Lucas Simpson ’13 is at home at Harvard, working to build relationships and establish legacies
By Bryan Hay
Lucas Simpson ’13 (anthropology and sociology) never intended a career in fundraising and development, but the seed was planted at Lafayette, perhaps without him even recognizing his natural talents.
“I got my start in development, actually, at Lafayette as a student caller,” he recalls. “We would call alumni from the basement of Markle Hall and ask them to make their annual gifts. And by my senior year, I was one of three co-chairs for the senior class commencement gift committee.”
Now associate director of development and gift planning at Harvard University, previously serving as senior associate director of alumni affairs and development at Harvard Medical School, Simpson looks back at his days at Lafayette and the people who shaped his thinking and opened his mind to new possibilities.
“I majored in anthropology and sociology, which I enjoyed,” he says. “By the time my senior year came around, I really had to think about what sort of jobs I wanted to pursue. I discovered that my primary skill was being a fundraiser, being able to have those conversations and balance the boldness it takes to ask someone for a gift. It’s hard to find someone to do it in a tactful way. It’s a talent that’s hard to find.”
He credits his advisers at Lafayette for unlocking new possibilities.
He enrolled as a biology major—his favorite subject in high school—with the goal of pre-med. His adviser at the time asked him good questions about what he cared about and recommended that Simpson take a few philosophy courses.
“He got the impression that I’m someone who thinks about thinking,” he says. “That led me to take a sociology course. And that’s how I ended up majoring in sociology. You got to know the faculty so well—Prof. (David) Shulman was so warm, engaging with us at every opportunity. I still remember him taking a few of us on a haunted hayride and then a corn maze.”
The intimacy of the intellectual community at Lafayette instilled clarity for Simpson, who always imagined himself working in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. He had his first job interview at Harvard in 2014, just a few months after graduating from Lafayette, and accepted an annual campaign position with the Harvard College Fund.
Wanting to make sure fundraising was the right path for him, he briefly transitioned to take a position at the global law firm Goodwin Procter.
“I left Harvard because I felt that perhaps fundraising was not for me. I needed to do something else, just to be sure that it was,” he says. “It turned out that fundraising is for me.”
Before returning to Harvard, he worked in annual giving positions at Northeastern University and Phillips Academy.
In his role at Harvard, Simpson helps people reach their charitable goals by advising them on how to include Harvard in their estate plans, offering different financial vehicles for donors to consider from charitable gift annuities or charitable trusts.
“I meet with alumni to talk about what sort of impact they want to have at Harvard,” he says. “Harvard is very fortunate. Our alumni body is made up of people who are very philanthropic.”
Simpson makes sure the alumni he engages with understand what Harvard is like today and how it has changed since they were on campus. He tends to focus on people who are past their 50th class reunions and are thinking about making a gift to Harvard.
But making connections with people just starting their life journey is also critical, Simpson stresses.
“It’s really necessary to start talking to people as soon as they graduate,” he says. “It’s a good idea to have an estate plan when you get married. Every time you have a kid, you should draft a will. So, in those early moments, it would be ideal for a gift planning officer to be having those conversations with the alumni, or friends of the college, anybody who is a potential donor, a prospect.”
Asked what type of person or personality is required for his profession, Simpson notes that while no one grows up dreaming about a career in raising money, it’s a viable, rewarding career.
“Firstly, simply just consider it. Anybody who is driven toward careers in marketing, public relations, the nonprofit sector, and education would make an effective fundraiser,” he says. “I would hope that people think a bit more deeply about fundraising. A lot of people seem to equate it with arm twisting and begging. It’s really just having a conversation with someone, and being the face of an institution and aligning someone’s goals with the goals of your institution.”
Laughing, his bright, effusive personality shining through, Simpson holds up a copy of Harvard’s massive fundraising manual, as dense as a vintage Manhattan phone book.
“It’s about having meaningful conversations, which I enjoy,” he says. “It’s more about knowing someone, knowing what they want to achieve and helping them have that impact on current students, or building a legacy.”
For Simpson, his career is rewarding and satisfying.
“It takes a lot to be the face of Harvard, especially today. Harvard is in the news all the time. There’s so much to know about this organization,” he says. “You need someone who believes in the mission of the school and also understands the history of that mission. Harvard was founded in 1636, and its mission in the 17th century is very different from its mission today. We’re not only representing Harvard today, we’re representing almost 400 years of history as a learning institution.”
Sometimes the conversations and relationships can be delicate to navigate, he says.
“Relationships are complicated. And if you’re managing 200 relationships, at no point will all 200 be good ones,” Simpson says. “Like any job, there are days where it feels like a job. And sometimes we have donors who force us to ask ourselves the question, who does the school belong to? Does it belong to our faculty, our staff, our students, or our alumni? My answer is it belongs to all of those groups. And it’s very hard to satisfy all of those groups at once. And sometimes people say yes to meetings, simply because they want to air their grievances to a person.”
Regardless of the occasional challenges that come with cultivating relationships, Simpson says Harvard is the right place for him.
“The best thing about my job is that I get to interact with so many different people, so many impressive people. And, in a way, I’m building and maintaining relationships on Harvard’s behalf,” he says. “After years of working with a person or their family, those become personal relationships. And that’s always great, especially when I’m traveling on behalf of Harvard. I’m having lunches and dinners, and going to events with these amazing people. And generally, if somebody’s making gifts, they are likely to already feel positively toward that organization. It’s rewarding.
“I’ve worked at other great educational organizations,” Simpson adds. “And for me it’s Harvard. It is a very special place to be.”