What It's Like to Help One of the World's Richest Universities Get Richer

John T. Miller, a former fundraiser at Princeton, explains how he helped triple the school’s endowment.

Two people walk past a brick, ivy-covered building on the Princeton University campus.
Princeton University (Daniel Hulshizer / AP)

The Melbourne Beach, Florida, resident John T. Miller has an unconventional past. As a photographer for National Enquirer, he once hid in a garbage can for hours to get a picture of Elvis Presley. Miller then made a career transition to work for his alma mater and one of the most prestigious universities in the world: Princeton.

As the director of Princetoniana, a collection of historical information about the university, and the senior associate director of strategic partnerships and planning, Miller helped fundraise for Princeton University’s endowment, which just about tripled during his tenure. Princeton’s endowment—which is one of the largest in the world and includes investments and fundraising—currently stands at $22 billion.

Miller is now retired. In a series of interviews conducted in person and over the phone, I spoke to him about Princeton University, fundraising, and the state of higher education.  A lightly edited version of our conversation follows.

Simone Dominique: After working for a tabloid, how did you land a job at Princeton University?

John Miller: I was employed as a paparazzo for the National Enquirer from 1974 through 1978 and began my career at Princeton in 1993. During the long interim, I work as an advertising and editorial photographer for a range of clients, from Fortune 500 corporations to nationally distributed magazines, state governments, and universities. I did numerous assignments over a period of many years for Princeton prior to being hired. I also engaged in many activities as an alumnus and co­-authored a book on the history of Princeton, so I was well known in the university community.

John Miller (Simone Dominique)

Dominique: Do you think your experience with photography helped with development at Princeton? How so?

Miller: I had the good fortune to have been born with a capacity for both visual and literal thinking. One can convey powerful messages by combining the two. Plus, having talent is not usually enough to make a good living as a photographer; honing keen salesmanship skills is often as important as developing beautiful prints. Because of this, pleading for money in a dignified manner became second nature for me.

Dominique: Please talk about culture and fundraising at one of the oldest and most elite universities in the United States—what was special?

Miller: Princeton has such an enormously strong culture among its students and alumni that it verges on being a cult. Every year, more than 60 percent of undergraduate alumni donate money to the University in the form of annual and capital gifts or bequests. One of the most compelling drivers in giving to Princeton is class identity. This begins the first week of freshman year with an event called Cane Spree, which dates back to around 1869, in which the new students are challenged by the sophomores to a series of athletic events, including the traditional wrestling with wooden canes. The freshmen are given tips and moral support by the juniors, while the sophs are backed by the seniors. In nature's normal course, the older class wins. On rare occasion, the freshmen prevail over their elders. In my case, my class of 1970 utterly humiliated the class of 1969. To this day, exactly 50 years later, we still rub it in their faces at every opportunity. Every single opportunity.

The defining event of the Princeton alumni experience is Reunions, a lavish, event-­rich, and hugely attended, three-day celebration that takes place in the spring just before commencement. On the Saturday of Reunions, a great alumni parade winds its way through campus, class by class, with every class sporting different, crazy, thematic costumes. You can spot a secretary of state dressed like a pirate, or a titan of industry done up like a zombie. The event is also the focal point for annual and capital giving, and class competition drives the fundraising effort. Every class tries to beat the giving record for their Reunion year, whether it is the fifth or the 25th or the 37th. Once again, the Class of 1970 has destroyed 1969 for 46 years straight. Poor whipped dogs.

Dominique: Everybody gets rejected at some point. Can you share a campaign that initially flopped, and how it was turned around?

Miller: No. The last Princeton campaign flop happened in 1837. A major fundraising effort can be made nearly flop-­proof by garnering an advance fund amounting to one­ third of the campaign goal before the campaign is even announced. This is called the quiet phase. Then go loud, if possible, by announcing a huge transformative gift that will get the attention of the alumni body and the national press. Also, it is critical to do diligent research and intelligence gathering to determine that the campaign goal is realistic and attainable—and conservative. A truly successful campaign not merely reaches its goal but substantially exceeds it. This is the psychology of winning.

Dominque: What advice do you have for somebody who has a nontraditional background and wants to get into fundraising?

Miller: Find an institution that supports causes and has objectives that you truly believe in. Internalize these objectives and develop the capacity to tell compelling stories that illustrate them. Perhaps do some volunteer fundraising in a related field before trying to turn pro. Read up on the basics. Be eager and prepared to meet with people, have a complete command of the institution's table of needs, and seek to understand what motivates each potential benefactor. Think strategically. Work hard and smart. Be courteously tenacious. Have patience and endurance for the long haul. Salesmanship is paramount, but often subtle, and you have to be able to sell yourself to an institution before you can sell that institution to donors. Do not be reluctant to write any letter, make any call, knock on any door. Learn from rejection; don't suffer from it. Plenty of pushback will come your way, which makes hard­-earned success all the sweeter.

Dominique: If you were fundraising for a much lesser-known entity than Princeton, how would you go about it to leverage success?

Miller: Many people look at Princeton with its billions in the bank and wonder why it needs more funding when there are so many other worthy charities and nonprofits operating on a shoestring. This is a valid question. The answer is that Princeton has so many world-­class faculty, programs, and initiatives that converge with donor interests. And importantly, people with wealth generally want assurance that their philanthropic gifts will have both a high profile and a high return on investment. So success generates more success. And talk about a long­-term investment: Princeton is older than the United States of America. So what if your institution doesn't have all these advantages? Promote the people, departments, and programs that are doing the best work. These might be electrical engineering, humanitarian efforts, or basketball. Emphasize alumni relations, starting when future alumni are students. If an institution is young or small and is somewhat thin on accomplishment, talk about ambition and aspiration. A donor should be proud to be associated with an institution. The font of philanthropy is not usually ego; it is love, loyalty, gratitude, and interest or equity in a specific endeavor.

Dominique: Free, universal higher education has been a contentious topic ​during the 2016 presidential election. What are your thoughts? Are American students placed at a disadvantage when they graduate with tuition debt?

Miller: Books can be and are written on these subjects, so all I will offer here are a few random thoughts: Today, a college education is about what a high-school education amounted to only a couple of generations ago. Can this country, so very deeply in debt already, afford another huge entitlement program? Has a college degree become so commonplace that its worth is badly debased? Is there a certain "scam" aspect to the high expense of college compared to the actual value students receive? And what about the enormous amount money that is being made by government and banks in the student-loan racket? And should more young people be seeking alternative forms of education, such as trade and technical schools, that would improve their chances for a decent and lucrative career?

Dominique: It has been said that the cost of a university education has escalated because institutions have to fill gaps where government funding falls short. What do you think about this? What is the solution?

Miller: Same as with public institutions, and many of these are beefing up their fundraising efforts so they are not as dependent on the political vicissitudes of state funding. Universities often claim that they have had to pick up the slack in conducting costly basic research because government and even corporations are doing or funding much less of this. This is true, but expenses have also risen much faster than the general cost of living because of bloated administrations. I once worked in a department of some 40 people; within three years it ballooned up to one 160. And guess which size staff was the most productive? The solution is for government, university trustees, and donors to hold these institutions more accountable, and for both the public and private sectors to get more serious about basic research. The United States of America is lagging, and this will impact our country and the world.

Dominique: What do you say to a person who sees a large multibillion ­dollar endowment, like the one that Princeton has, and speculates that universities sit on, rather than disburse, funds?

Miller: Princeton would say that it is planning for the long haul while also offering no-­loan financial aid to the majority of its students who are being educated to become the global leaders of tomorrow. Also, they would emphasize the basic research argument and the cost of assembling world-class faculty to collaborate on these many research programs. Still, some members of Congress have long questioned the tax-­exempt status of such vastly wealthy universities. This makes the leaders of these universities indignant. They think that the questioning politicos are little more than benighted hacks. I think these university leaders should walk across their own campuses with open eyes. The buildings are the epitome of opulence, designed by the world's most famed and expensive architects. I don't know that such institutions shouldn't be paying some form of taxes. Certainly, many people in their surrounding college towns think they should.