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Interview with Eileen Heisman, ACFRE

March 29, 2017

eileen heisman new

What’s your professional position now, and what are your responsibilities?  

I’m the president and CEO of National Philanthropic Trust (NPT), a national organization that offers donor-advised funds (DAFs). NPT is 20 years old and we manage about $4 billion in assets. Since our founding, we’ve raised over $7 billion.

How did NPT get started?

We were started by a small trust company that gave us a little money to start. They didn’t impose much control, but asked if we could raise $100 million in 3 years. That was good and bad—it gave us freedom to operate in new and exciting ways, but it also put pressure on us because we didn’t have immediate access to lots of capital or technology. We’ve had to be very resourceful in how we accumulated our assets, but it’s paid off. We paid the initial seed money with interest back to the trust company in full recently.

Maybe “competitors” is not the best word, but in the DAF space, it’s natural to think of organizations like Fidelity and Schwab. How do you stack up? Do you think of them as competitors?

In some ways, it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Fidelity has $19 billion in assets. We’ve got $4 billion. It’s unlikely we’re ever going to catch up but we do keep pace in terms of our year-over-year percentage growth.

Fidelity and Schwab have strong connections to the for-profit companies that founded them. NPT private labels DAFs for financial institutions you’d recognize, so we have multiple partners instead of one affiliation. We also have our own DAF programs. We have some great partnerships and generous donors who contribute to some outstanding causes. We also have so much more flexibility in the types of gifts we can accept, the causes we’ll support, etc.

I stress that we focus on quality, being sensitive to who our donors are and want they want to accomplish, and encourage our staff to embrace that. We provide a lot of flexibility for grant makers, both in terms of accepting unusual assets, and in terms of granting domestically and globally.  

How does that freedom and flexibility work in practice? How are you developing relationships?

While we have private label DAFs relationships, we also have many people come to us directly. I’m proud that we have bankers talking to their clients about us—how they can work with us to make their philanthropic ideas come true. That’s the sort of environment I want to cultivate: that our partners and donors believe in us and that we’re an extension of their philanthropic work.

We have 50 people on staff total, which means our donors actually speak to the same person each time they contact us. We try to provide special services to support donors’ giving when we can. We can focus on specific countries or areas for a specific donor. You can’t get that kind of service at every organization, so I try to emphasize donor service training with all my staff.

This interview is meant to be about you and your career, but I’d be remiss if I had the president and CEO of NPT right here and did not ask about the issue of DAFs vs traditional philanthropy.

The traditional private foundation sector, which has about 10 times more assets than the DAFs, must pay out at least five percent of its assets every year.  We have fewer funds and we pay out at a much higher percentage—20 percent! So, the issue of stagnant assets laying around in DAFs doesn’t really ring true to me.

Also, people forget we accept a lot of complicated gifts—illiquid assets that we have the knowledge and expertise to liquidate and then use to support charitable causes. I’m not sure the foundation world is always willing or able to take such assets. We don’t accept everything, of course, especially if we deem an asset too risky.

Okay, now tell me what you REALLY do! Philosophically, how do you see your work in fundraising and leadership as it relates to donors and the impact of NPT. What does it mean?

I see my role in two distinct but related ways. First, I see myself—and all of NPT—as facilitators. We support causes all over the world, and generally I find that if we have donors and partners who have a plan—a vision—and have some structure and goals around that vision. We can be great facilitators and find creative ways to achieve the vision.

Second, in my daily work at NPT, I often compare myself to captains who steer ships or conductors who lead the orchestra. The crew, the orchestra—they’re looking at me, while I’m looking over the organization all the time. I’m constantly thinking of what they need to do their jobs effectively. Do we have the right resources? Are we being collaborative enough? Are there ways to be more efficient? Those are the sorts of questions that tend to plague me at night.

What’s an “ordinary” day like for you?

Every day is something different. We have a wide range of interests here at NPT. Right now, we’re working on our plan for growth and doing annual personnel reviews. We’re also trying to look at how to grow and improve our technology systems and planning for next year’s budget. Whatever we do, I always need to think about the future.

I spend probably 20 percent of my time with our board and another 15 percent talking with the public about issues related to philanthropy and giving. I teach a graduate course at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice once a week in the spring. I created it to frame the key issues in fundraising and philanthropy so students and future leaders would be able to speak our “language,” so to speak, and come in to the workplace ready to handle the challenges of development and philanthropy.

Speaking of leaders, what is your leadership style?

To be a good leader, you must be able to delegate, so you must have strong, dedicated and intelligent staff. I try to find those people and support them. Because ultimately, we are a team. Their achievements are my achievements, and vice versa. There are going to be imperfect moments because we’re all human, but getting great people and inspiring them is the best way to handle the bumps in the road and creating success.

I’ve also learned that people need time to process and clear their head and come back to ideas in their own time. If you’re a dynamic organization, seasons don’t stop the workflow. We’re ALWAYS busy. But some of the best ideas that I’ve had come in the off moments—the twilight of sleep or when I’m walking the dog. Inspiration comes when you’re focused on something that’s still with you, but you’re taking some time away from addressing it directly. And then, suddenly, these disparate thoughts come together. As a leader, I have to let myself have those moments, and find ways for my staff to have them as well.

How did you get started in the nonprofit sector?

I went to graduate school to get my Master’s in Social Work, but I also interned at the Congressional Budget Office, which I enjoyed. While I did spend some time in the mental health sector, by 1980 I was a legislative aide to Philadelphia Councilwoman Joan Specter. Her husband was U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, whom I also worked with for several years. Working with both Joan and Arlen inevitably led to doing some political fundraising, and at some point, someone whispered into my ear about working as a charitable fundraiser.

That idea—and my contacts from my political background—led me to the Philadelphia Foundation. The executive director didn’t like the idea of having a fundraiser on staff so my title was public affairs director. I didn’t do much public affairs, just mainly fundraising!

So, you were a fundraiser in all but title?

Exactly! That’s where I got my first real taste of charitable fundraising, but it was endowment building with a focus on planned giving. I learned all about community foundations, many of which were launching their first DAFs.

From there I went to work at two different hospitals, both times as their director of planned giving. I was immersed in planned giving after my experience at those two hospitals, and my original work at NPT was modeled on what I had learned regionally at those institutions.

How did your relationship with NPT start?

I’ve known Roberta d'Eustachio, one of the great leaders and innovators in the philanthropic sector, for a long time. I heard from her that a trust bank was starting a national charity to sponsor DAFs. Believe it or not, I cold-called a member of the Pitcairn family, who was creating this new national charity, out of the blue and spoke to them about the opportunity. NPT was launched in 1996, and I was on board as its senior vice president—basically the chief development officer without the title. Two years later, I was made president and CEO.

How did that love of planned giving come about?

I love the complexity of illiquid assets. I love the idea of taking something, like art or real estate or a family owned business—or anything restricted—and making it into something liquid that can be used to support charities. I think of it like a game sometimes. I love complex games of solitaire or puzzles, and figuring out how to master them.

Planned giving is the ultimate kind of charitable puzzle. There are so many pieces to the gift: donor intent, the gift itself, legalities, etc. But putting it all together and making it work—that’s a great feeling and accomplishment!

You’re the first person I’ve ever heard say “I love the complexity of illiquid assets!”

*laughs*  When I went to earn my ACFRE, I wanted to do my oral test on planned giving. But it’s such a complex field, they had to find people who were very knowledgeable about planned giving so they could review my answers.

Understanding risk with illiquid assets is a big part of what I do. With a good legal counsel and a committed donor, you can make amazing things happen. I was fascinated by that idea early on in my career, and it’s one of the reasons they originally hired me on at NPT. They knew I had a big interest and experience in those types of gifts.

Was there a point where you knew you wanted to take that step into management? Or did it just come with the job?

It came with the job. I never liked being at the front lines of change. I wasn’t a natural community organizer. When I see social problems, I get very upset—so upset that I quickly realized I don’t have that much value in that role. I don’t have the patience or the fortitude. But I knew I had strengths when it came to working behind the scenes, like managing, organizing, and strategic planning.

I’ve had to learn management and leadership skills. Some of them have come naturally, but I’ve also been coached and schooled on others.  I am a member of the third Wharton Fellows Class at the University of Pennsylvania and completed the Executive Program for Philanthropy Leaders at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Both programs and others exposed me to cutting-edge ideas that have made me a better leader. I go to conferences and always watch and listen to the speakers.

The key to good management is finding a good balance. I used to be more of an extrovert, but I find myself stepping back more now. As a CEO, you can’t respond reflexively. You need to gather all the information and figure out what’s going on, so I’ve become quieter in that sense.  That extends to my personal life too. I don’t necessarily like going to a lot of social events but will always do so when the job requires.

Which makes me want to ask, what DO you do in your free time?

I like to read and am still engaged in politics. Exercise is very important to me—you have to take care of yourself. I love the theater and gardening too, so I have a lot of interests depending on the season or how much time I have.

What advice would you give someone who wants to move into a management or leadership role?

First, go talk to people you admire. I used to interview managers I liked and respected to get their opinions and philosophy. Don’t be shy to ask.

Second, you must make your ambitions known, but you also have to show you’re capable. Again, it’s a balance. It’s not enough just to say you want that next job, you have to act on your wishes. Volunteer for things that aren’t necessarily part of your job description. Make yourself available to do additional tasks or projects. I worked with a lot of younger people over the years. When I see someone work on extra projects outside of their formal job role, that’s gets my attention. I will often ask them if they want to work on something for or with me. If you want to be there, tell people, then show them.

Third, persistence is key. The story of my career is about persistence, working through the tough times, not always getting everything perfect—or even right—the first time, but working through it. You may not achieve your dream on the first try. You have to keep working, and if you do, you are more likely to succeed.

Fourth, sometimes you have to take a chance. If you’re truly passionate about a cause or an organization or a position, or whatever it is, you must be willing to take chances and put yourself out there.

That sounds like you’re referring to when you called the Pitcairns out of the blue and talking to them about wanting to work for NPT?

That’s definitely one of them! Like I said, I’m not the biggest social person, but there have been four or five times in my life when I went outside of my comfort zone because I strongly believed in something. That’s how got my first city hall job—by simply walking in and talking to people because it was a position I was passionate about. Contacting the Pitcarins was pivotal like that. I wanted that job and knew I could do it, and my passion and focus led the way.

I think sometimes we make our own luck. It’s NOT making reckless decisions and throwing caution to the wind. I always do my homework and come prepared. If you believe in something, and are passionate and confident about it, then you have to take that chance and go for it.

What one or two things (or more!) are you most proud of in terms of professional accomplishments, personal, organizational, etc.?

I’m so proud of how we’ve built and grown NPT. I was here when the organization first launched, so it’s very special to look back and see everything we’ve accomplished and how relationships we initiated years ago are still growing. It wasn’t always easy. It goes back to what I said about persistence. We’ve experienced two huge recessions while I was here, and lots of other roadblocks, and we’re still pushing forward. I’m so proud knowing that when I leave NPT, it will still be here, making a difference in the world.

I’m also proud of having a great marriage with a wonderful spouse. I couldn’t have done all this without him. I have two adopted children, which was always a dream of mine. Balancing all that wasn’t easy, but as I look back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I have always wanted to feel like I was part of something grand and bigger than myself—that would create real impact. I got to live out that wish, and it’s been remarkable.

What’s been the most significant change you’ve seen in the fundraising profession over the years?

Without a doubt, the field has become far more professional.  Back when I started, a lot of people still didn’t know what fundraising meant. Now we have certification and courses like the one I teach at Penn. We’ve established this amazing profession. That’s a much bigger accomplishment that we tend to recognize.

I could also point to the use of technology and the staggering amount of data there is now—so many studies and so much research on donor behavior. I am fascinated by how philanthropy has become more integrated into our society. There’s so much more interest in fundraising and giving, and so many more articles in trade and national publications than there were 25 years ago.

There’s a plot in a show I watched called Billions. An old-money family has lost its fortune, so this newly minted billionaire wants to the change the name of a building at a charitable institution from the old family name to his name. I just thought how crazy is that—that an issue like that shows up in an HBO series. We’ve gone big time!

What’s the biggest challenge the profession faces?

We have to continue to professionalize the field. We’ve come a long way but there’s still much left to do.  A lot of people still get into fundraising without the tools they need; we need to further explore and expand our growing specialties, like planned giving. There’s still so much to learn about what’s working and not working. What are the best practices, truly? We need better, more reliable data.

I tend to worry a little bit about all the research and data we have access to now. Are we going to be able to fully capitalize on it? There’s great research being done in behavioral economics and how it relates to giving. Research about Millennials—are they all that different? We’re going to miss out on some tremendous opportunities to advance our profession and our organizations if we’re not able to take advantage of the data that technology is making available.

You were named AFP’s 2014 Outstanding Fundraising Professional. What did you most enjoy about that?

It was such a wonderful honor. My daughter and my husband were there with me, which was so special. I only wish my parents had been alive to see it. Early in my career, I went to a lot of AFP conferences and listened to presenters who were way ahead of me in their careers. To be on the other end, so to speak, and getting an award—it was heartwarming and made me feel like all those sessions and classes and training were well worth it. I was so proud and hold the award in the deepest regard.

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