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The Job of a Major Gift Officer

Ellie Dietrich and Susan Fleck, major gift officers for the College of Education, travel and meet alumni and donors to raise funds for the College.

by Pamela Batson

dietrich_sml.jpgThe College of Education’s major gift officers have fascinating and interesting jobs. They meet all kinds of people who have a passion for education, and their challenge is to direct that energy into a partnership with the College. Sometimes it results in gifts that provide scholarships or other support, and other times they engage a person who becomes an active volunteer and advocate on the College’s behalf. Yes, there are fun and social events such as dinners, receptions, and special events, but it’s the behind the scenes work in getting a donor to say “yes” that is often overlooked.


Ellie Dietrich and Susan Fleck are major gift officers responsible for raising funds to support the College. This fiscal year, they have the largest goal ever: to bring in commitments of $4.4 million. “We are fortunate and proud to say, that even in this economic climate, as of January we’ve met half that goal,” said Dietrich.

In September 2008, their busiest month of the year, Dietrich logged a whopping 4400 air miles with another 400 miles in the car, and Fleck drove 1150 miles. Dietrich went to Portland, Oregon, and Fleck covered Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Combined, they travel to 26 states each year. During these trips, they schedule meetings with alumni and friends to talk about the College and assess their affinity to Penn State and their ability to make a major gift (gifts of $50,000 or more). In some cases, they’ve met these folks before, and sometimes it’s a first meeting. Challenges arise when a potential donor’s passion does not coincide with the priorities of the dean or the College. And then there are donors with great ability, but no connection with or affinity for the College and vice versa.

During that month, they made a combined total of 36 personal visits, attended 7 events, and delivered 12 proposals asking for commitments to the College. There are typically phone calls to three or four individuals for every personal visit scheduled, and for every visit or attempted contact, they must submit a report before travel expenses will be reimbursed.

Being on the road every month at times makes them feel like road warriors. During a return trip from Philadelphia in February 2007, amidst a severe winter storm, Dietrich had a rather unusual drive home. With every highway closed, she was forced to take Route 30 through Amish country before getting on Route 322 outside of Harrisburg. While following a Wal-Mart semi-trailer truck, the ice from the truck broke loose and shattered the windshield of her Penn State fleet car. Both drivers pulled over and Dietrich sat in the trucker’s cab for about 45 minutes until they determined her car was fit to drive. With the windshield intact, she made it back to fleet around midnight after leaving Philadelphia at 4:00 p.m., only to get up the next morning and start another trip. 

“While that trip seems like a good story to tell now, at the time it was a very difficult trip and not one I hope to repeat,” said Dietrich.

Dietrich earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin Stout and was an art teacher for 10 years in Wisconsin middle and high schools where she developed a high school ceramics program. She later became a corporate trainer and worked for a non-profit that did career planning and counseling for women. These experiences eventually led her to seek a position in academic development. She continues to pursue her passion of the arts in her home pottery studio, and through drawing and painting. She and her husband, Chris, live in College Heights.

Her advice for anyone considering a job in development: “This is one of the most rewarding professions as most of the people I’ve met are accomplished, interesting, and have big hearts.  But, when dealing with elderly donors, I always offer to drive. I’ve had some nervous car rides.”

Fleck has shared some of the frustrations of frequent travelers such as sleeping in airports and landing in a different city because of bad weather in the arrival city. She has also been touched by the kindness of the folks she visits. On one occasion, an 102-year-old lady offered her a piece of fine bone china because she was downsizing and had no immediate heirs to pass the pieces on to. And, during a difficult personal time, she was overwhelmed by cards of sympathy from over 25 donors and alumni that she had visited over the years. 

“As an alum of the College, I feel a personal connection to the people I meet. It’s a natural fit for me,” says Fleck who graduated in 1985 with a degree in Elementary and Kindergarten Education.

For 12 years, Fleck was the Hollidaysburg area YMCA educational director and finance development director. She taught pre-school, coordinated tutoring programs, youth-job services, and grants. Fleck is joined on campus by her daughters, Allison and Caroline, who are students this semester.

Dietrich and Fleck are supported by Jenn Moore who is credited as the behind the scenes person and “data guru” and by Samantha Culovic who is responsible for completing the expense reports, event planning, and the gift acknowledgement process. Pam Batson is responsible for making sure the endowments are spent accordingly and that the donors are up to date on how the College is using their gift.

Alumni Relations is an integral part of development, and Brent Hurley manages that piece of the puzzle, assisted by Wanda Wasilko.

“It’s an ever-changing environment, and each day brings a new surprise. We work closely with Dean Monk and the Dean’s Development Council, an all-volunteer group that assists us in fundraising for this current campaign; For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students,” said Dietrich. “We couldn’t do our job without the support of alumni volunteers, faculty/staff, and most importantly, the students.”