.

Can you describe how a typical pitch meeting for the arts center would go?

We would have private confidential meetings with the volunteers to identify their friends and neighbors, and sometimes even their relatives, who might have an interest in this project for cultural, civic or economic purposes. The next job was to identify the team that would go meet with that donor candidate to make our case. Oftentimes we’d take two or three directors with me, and we would go sit down with the family—in their home most commonly—and we would talk about this center from one of several perspectives: its lasting impact on our cultural landscape; its longstanding economic impact on the region and the city; or other ways the center’s going to be important. Most of the time the volunteers who went with me had already done it—had already made their gifts. What they were doing in effect was saying, “Follow me.”

The message had to be tailored differently each time, I would imagine.

Yes. It may be the same project—like the performing arts center—but each time you make a request of a donor candidate, it’s different. You customize the request. You may have the same “ask” team, but you customize the request to be appropriate to that person to that organization at that time. And every one of these has to be very thoughtfully considered.

Did you have a pretty good batting average with these request meetings?

I was asked that question by The New York Times, and I think I said it was something like .700. But we studied the pitchers very carefully. We didn’t have many at-bats. We didn’t go in to request gifts very often if we didn’t have a good sense that the donor candidate might become a donor. We knew the family, or thought we did, or the individual or the company, and we took a fine team with us and oftentimes we hit a home run.

Based on your experience, what’s the key thing people who raise money need to keep in mind?

The single most important thing in any high-dollar fundraising initiative is the volunteer unit. There’s nothing more important. The project itself can be incredibly noble and worthy, but if you don’t have volunteers who are people of integrity, who commit their time and resources in a very structured way, you very likely will not achieve your objectives.

I’ve given many seminars around the country in the last several years to the CEOs of nonprofit corporations. Invariably, you encounter two elements in these discussions. The first is the spirit of entitlement: “We are noble, we deserve, they should give.” Well, the spirit of entitlement in my judgment is almost every time inappropriate.

Secondly, you find many times that these organizations have boards that are filled with wonderful, calm, gracious, good people who care deeply about the mission of the organization, but they don’t have the financial capacity to elevate the institution to a new level. So, you’ve got the wrong people in effect involved in the life of the institution at a time that it needs to grow and develop. So what you have to do in that case is not alienate those people, but appoint other people to roles of responsibility so that you can take that institution to the next level. That’s complicated. There’s no shortcut.

BillLively_5 At left, Lively with former Dallas Mayor Annette Strauss. photography courtesy of Bill Lively

Is your job description “fundraiser”?

I don’t particularly like the label fundraiser; I like the label “strategist.” I think my jobs require me to be organized and strategic, and then I have to be a recruiter, and recruiting means that I have to convince extraordinary people of the quality of the project I’m involved in. If I can, then they’ll become the disciples. They’re the ones that carry the banner, and I become their choreographer. But fundraising as we’re talking about it in this interview is an art, not a science. It’s not something that requires a bureaucracy, or that can only be done one way. And the common denominator for success, as I said, is the volunteers.

On the other side of the equation, what motivates people to donate large amounts of money?

I think that in this era of accountability, people give money to people. The project must be noble, there must be accountability, and transparency, there must be some way to quantify the impact of the project. But people will give to people they respect, almost no matter what the project is—whether it’s humanitarian or religious or cultural, whatever it is.

And if you believe that, and I do, then you involve distinguished people with integrity in the enterprise, and those kinds of people can command the attention of like kinds of people. And so invariably at SMU and with the performing arts center and even with the Super Bowl, you’re taking very noble people to ask other noble people to make a gift or commit a sponsorship. The integrity of the people you’re with carries the day, and people respond to that.

About 80 percent of the million-dollar donors to the campaign to build the performing arts center had never given [as significantly] to the arts before. They gave the gifts that they did for two reasons: They valued their gift as an investment in the future of Dallas, and they also valued the person that asked for the gift—a friend or a colleague or a respected leader in Dallas like a Caren Prothro, or a Deedie Rose, or a Howard Hallam, someone like that.

If you don’t get those kinds of people involved, you cannot raise the kinds of dollars that extraordinary projects require for their success. There’s just no way you can do it.

Does the donor’s ego come into play?

I suspect ego does play a role in this but, more importantly, I learned a long time ago that staff people like me cannot command the attention of important leaders and people of extraordinary means. You need other leaders and people of means to command their attention. So I am what I call a “posturer.” I help posture people with extraordinary ability and the means to ask other kinds of people to make gifts or sponsorships that we need.

Do tax breaks play a role?

Sure. With the performing arts center, there are people who I’m sure gave the gifts they committed for the tax deduction. But I suspect the great majority of the donors gave because they valued the project.

How important is it for nonprofits to control their spending, especially in tough times?

The label nonprofit is not a license to be inefficient. A nonprofit company ought to work as efficiently as a for-profit company. There’s no justification for doing otherwise. I think donors are going to demand accountability and transparency, and they should.

With the performing arts center, our goal was to be able to tell donors at the end of the campaign that only 5 cents of every donor dollar was used to run the campaign. Now, the national average is much [higher] than that. And, when I left the center in December, the average cost was about 3 and one-half cents on each dollar, which is unprecedented.

That seems extremely low.

We had a great advantage at the performing arts center, though. We began that campaign in the fall of 2000 with no baggage. We had no bureaucracy; we had no organization whatsoever. No bad habits, no good habits, no habits at all. So, we could design a business plan to operate an eight- or nine-year campaign without the encumbrances that pre-existing institutions—a university, a symphony, a library—already have. When they have a capital campaign, they have systems in place that they have to address; we didn’t have those.

Same thing with the Super Bowl. We didn’t have any organization, we didn’t have any staff, we didn’t have any money, we didn’t have anything. So we began this the same way, with no bad habits and no bureaucratic tendencies. Now we can be very thrifty, very cost-effective, very transparent—and we need to, because we’re the stewards of other people’s money.

Summing things up, what would your advice be to nonprofits and other fundraisers in this challenging time?

Whenever I speak to nonprofits lately, my theme is this: When the recovery begins—and it will begin—you’d better have four things in place to be ready for it.

No. 1, you need to have a strategic plan that defines how you’re going to run this organization thoughtfully and practically and in a business sense for the next couple of years. No. 2, you need to have extraordinary volunteers that command the attention of other leaders supporting the initiative. No. 3, you need to have a staff in place that is cost-effective and efficient—not bureaucratic with levels and filters and people you don’t need that you can’t defend. And No. 4, you need to have a communication strategy that conveys all these things in a timely and consistent way to these people. If you do that, you’ll be fine.

You’ll do fine because competition is good, and the organization that makes the most compelling message will carry the day. The ones that depend on the spirit of entitlement will fail, and probably should fail. It’s a new world, and if you don’t have accountability and efficiency, you can’t defend your position. And that’s going to be critical as we go forward.