Piva: Low Profile, High Yields


Top of his game: Piva, right, with the late  Edmund T. Pratt Jr., engineering’s namesake

 Top of his game: Piva, right, with the late 
Edmund T. Pratt Jr., engineering’s namesake. Photo: Jim Wallace


In November of 2000, The Washington Post Magazine wrote about the growing reputation of one of its local universities, Georgetown. The story noted that Georgetown had gained from improved financial stewardship and, particularly, from building a "network of fruitful relationships."

"Georgetown used to communicate with most alumni via student volunteers, who manned rotary phones in the basement of a campus building," according to the article. "Bringing in pros helped boost the proportion of alumni who write checks from 27 to 34 percent. Georgetown sent a team down to Duke to figure out how it went about soliciting large gifts and had its eyes opened: Duke never rests."

"Duke never rests" was the unofficial operating credo of a key consultant in Georgetown's turnaround, Duke's own John Piva. Piva, a Georgetown graduate, began his career at the Johns Hopkins University, where he coordinated fund raising for the School of Public Health. From there he went to the University of Chicago, eventually becoming vice president for institutional development. He came to Duke in January 1983 as vice president for alumni affairs and development; he was later promoted to senior vice president. He retired from that position at the end of June.

Shortly after arriving at Duke, Piva set to work helping to organize an endowment-driven campaign for the arts and sciences and engineering. In terms of staffing, management of volunteers, and broad institutional buy-in, the university probably wasn't ready for something--as then-President Terry Sanford would have put it--so "outrageously ambitious." Still, the campaign netted $565 million, surpassing its $400-million goal.

In the mid-1990s, a second, more comprehensive campaign began. After the dramatic success of its "quiet phase"--$684 million raised before any official announcement--the university went public with a $1.5-billion goal. It would be an effort touching every sector of the campus. It would also be an exercise in discipline, forcing all of those sectors to put themselves through a rigorous planning process, and forcing university officials to make tough choices among competing priorities.

Tough choices were made, and, evidently, they were attractive to Duke supporters. The level of their generosity was impressive, and, in fact, unprecedented for Duke--thanks in no small part to Piva's skills at motivating and inspiring. Indeed, Piva never rested, his colleagues say. Whether it was an event to be arranged or a volunteer to be visited, he resisted timeworn formulas; he wanted to find some new and different theme, something just right for the occasion. With a wide-ranging curiosity and unusual nimbleness in processing information, they say, he was able to get a good read of a prospective donor and then think of ways--often interestingly innovative ways--to match that donor's interests with the university's needs. The result has been great dividends for Duke, ranging from the Bass Program for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, which has funded professorships for some of the university's best teacher-scholars, to the naming gift for the Pratt School of Engineering, which has set that school on a new trajectory.

In the words of a former chair of the board of trustees, Harold "Spike" Yoh B.S.M.E. '58, Piva is "direct when he needs to be direct; he's subtle when he needs to be subtle. But while he's a master at what he does, he's genuinely fun to be with. He's just a nice guy."

A lot of people have found Piva to be a nice guy and, certainly, an avid correspondent. Those with whom he met would hear from him--succinctly, informally, and relentlessly. As one of his colleagues puts it, "He still believes in that ancient craft of the thank-you note."

Piva also proved himself to be an organizer. He brought together development officers from the university's disparate schools and units. They would share information, decide jointly on strategies for attracting gifts, and strengthen the collegial ties that had been neglected in past campaigns. At those gatherings, Piva would award the "Big D," in the form of a Duke sweatshirt, to those who benefited a Duke program other than their own.

Right around the time that The Washington Post Magazine was celebrating Georgetown's good fortune, Duke was celebrating its own success, and the trustees raised the Campaign for Duke goal to $2 billion. When the campaign concluded last December, the total was more than $2.36 billion.

In an appreciative editorial, the not-always-appreciative student Chronicle heralded Piva's hefty influence. Piva, said the editorial, had done "more than perhaps any administrator at the university to secure Duke's place as a top school financially ... and position it for further successes in the future." The editorial also made note of his reticence; over the years he has resisted, rather stridently, sharing any credit for fund-raising success, preferring instead to see the attention focused on donors and on volunteer leadership.

The chief volunteer leader, trustee chair Peter M. Nicholas '64, who led the most recent campaign with his wife, Ginny Lilly Nicholas '64, says Piva "knows Duke, loves Duke, and exudes Duke values. He connects wonderfully to the Duke community, wherever it is in the world, and it's his ease in forging connections that has made him extraordinarily successful." At the end of the campaign, Nicholas presented Piva with a ceremonial "bucket"--a reference to Piva's constant reminder that the filling of "buckets" representing specific fund-raising targets, and not just fund-raising totals, would be the measure of the campaign's success. "Without your leadership," read the inscription, "this 'outrageous ambition' would never have been realized."

"John is the consummate fund-raiser," says a former trustee chair, John Koskinen '61, who is also a former president of the Duke Alumni Association. "He obviously loves meeting people and keeping up with them. Whenever I talk with John, it ends up costing me a lot of money. But there's never a sense that you're doing it for John--that it's his campaign or that he needs to raise money so he looks successful. It's always clear that he's doing this for Duke. He has a genuine affection for the university that he couldn't manufacture, and his energy, enthusiasm, and love for Duke always shows through."

Koskinen notes that Piva is drawn naturally to an academic environment. And Piva's colleagues point out that one of his greatest pleasures has been getting to know students; often he would plug those students into his extensive network, as they sought advice on their academic programs and career choices. In many ways, colleagues say, Piva is as much an educator--eager to learn about people and their interests, and passionate about the learning enterprise--as he is a fund-raiser.

In remarks to trustees last winter, President Nannerl O. Keohane, also renowned for her fund-raising prowess, praised Piva for his "sensitive, diligent, and highly productive service." She said, "Had young Mr. Piva gone elsewhere, rather than accepting the call to Duke in 1983, this campaign would not have been nearly the success it has been, nor would this university's future look so bright."

One of her best decisions, Keohane added, was to fend off another school's attempt to hire Piva away from Duke early in her presidency. "I know of no one in higher-education development more accomplished, more fun to work with, more committed, or more capable than John Piva--and I have met a great many people in such positions."

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