Brandon Baker: Philanthropy as a Relationship

Brandon Baker

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Leadership Profile Brandon Baker

From working phones for $250 gifts to leading a campaign to raise $250 million, Brandon Baker has a proven record of garnering philanthropic support to bring transformative ideas to life. Since August 2018, Brandon has been leading philanthropic efforts and strategy at RAND and working with the Pardee RAND Graduate School. He sees it as a way to give back.


Brandon Baker remembers waiting at a college luncheon, nervous—terrified, really—to meet the man who had paid his way through school. That moment has always stuck with him: the gratitude he felt, the butterflies in his stomach, the awe of putting a face to philanthropy.

The experience gave him a keen appreciation for the human side of philanthropy—philanthropy as a relationship, not a transaction. It's a lesson he brings to RAND as the new vice president of development.

“We get to provide an experience to our donors,” he said. “That's what they're supporting, the fact that they're making a gift so they can feel an impact. We get to provide that impact to them, to society, to the world—but it really comes back to making sure they're excited about it.”

Baker is 34 years old and estimates that he has personally raised more than $100 million over the course of his career as a fundraiser and strategist. He's worked the phones for $250 gifts; at his last stop, at UCLA, he led a campaign to raise $250 million.

He grew up in small-town Alabama; his parents owned the local farm supply store. He earned a leadership scholarship to Martin Methodist College in Tennessee and thought he'd become a dentist.

Then he met the donor who had paid for his scholarship.

“That one moment of getting to meet someone who selflessly gave so that someone like me could have that opportunity—that changed my life.”

“That one moment of getting to meet someone who selflessly gave so that someone like me could have that opportunity—that changed my life,” he said. “It really put me on a path where I wanted to make sure I was always providing opportunities for people to succeed. I tell donors that I am where I am today because of someone like them.”

He worked his way up from a fundraising internship at Columbia, to a front-line job at UCLA, to building up a West Coast office for Villanova University, and then back to UCLA as assistant dean of external affairs for the engineering school. He started at RAND in August.

In his newly created position, Baker will lead philanthropic efforts and strategy at RAND and work with the Pardee RAND Graduate School. He sees it as a way to give back.

“Right now, more than ever, the work that we're doing is incredibly important—to help our lawmakers, to help our communities, to help our country make decisions based on research and facts versus opinions and beliefs,” he said. “That to me is crucial right now.”

His fundraising philosophy: “You can't make people give to RAND, but you can make them want to give to RAND.” He's met donors at football games and picked them up at the airport. He once waited in line for an hour to pick up a passport for a donor's daughter.

“I kind of felt proud that they called me,” he said. “I was their go-to in the moment, and I came through. Did it have an impact on their giving? It might have. But it was a way to show that we care about more than just their giving. We care about them as people.”

It's that same lesson he learned as an awestruck college student: It's all about the relationship. People give so that they can be a part of something— whether that means helping a researcher try to solve world problems, or just seeing a small-town kid from Alabama graduate from college.