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A Gift for Ideas (and Ideas for Gifts)
A Gift for Ideas (and Ideas for Gifts)

Whether climbing mountains or crafting wine, Chapman University President James Doti infuses philanthropy into his interests and passions

By Tara Laskowski


Sheri Geoffreys

Whether it's dangling from a precarious crevice atop one of the world's tallest mountains or pushing through mile 25 of a marathon, 69-year-old James Doti gets his best ideas off campus. Since Doti became president of California's Chapman University in 1991, the institution has risen to third in a U.S. News & World Report ranking of student selectivity, and its endowment has increased from $25 million to $300 million.

As he prepares to retire in September 2016, CURRENTS asked for his secrets on fundraising, leadership, creativity, and having a little fun.

The best advice he ever received

As with any big decision, Doti was both excited and nervous about leading Chapman. A mentor offered this advice, which Doti wrote down and looks at every day: "Treat everyone with respect and dignity. If you do that, you'll be all right."

Twenty-five years later, those words have shaped his presidency and infused the university with a spirit of philanthropy and learning.

"I try to remember that people have lives," he says. "Everyone is trying to do a good job and make a contribution. Everyone makes mistakes. Remember that, and you'll be more respectful to people. If that can become part of your institutional culture and ethos, everybody follows your example and is happy."

What marathons can teach you about fundraising

Doti has climbed six of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent, and run more than 50 marathons. His philosophy about reaching the apex or crossing the finish line is the same for making a campaign goal: one step at a time.

"I have kind of an adopted son, an African man I met when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania," Doti says. "He's now an American citizen, and we recently ran the Boston Marathon. The night before, when we were talking about qualifying for the marathon, I asked him what he thought enabled us to qualify, and he said it was the five P's: Preliminary preparation prevents poor performance.'

"You can apply the five P's to fundraising. To accomplish any goal, you must prepare and plan and know which steps to take and not veer from that task. Even if the goal seems unrealistic or impossible, even if you round that corner and see that huge mountain looming in the distance and you think, ‘No way am I ever going to get up there,' you have to focus on that day's goal and not get overwhelmed by how far you have to travel."

How opera can lead to a loyal donor

It wasn't karma but Carmen that brought Doti and one of his closest friends together. Doti and Sebastian Paul Musco chatted at a child's birthday party about 10 years ago and realized that they both loved opera. "We reminisced about how our mothers used to make us listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio every week," Doti says. "That's not a story you usually hear from people you just met at an event."

The friendship was also the beginning of Musco's long-term relationship with the university. In 2016, with the help of a $38 million gift by Musco and his wife, Chapman opened the $84 million Marybelle and Sebastian P. Musco Center for the Arts—and Plácido Domingo was among the first singers to appear on its stage.

Doti says the key to fundraising is no secret: Be honest and true to your donors and your goals. "Gifts should be mission-driven," Doti says. "You should never accept a gift that would not contribute to the overall mission of the institution. At Chapman, we pride ourselves on personalized education. Every person is different. That also relates to gift giving. Every gift should be personalized. You're serving donors, not the other way around."

So how does he serve donors? By getting to know them and striking up genuine relationships. "I know it's a cliché, but people give to friends, not institutions." You have to know what drives people, Doti says, what interests them, what kind of legacy they want to leave, what excites them. The only way to do that is through the time-consuming friendship-building that comes from getting to know people inside and out.

Shaping futures with … pens

When the oldest building on campus, Wilkinson Hall, underwent foundational work, the facilities management team brought Doti a chunk of wood from the original building. He used that wood to handcraft 25 pens.

The pens are being sold to donors—Doti's "Pen Pals"—to fund scholarships for the Simon STEM Scholarship Program, which will allow four economically disadvantaged local high school students to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields at Chapman. Fifteen of the pens are priced at $4,000 each, for a total of $60,000. The Pen Pals will help send one of the Simon Scholars to Chapman for a full four years.

Doti serves on the board of directors for the Simon Foundation for Education and Housing, a nonprofit that creates leadership programs, training, and scholarships for a number of high schools across the country. In 2017, the first four Simon STEM Scholarship recipients will enter the freshman class. By 2020, Chapman aims to have 16 Simon STEM Scholars attending the university.

In addition to Doti's Pen Pals, the scholarship will be funded from Chapman grants, private donors, support from the Simon Family Foundation, and state and federal funds, such as Pell grants.

How a Roman garden inspired endowed professorships

During a pre-marathon run in Italy, Doti was admiring the sculptures in Rome's Villa Borghese gardens. How lovely it would be to have something like that at Chapman, he thought.

At the time, Chapman's campus was being re-envisioned with new landscaping and walkway proposals, and its strategic plan involved adding more endowed professors to the faculty.

"It's hard to get donors interested in funding endowed chairs—they're interested in scholarships and in students," Doti says.

His idea: Ask a donor to fund an endowed chair. In return, the university would commission an artist to render a bust of a famous person whom the donor thought best exemplified the academic field of the chair. The bust would include the names of the donor and the endowed chair and a quotation from the person it portrayed. It would be displayed along a new promenade running through the center of campus, inspiring students as they walked to class.

Today, more than 60 faculty hold endowed chairs and professorships at Chapman, and each of the endowed chairs has a commemorative bust on campus, ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Martin Luther King Jr.

On knowing when to exit

Doti is one of the longest-serving college presidents in the U.S. In September 2016, he'll step down after 25 years. He holds the Donald Bren Distinguished Chair in Business and Economics and will return to the faculty. Why is now the time?

"I've been at Chapman for 42 years," Doti says. "I started as an assistant professor of economics, and I'd like to end my career back with the students—teaching and doing research."

But Doti has laid the groundwork for the future of Chapman. Ten years ago, he recruited Daniele Struppa, the current Chapman chancellor, from George Mason University, and quickly saw he had the qualities to become president. "I've mentored him, and three years ago when I knew I was nearing an end point, I went to the board of trustees and asked them to appoint Struppa as my presidential delegate," Doti says. "Succession plans are so important, and I wanted something different than a national search. At best, those searches are fifty-fifty. They can be a disappointment or a disaster. Someone can look like a great fit on paper, but when they come to the university, it just doesn't work. This way, I know that the future of the university is in good hands, with someone who understands our mission and can work to further our goals."

About the Author Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski is a former senior editor for Currents.




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