Former Ayco executive Frank Messa asks others to ‘please join me’ in fundraising campaigns

Union College alumnus transitions from giving money to his alma mater to raising money for it, other organizations
Union College Alumni Frank Messa at Abbe Hall Thursday, January 31, 2019.
Union College Alumni Frank Messa at Abbe Hall Thursday, January 31, 2019.

Categories: Business, Schenectady County

Fifty years ago this fall, Frank Messa arrived at Union College as a freshman. When new freshmen arrive on campus, they may notice Messa’s name around campus – on the ice rink, on a residence hall.

Messa, who lives in Saratoga Springs with his wife, worked as a tax attorney and financial adviser to top corporate executives, gradually increasing his largesse to his alma mater. Now, he asks other people for money.

A Union College trustee for life, Messa spends most of his time in retirement raising money for Union, the Saratoga Hospital Foundation and other organizations. He chaired the hospital foundation’s most recent fundraising campaign to upgrade the hospital’s surgical and intensive care facilities. While the hospital’s capital campaign started with a $4 million goal, it ended up raising $8 million. Messa has also chaired Union’s $260 million capital campaign, which is currently focused on expanding and revamping the school’s science and engineering complex.

As someone who has asked for money from countless donors – and been asked by countless fundraisers – Messa said fundraising boils down to a deeply personal request.

“The three most powerful words in fundraising are: Please join me,” he said during a February interview at Abbe Hall, home of the college’s alumni relations and fundraising teams.

He broke down the simple equation: Please: A polite sign of respect. Join: Messa called it the “most powerful” of the words, as it signals that other people have also donated to the cause. Me: Finally, lets a potential donor know whomever is asking has committed to the cause themselves.

“I find it very difficult to turn down other people who say please join me,” Messa said. “Nothing is more compelling than saying I gave my own money to it, won’t you join.”

PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Messa Rink unveiled it's brand new scoreboard during Media Day at Messa Rink Tuesday, October 2, 2018.
Messa Rink unveiled it’s brand new scoreboard during Media Day at Messa Rink Tuesday, October 2, 2018.

As a leader of capital campaigns, he said, it’s important to build a diverse team of people from a variety of backgrounds – students, alumni, faculty, administrators – all working together with a shared goal.

“The more people you have out there, the better chance you have of raising money,” he said. “Fundraising is blocking and tackling kind of stuff. You need to call people up and ask them for money.”

Ultimately, the success of fundraising comes down to personal interactions.

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“Life is a contact sport,” he said.

While Messa said changes to charitable giving tax deductions will have an impact on all types of fundraising efforts – “on the margins” – he said donors are rarely motivated by tax concerns alone. He said the total amount of money Americans donate has grown consistently over the decades.

“No matter how you change the rules, the tax laws, people still give,” he said. “I don’t think it will change. It’s part of our culture, it’s part of who we are (as a country)… I can’t remember a single client ever saying ‘I’m not giving this year because they changed the tax law’ ,” Messa said.

Messa grew up on Long Island and was the first in his family to go to college. When he first stepped onto Union’s campus, he recalled, he knew it was where he wanted to go to school.

“I just knew,” he said of choosing Union halfway through a campus visit. It was the only college he applied to. “I was pretty arrogant to apply to just one school. I never looked at another school.”

To this day, Messa has never regretted that decision. He and his best friends from Union still get together for a trip each year, just the boys.

After graduating from Union in 1973, he attended Albany Law School and joined the Ayco Company, which provided financial advice to corporate executives at Fortune 500 companies. He joined Ayco out of law school and was a senior vice president when Ayco sold to Goldman Sachs in 2003. He retired in 2005.

Messa joined the ranks of Union College fundraisers in 1987, after he returned to the Capital Region and was charged with being the gifts chair for his graduation class. He said he couldn’t recall how large his first donation was, though he was confident it was less than the $1.5 million he gave for the college’s hockey rink or the $2 million he donated for the Minerva house. Union’s hockey rink is named for him as is Messa House, one of the school’s special Minerva houses. Minerva houses serve as a base for student academic and social activities as well as residence halls for upperclassmen.

He said he donates money to around 20 organizations and, in addition to his work as a Union trustee and a member of the hospital foundation board, serves on the regional board of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Messa and his wife, Colleen, have supported programs at Skidmore College and The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where his kids attended, as well as other organizations around the region.

“You have to choose, so you choose those causes most important to you,” Messa said.

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