About Grant Whitney. Grant joined Massachusetts General Hospital in October 2022, and now provides vision and leadership for 10 professionals across the full range of planned giving activity. He joined the hospital from Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences where he served for almost 21 years and applies a background in alternative dispute resolution to philanthropic planning with donors and friends interested in creating family meaning.
In addition to frontline work completing irrevocable and revocable gifts with donors across the giving pyramid, Grant led Harvard’s John Harvard Society, the University’s largest planned gift recognition effort. In the University’s $9.2 billion campaign (2018), he managed initiatives that led to more than 1,000 alumni and friends becoming new members.
Grant rolled off the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners (“CGP”) Board of Directors in January 2023. He serves on the CGP Mentor/Mentee Panel and is a member of the Speaker’s Bureau.
Before Harvard, Grant launched the planned giving program at Lesley University and led the program through the institution’s first comprehensive campaign. Earlier, he established a neutral dispute resolution practice in Cambridge, MA. He is a member of the Massachusetts and New York Bars.
Grant earned his J.D. from Albany Law School of Union University and his undergraduate degree from Cornell University where he remains an active alumnus. Locally, he volunteers in several capacities.
Conversation with Grant Whitney
Eddie Thompson: Thank you, again, for joining us on one of our podcasts with industry leaders. We’re spending time with icons in our industry trying to find out why they are successful, what methods and techniques they have learned that have really made a difference.
And, today, we have what I consider a special treat with Grant. I’ve known Grant for a number of years. We served on a board together. There are a lot of really intelligent people in this world, and Grant is one of them. But, what distinguishes him is also his wisdom. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with him, you can see the intelligence. It’s the wisdom that really draws you to him. So, Grant, I really appreciate you taking time to do this today and I’m sure our viewers will enjoy it. Take a moment to tell us who you are and where you work.
Grant Whitney: Well, thank you, Eddie, for those kind of words. I may be blushing; I’m not exactly sure at this juncture. I’m Grant Whitney. I hailed originally from upstate New York, and I won’t give you the blow-by-blow of my upbringing, but I am a recovering lawyer.
My entre into fundraising literally came with a small capital fundraising project at my alma mater. I’m a Cornell grad. I was an athlete – I earned a bunch of letters during my time in Ithaca. I was asked to be involved in the building of a track, an outdoor track – no building per se, just a flat oval. My job was to help with the young alums at the time. I was young; I didn’t have all the gray hair.
It just so happened that the head track coach’s wife was a major gift officer assigned to the project. Laura Toy, who I consider a close friend, along with Lou, her husband, as I was doing what I was being asked to do, and I really did not know what I was doing, I said, “you know, Laura, is there a place for somebody like me? Somebody who’s a lawyer, somebody who seems to, and gravitates to, in some ways, mission more than money, is there a place for me in this space?” And she says, “well, you are a lawyer, right? You ought to look at planned giving.” And I said, “what’s that?” Goes to show you how well prepared I was! I took maybe one income tax class and never took gift tax in law school or anything like that.
So, that became a self-education journey. At the time I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An institution now known as Lesley University took a chance on me in the late 90s, with no experience. To this day, I’m convinced that the then president made a shrewd decision, I think.
She said, “okay,” to herself, “everybody’s getting into planned giving. I’m willing to give this guy a shot. I’m not going to pay him much, and if it doesn’t work out, we’re probably still going to have more than what we have now. So, it’s not a bad short-term deal.” But I would like to think that I was somewhat successful and did the kinds of things that many starting a program from scratch – what do you do? You’ve got to think about a legacy society. What does that look like? And, I was able to do more than that.
After being there almost 5 years, I was realizing that the nature of that alumni constituency was not going to really give me an opportunity to perhaps really develop the full gamut of subject matter or exposure to kinds of things that, quite honestly, I found intriguing. It was at a national conference when a colleague who I knew by reputation only approached me and said, “Grant, I understand some things are changing at your institution, would you ever think about coming over to Harvard?” Of course, the eyes kind of went wide, I said, “I’m certainly happy to talk about it.” Lo and behold, this mentor in more ways than one, and somebody who even on the national stage never got the recognition that I think he deserves. But, he never sought it; so, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Peter Kimball, who many older folks in the field might know him. He was heavily involved in our professional national organization and such, and that began really a marvelous almost 20-year experience under his tutelage and mentorship with a couple of great people at Harvard. Sitting not at the university on the global scale, but at the core of the university, Harvard College; so, not the business school, not the law school, not the med school, but the undergraduate experience. I was exposed to some really incredible people. By and large, after those 20 some-odd years, I would say there were very few people who had that Bob Hope kind of nose-in-the-air, if you looked at some of those old black and white movies, these were genuine people. They felt that Harvard had plucked them out of nowhere. They found them and their lives were forever changed, and all of that. I got exposure to gift arrangements that I probably wouldn’t in most other institutions.
Also, very importantly, I did have the wonderful opportunity for the period of about a decade to work with Charlie Collier. Charlie Collier, for those who may not know the name, is probably one of the first generation of philanthropic advisors. He was a character, no question about it. I learned a lot from him. A lot of the softer skill sets that I continue to deploy and use over time. Fast forward there 20 some-odd years, go into a major campaign. Finished in 2018 well in excess, multi-billion dollar campaign, the university exceeded its goal substantially. Peter retired and I started to get itchy. I started to think about what my next step might be. Other stuff going on in life made it possible for me to think about, maybe you could say, taking risks. I guess it all depends on how you think about it.
I’m delighted, I literally, Eddie, you wouldn’t have known this, my first-year anniversary here at Mass General Hospital was October 3rd. So, I literally just finished my first year here. And more importantly, Eddie, I think they’re going to keep me!
Eddie: That’s not a surprise. You know, as I observe you from some distance, but also had the opportunity to be around you with some of our dinners, and have conversations and hearing your athletic prowess, there are two questions I really wanted to ask you. Number one, why is philanthropy important to you?
Grant: It’s a good question. The answer might surprise you a little bit. I’m a father; I’ve got two sons, both now in college. In their teenage years, when I couldn’t even breathe without them saying, “Dad, you’re breathing too loud.” You know, that kind of stuff. You know where I’m going with that. They were very much focused on the pecuniary, the financial, this is success. That has never been a motivation for me, in that sense. In some ways, it was just a natural gravitation, but to be more specific, I would say, in reflection, that the bulk of my family were educators, multigenerational educators. So, there was an ethos, perhaps, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that was passed down. That kind of extended to, and I was a creature of higher ed for 25 years. 1997 is when I got in. I went to Harvard, literally the beginning of 2002 through just over a year ago.
But I found myself gravitating whether or not there was a financial connection to it in these kinds of areas, if that makes any sense. I’ve never been frustrated by the fact that, well, I’m never going to be a millionaire in that classic sense; I’m never going to do that. But, I like to think that, well, maybe the scholarship fund that I helped set up is ultimately going to lead someone to receive it who develops the broadest cure for cancer. Or, somebody who’s going to do something that really, really impacts society – whether it’s social justice, any number of kinds of things. A term that we use a lot, particularly in gift planning, (and I, by the way, should add, I don’t like the fact that Mass General calls our team planned giving. I very much feel like I’m a gift planner and not a planned giver, so I gravitate to that, tongue in cheek as it may). There is just something about legacy, and as I reflect back on my time at Harvard, the last gifts, plural, that I’ve worked on are probably not going to drop, probably not going to be activated, actuated, until I’m well into retirement. There’s a satisfaction in that, which I didn’t fully appreciate when I got into the biz, so to speak.
Eddie: Right. I think it’s one of those things that we grow through maturity and time. What has been the secret to your success, Grant? When you look back at your career, what are one or two things, ingredients in your success? Then, I’ll add to your list.
Grant: Again, I would cite my family in this regard – I do think I’m a lifelong learner. One of the things that attracts me to gift planning writ large, and now I would almost say the pebble in a pond effect now that I look more globally, holistically at the field writ large, is that lifelong learning element. Realizing that the nonprofit sector, the independent sector, if you want to call it, plays an important role in society. So having that as a backdrop and that zest for lifetime learning and over time learning that, internally to organizations/externally with donors, being able to connect that with them as individuals is a profound sense of accomplishment.
That could be a case where it’s somebody who has a $900 giving history that ends up, after you work with them, leaving a bequest that is $5 Million, did the will himself, whoops, and the language that you worked with him on was the only thing that survived, that actually went through – that feels good. Being able to identify with people, connect with them on a human dimension.
I can do better. I can be a better listener. I’m reminded of the two ears, one mouth. I still can do better. But, that’s a lifelong learning piece that I continue to be aware of. I think overall, some people would say passion, some people might say stridency. Belief in the role that, unique in the world that philanthropy and the nonprofit sector play in this country helps. I feel guided by that in some way.
Eddie: I would add, too, that you have a really good heart. I think you genuinely care about people and that’s what leads your passion.
Okay, here comes the naughty question. This is the difficult one. I want you to look back in your career. Now, we’re talking career, not necessarily employment or where you’re employed or donors you’ve worked with, what is the one mistake you made and what did you learn from it? Maybe not the biggest mistake, but the most impactful mistake. And, what did you learn from it?
Grant: Ha! I am laughing, Eddie, because I may have already told you this. Regardless of the audience, I always bring this up, and it is true. It was a Harvard situation. I was working with somebody who was new, brand new to the notion of philanthropy. He was somebody who was, how shall we say, well-respected in his field. He had multiple degrees from the institution: undergraduate, law school, Kennedy School of Government. His CV was really something to behold. I mean, the corporate, legal, government, federal government, Department of State, all that kind of stuff. Somehow, and I guess it was because he was rather peripatetic – half the time West Coast, half the time East Coast, somehow I was asked to get involved. He was really a character.
Lo and behold, to make a longer story palatable, he decided he wanted to make a million dollar gift as basically his first foray into philanthropy, charitable giving. And, it wasn’t a planned gift. This was an outright gift and he had specific purposes. To give you kind of a flavor of this individual who I considered a close friend, even now that I’ve moved on. Because of his time in the State Department, we literally had a signing ceremony very similar to what one might do with a treaty or something like that with the powers that be. A million dollar gift, payable over five years.
First installment comes in at six months, when it wasn’t due until the year. Second installment comes in at a year. Third installment comes in at 18 months. I’m running out of superlatives. Really, what can I say? His first foray into philanthropy, and he is ahead of the game. He is a poster child for desirable donor behavior, right?
I don’t know what to say, and the phone rings, and I pick it up. “John, I don’t know what to,” I didn’t get a word in edgewise for 45 minutes. I was ripped a new one over the course of 45 minutes. And, do you know why?”
Grant: I’m going to add a few facts. At the time he was working for a large, cloud-based software company. So, he had plenty of stock and things like that at the time. He had bankers at institutions too big to fail and brokers at institutions too big to fail. He had included me and we’d had a couple of conversations and such like that. What he had been doing, however…(now we’re $600,000 in towards the million dollars), he had been selling stock and giving us the cash.
And it was my fault, Eddie, despite having that cadre of advisors that that decision was made. So for 45 minutes, I needed to hear it. To this day, that happened a while ago, anytime, whether it’s a Zoom podcast, or in front of an alumni event, or within my team or colleagues, I tell that story. Because it’s interesting, I learned a lot. Never assume anything.
But, why should I? The guy had advisors. Presumably some with fiduciary status. Why was it my job? It didn’t matter. It was the optics. It was whatever. One funny, kind of anecdote to close that loop, I mentioned that at a presentation at a big event in New York City for Harvard – the big Harvard Club in New York, which if anybody’s been there, you’ve got animal heads on the wall, it’s dark mahogany, it’s classic old style. I got to that moment of drama, the climax, and I asked the very same question you asked. Nobody wanted to respond. 200 people in the room. And then finally, a brave soul said, did he sell the stock and give you the cash? The collective groan was something.
But to the final denouement, I guess, if you want to call it that, was I was supposed to have lunch with somebody who was in attendance. After the event, I went over to find him. He looked positively green. I said, “are you okay? I mean, are you feeling all right?” “Yeah, yeah, no, no, Grant, I’m fine. We should definitely keep going with the conversation, and we’ll have lunch. I just realized that the last installment that I paid towards that scholarship, I did cash. What was I thinking?”
Eddie: Oh, my!
Grant: So, is it a classic planned gift? No. Is it a gift arrangement, given the nature of the assets that required planning? Yes. But even in that environment, the notion of the immediacy of the old lesson, which I continue to this day, and that moment just goes to show unless you live and breathe it every single day, it’s worth raising.
Grant: You never know when it’s going to hit, never know when it’s going to stick.
Eddie: Exactly right.
Well, Grant, I’ve kept you longer than I told you I’d keep you. But, I really appreciate you. I’m sure the viewers of this incredible message that you share with them will benefit for years to come. I especially encourage people who are fairly new to the industry to watch this maybe more than once or twice, just to glean some of the wisdom.
So, Grant, thank you. Appreciate you taking time to do this. You’re the best.
Grant: It was a pleasure. A lot of fun, Eddie. A lot of fun.
Eddie: So, we thank you all who have joined us today and we wish you the very best. You can always reach out to us if you have questions and we will follow up with Grant if that’s needed.
We wish you the best. Let’s go achieve great success today. Thank you.
Conversations with Industry Icons Podcast Series
With this podcast series, Eddie Thompson, Founder and CEO of Thompson & Associates, brings incredible insight and inspiring stories interviewing leaders from different perspectives of the fundraising community: higher education, healthcare, consultants, academia and more! Hear these professionals tell stories of lessons they’ve learned during their distinguished careers. We hope these conversations inspire you to continue to strive for excellence in this noble occupation of fundraising!