NEW YORK — "Want to know how to get someone to tell you his innermost secrets?" Chuck Lawson asked as he walked briskly down Central Park West at sunset.
"I mean tell you secrets he wouldn't tell his wife--like how much his mistress costs. . . ?" Lawson said, breaking into a broad grin and stifling a chuckle so he could take another drag on the cigarette that affixes to his left hand like an ashen-tipped sixth digit.
"It's easy. . . . Just ask someone to donate $100,000 to a charity."
Asking people to write six-figure checks to nonprofit organizations is Lawson's business, and when people start telling him their secrets it usually means they're casting about for reasons not to give.
Lawson, 49, is the president of Brakeley, John Price Jones Inc., the nation's second-largest fund-raising firm. He is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the $74-billion-a-year business of raising money for charity.
But while Lawson spends much of his time with the rich, he does not expect to rise into the economic stratosphere. "To become a millionaire in this business," he observed, "you'd have to be a crook."
Many of the nation's estimated 25,000 fund-raisers work on the staffs of non-religious charities for a salary--often the highest or second-highest salary in the organization--or work on contract for a share of the money they raise.
Not Lawson. Just as attorneys give legal counsel for an hourly fee, Lawson gives fund-raising advice for a daily fee. He even calls himself a "fund-raising counsel." Like many professional fund-raisers, Lawson considers taking a share of the pot unethical.
Fund-raising advisers play a major role, rarely even mentioned in the press, in shaping the finances of many nonprofit organizations. Their skill often determines whether a charity flourishes or folds.
Hospitals, colleges, symphonies and other charities often turn to people such as Lawson for advice on whom to approach for donations and how much to request when they want to erect new buildings, sock away an endowment or raise their annual donations significantly.
Most paid fund-raising advisers operate behind the scenes. But their influence often far exceeds that of the prominent volunteers whose names fill society columns.
Lawson's firm, which he is buying from its founders, has 47 professionals on its staff and offices from Stamford, Conn., to Newport Beach, Calif. The company provides three basic services: studies for clients to determine whether a campaign is likely to succeed, advice on conducting a campaign and campaign management.
Brakeley, John Price Jones' client list stretches from USC and the Music Center in Los Angeles to Harvard University, with scores of hospitals, private colleges and assorted do-gooder groups in between.
When the Music Center raised its annual campaign goal from $5.6 million in 1983 to $7.6 million in 1984, it hired the Brakely firm to provide "basic research" about the giving habits of many executives in Los Angeles, a Music Center spokesperson said, adding that the information involved "things we should have known long ago but didn't have in our files." Public records show that the Music Center paid $165,000 for the firm's services.
To help clients identify prospects, as potential donors are known, Lawson draws on a deep vein of information in Brakeley, John Price Jones' library at its Connecticut headquarters. Biographies of rich industrialists, volumes of Who's Who, past feasibility studies, government reports on the economy and other dreary documents line the library walls.
But the most valuable nuggets are stored in manila folders that Lawson affectionately calls his "POWs" for Pools Of Wealth. Considering how often the rich complain about getting hit up for big bucks donations, he said, the files might better refer to Prisoners of Wealth.
These POW files are filled with news clippings, records of past giving and unpublished tidbits, often provided by rich givers, about what causes might prompt an individual to write a check with lots of zeroes.
One POW report lists each time that one of the Rockefellers was a patient in a particular Manhattan hospital between 1930 and 1975 and the names of the attending physicians. In all, 16 Rockefellers were born in the hospital and there were 72 other hospitalizations, the report showed.
Armed with that information and other confidential data gathered by Lawson's firm, hospital volunteers have gotten millions of dollars in donations from the Rockefellers listed in the report.
Lawson told about how rich people sometimes reveal their innermost secrets, which invariably become excuses for not opening up their checkbooks.
"Sometimes," Lawson said, "you get a guy who will go on and on about his health and his wife's drinking and his kid who's on drugs and his no good brother-in-law he's got to help out and all sorts of stuff you don't even want to hear, and you just want to tell him to forget it just to get him to shut up."