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Si Seymour, Relevant as Ever: Dissecting “Top Down; Inside Out”

Mendal Bouknight
Published:  10/14/2022

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Now accepting nominations for the 2023 Si Seymour Award recipient until May 1, 2023. Learn more

This is the second article celebrating the career and legacy Si Seymour gave our profession. It serves to provide simple guiding principles that stand the test of time in philanthropy. Read the first article here.


“Top Down; Inside Out.” 

It sounds simple when you hear it said, “Top Down; Inside Out.” That was Si Seymour’s skill: make it simple and succinct so it resonates.

Si Seymour is quoted as saying, “For clinking money, you shake the can. For folding money, you go ask. For big money, you take pains."

As Seymour first emphasized, philanthropy/fundraising is a business, and in business, you build strategies that succeed and deliver a Return on Investment (ROI). We all know fundraising is not easy, and it is a long game. At its core, fundraising is a relationship-focused, in-person business. Many a fundraiser has lost their job by not showing an ROI.

Because fundraising is a long game, you build from the top down and inside out. This takes time, patience, and “pain,” but it builds the momentum and launches the energy for moving forward.

You begin at the top inner circle for the big money—trustees, board members—and you focus on those who have and who can make the greatest impact. You then work your way down and across the various “populations.”

A Success Story at Northwell Health

A real time success story is that of Northwell Health based in New Hyde Park, New York. In late September 2022, Northwell announced its first system-wide fundraising campaign, launched in 2018, had surpassed $1 billion. 

The campaign, Outpacing the Impossible, secured nearly 170,000 donors—including individuals, corporations, and foundations—contributed more than $1.02 billion. Northwell employees made up 11,600 of the donors—including 100% of Northwell's leadership—who collectively contributed more than $15 million.

Northwell’s Brian Lally, Senior Vice President/Chief Development Officer, said their first step was assembling all the various Boards and leaders across the system and securing their early leadership giving. This was essential to equipping the organization to move the campaign forward. Lally shared, “This put our board and everyone in the organization in a top-down mentality.”

Lally further emphasized that through COVID, “We needed to be asking people to support us. We changed strategy, but we kept going using webinars, Zoom, personal calls. We never backed up.”

Si Seymour would be applauding Northwell’s success continuing to personally engage the donor even in trying times.

"Big-Game Hunting” vs. “The Modest Donor.”

In the July 2022 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Laura MacDonald, Past Chair of the Giving USA Foundation voiced concerns. She calls it a mistake claiming fundraising has “shifted to big-game hunting” as the only means to achieve maximum return on fundraising investments at the expense of “the modest donor.”

This writer would contend philanthropy must get better at articulating the impact and momentum major gifts bring while celebrating and stewarding the repeatable, predicable base of “modest” donors. For it is these “modest” donors who over time become your major donors. Both are integral to the long game philanthropy requires.

In my research, I found Si Seymour and my former Professor of Journalism, Scott Cutlip, had an interesting connection. Cutlip was Dean of the Grady School of Journalism, University of Georgia, when I studied there in 1977-78 for my master’s in journalism.

In 1952, Dean Cutlip, then a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, co-authored the textbook Effective Public Relations with Allen Center, then vice president for public relations with Motorola, Inc., and a lecturer at Northwestern University. Considered the primary textbook of its day in journalism academics, Cutlip and Center reference early fundraising as far back as 1641 with Benjamin Franklin. And they also brought it forward into the 1950s aligning it with public relations, marketing, advertising, and community relations.

Cutlip’s early academic observations of fundraising were focused on “people’s philanthropy,” the grass-roots, small gift efforts of the day with the Red Cross, American Cancer Society, and March of Dimes.

By contrast, Si Seymour articulated the basic principle (“top down; inside out”) “philanthropy/ fundraising was a business.”

In fact, Si Seymour openly criticized Dean Cutlip for ignoring major gifts in his writings. In a letter written by Si Seymour in 1965, he charged Cutlip with missing an important point, “Cutlip missed altogether the point that the dimes and dollars were mostly ‘sound effects’ for the appeal of larger gifts.”

Over time, Cutlip did acknowledge, “Year in, year out, the fundraising campaign depends quite heavily on the large, wealthy donor for the bulk of its funds.”

In 2022, have we become all too dependent on special events, Giving Days, Giving Circles, Go Fund Me as our “sound effects” for the appeal of larger gifts? I would contend the “sound effects of the modest donors” are not replacements for the emphasis on major gifts for achieving measurable ROI.

In the next article, we will summarize the impact Si Seymour brought to our profession. We will celebrate another success story in healthcare philanthropy. And challenge the profession to embrace the Si Seymour mantra as relevant and central to the future of your successful philanthropy work.

NEWS  /09/28/22
Harold J. "Si" Seymour's teachings are as relevant in 2022 as they were when his book, Designs for Fundraising, was published in 1966.

Meet The Author

Mendal Bouknight headshot
Mendal Bouknight
Coach and Mentor to Boards, CDO's, MGOs

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