Q&A with John Zeller

In 2007, Penn kicked off the public phase of the Making History Campaign, the largest fundraising effort in University history, and one of the largest ever launched by a U.S. college or university. From the beginning, the Campaign wasn’t just about reaching the numerical goal of $3.5 billion. Instead, it was a collective effort to shape the University for years to come.

The Campaign had six priorities: attract world-class faculty, increase undergraduate scholarships, bolster graduate and professional aid, invest in buildings and facilities, expand programs and research, and grow unrestricted donations.

Seven years and $4.3 billion later, Penn has been transformed.

“I think it’s a win for the University and it’s a tribute to our Trustees, [President] Amy Gutmann, our volunteers, deans, and overseers,” says John Zeller, vice president for Development and Alumni Relations. “It really is a broad-based community success.”

There are new facilities and buildings on nearly every corner of campus, from the Perelman School of Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center and the renovated Syngcuk Kim Endodontic Clinic at the Dental School, to the Weiss Pavilion at Franklin Field and Penn Park, the campus’ new eastern edge.

There are Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) professors who exemplify the University’s commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship. PIK professors explore subjects that bridge disciplines in seven of Penn’s 12 schools, including law and sociology, genetics and biochemistry, and psychology and neuroscience.

The campus can already see the powerful effect of an increase in student aid: This year, 14 percent of first-year students were the first in their families to attend college. Nearly half of Penn undergraduates receive aid—a number that rose by 10 percent over the course of the Campaign. Graduate and professional students are reaping the benefits, too, as scholarships for these students have doubled.

The Campaign also raised more than $2 billion for programs and research. And alumni engagement increased dramatically during the life of the Campaign, including a 66 percent increase in attendance at major alumni events.

Zeller has steered the Campaign from its inception through its dramatic conclusion—including reaching the $3.5 billion goal 16 months ahead of time. A Penn employee since January of 2005, Zeller is a veteran of campaigns at Johns Hopkins Medicine and Johns Hopkins Institutions, as well as the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Zeller recently sat down with the Current to talk about why the Campaign managed to get such broad-based support from so many donors, what it was like to steer a fundraising campaign through an economic downturn, and what’s next for Penn’s development team.

Q: When you sat down with the Current in 2007, you were asked what would define success for the Campaign. Having reached the goal of the Campaign 16 months before the end date seems like resounding success. So, what does it mean for Penn to have been so successful with such a significant Campaign?
A: When asked about defining success, there were three elements to this Campaign. One was the big number, which we obviously hit early. There was the second piece, which were the core priorities of the Campaign, which is really the focus of what we’re trying to accomplish. And then the third was what we call our nonfinancial objectives, which was all about engagement.

Q: And that’s engagement with alumni?
A: Yes, with alumni and friends of the University around the world. There was really a three-pronged concerted effort to define what the Campaign was going to accomplish. So, the metrics, when you look at where we are, where we finished, I think we’re immensely successful. For the core Campaign goals, we came within a fraction of hitting that objective, which was a very challenging element—that was faculty support, scholarship, undergraduate and graduate aid, capital projects, such as the Singh Center, Neural and Behavioral Sciences, Perelman, Translational Research Center—there’s just a long list of those capital projects that we’re able to fund. And then, the Campaign had an objective of trying to add half of the large number to the endowment, $1.75 billion. We actually ended up surpassing that with $1.9 billion in new commitments.
There’s a part of this Campaign, as well, that I think is an amazing tribute to our donors, and this is almost 85 percent of the Campaign—the $4.3 billion—has already been paid. So we actually surpassed our original Campaign goal of $3.5 billion with $3.6 billion in cash.

Q: Is that unusual?
A: That’s a very high percentage, particularly for these large Campaigns.

Q: How do you account for that?
A: I think it’s all about the commitment the donors had. When we launched this Campaign, it was in the fall of 2007, and the economy looked much different. In 2008, 2009, 2010, when our donors made their commitments, they honored those, so the cash flow off of those pledges was incredibly important from an investment standpoint that gave liquidity to the University. There’s an interesting data point; we went back and looked and we’ve added $1.45 billion in cash to the endowment over the life of this Campaign. That’s equal to or greater than all cash additions to the endowment since Penn’s founding.
If you go back and talk to [Director of University Archives] Mark Frazier Lloyd, which we did, I think the first endowed fund was in 1806. It was about $24,000. So, not only were we successful numerically in terms of the $3.5 billion or the $4.3 billion, but how it came in, how it was used, really had a huge impact on the institution. We had [more than] 325,000 donors to this Campaign.

Q: The Campaign seemed to get such broad-based support. Was that unusual, and how do you explain this wide-ranging support?
A: With Amy Gutmann’s vision, the Penn Compact, and how that was embraced across the institution and by our alumni, the move from excellence to eminence, people really rallied behind that. You couple that with one of our objectives of trying to engage our alumni, no matter if it’s financial or non-financial, or being involved with alumni interviewing, being involved with the club’s participation in Homecoming Weekend—any number of activities, plus the programs we did regionally and around the world really resonated.
There’s a very interesting statistic that came out of this Campaign that really distinguishes us, I think, from many of the large campaigns. That’s pretty much in any given year about 25 percent of the money that we raise came from gifts of $1 to $99,999—it was less than $100,000. That’s a stunning number. You think about achieving $4.3 billion. When we launched this at $3.5 billion, we were joking, that’s $1.25 million a day, every day, for seven years. It’s a lot of money we have to raise on a regular basis. The level of participation in this Campaign and the impact that it had, is truly a tribute to what the vision for Penn was, how it resonated, the great work of our Trustees, our overseers, our deans, and the development staff.

Q: Did you find that people gave not just once, but multiple times?
A: That’s interesting. When you look at the analysis of the Campaign and the gift pyramid, and if you look at individual gifts—we had two significant gifts in the Campaign—the $100 million from Mrs. [Leonore C.] Annenberg and $225 million from [Raymond G. and Ruth] Perelman. Below that, our largest single gift had been $25 million.
We had donors who made three, four, five gifts to this Campaign. Our Campaign chair [George A. Weiss] was a perfect example. George made multiple gifts to this Campaign. He had given $10 million for the Weiss Pavilion, he had given $14 million for undergraduate financial aid, he gave $20 million for four PIK professorships. He’s given significant gifts for medical research, plus other gifts around the University. When you add all that together, his largest single gift was $20 million, but his cumulative giving was well over $50 million. We saw that in a number of areas with donors.

Q: You ran this Campaign during the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Did that create particular challenges? Did you change your approach once you saw that financial situations weren’t as rosy as when you started?
A: Even if they didn’t lose money in the crisis, I think the confidence of individuals in terms of what was going to happen was shaken quite severely and frankly, that’s where our non-financial objective really kicked in. We would have functions or go to see people and when we sat with them, it wasn’t about, ‘Can you make a gift right now?’ although many people did and we never really fell below the trajectory we had projected. But we wanted to make sure that we connected with people or clusters of individuals during a time that was very challenging not only for Penn as an institution, but for our donors and alumni.
We would have functions where hundreds of people would gather, just to simply be with other Penn family members, and the support that came out of that served us so well.

Q: How much dialogue do you have with your counterparts at other universities, especially during large campaigns?
A: There’s a small group of us that gets together on a regular basis to look at the environmental factors, and some of the best practices we can share. When you look at the nature of the institutions, you have to take into consideration the complexity of it. Penn is a very big place with 12 schools, four undergraduate schools, a big academic medical center—not a lot of universities or colleges necessarily fit into that profile. We do have a fair amount of conversations and discussions with similar type institutions. Each institution has a different culture, a different way of operating. We are looking at best practices for stewardship, for accounting and crediting for gifts—a number of things—recruiting, best education practices for your staff. We are looking at things that transcend the culture and scale of the institution.

Q: Talk about some of the most visible parts of the Campaign that faculty and staff can see.
A: I think that first of all, the support for students, although faculty and staff don’t directly see those dollars, the money that we raised for undergraduate and graduate aid is over $650 million. We had a goal of $350 million for undergraduate financial aid and that actually came in at $366 million. The money for undergraduate aid when we began the Campaign, was about 10 percent coming from the endowment. It’s up to 22 percent now, but our financial aid has doubled: It’s gone from $90 to $180 million. The ability to continue to recruit and retain the best students was a critical objective for the Campaign and we were successful in achieving that. For faculty and staff to have the continuum of really high-quality [students], the best and brightest being able to come to the University is, I think, a really important element.
The physical spaces—if you look at the medical campus, you’ve got the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, the Smilow Center for Translational Research, the Roberts Proton Therapy Center. Penn Park is the biggest, most significant physical space. You look at athletics, the Weiss Pavilion and the work that’s been done there has been significant. Then, you look at academic buildings—the Music Building for the School of Arts & Sciences, Fisher-Bennett Hall renovation, the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, the Neural and Behavioral Sciences Building that’s going to be built. … It’s really significant; $757 million was raised for capital projects and renovations.

Q: How does a Campaign create a specific focus across the University?
A: A campaign does a number of things. First of all, it crystalizes your message in that it causes all the schools and centers to think about what’s important for them in terms of their respective priorities. For the president, the Penn Compact was the umbrella that was draped over all of that and everything in our planning rolled up into key objectives—faculty support, student access, engagement locally and globally. It really was masterful in terms of the rallying point for all of our planning.
With that also creates the opportunity to have ‘stretch asks’ to try to achieve the key elements of the Campaign—the $350 million in undergraduate financial aid, the faculty support, the capital support, and our non-financial objectives. It does crystalize the thinking and the focus.
It does a lot in terms of helping with key messaging—what’s important to the institution and it’s really an extended period of time where you’re articulating to the broader Penn family what’s going to be important to the University not just about raising money, but the impact that it’s going to have on the institution and how does it advance the institution from excellence to eminence.
There’s another piece that I always put in that goes beyond the traditional elements of why you do a campaign, and that is the development and alumni relations program at the end of a campaign will be significantly better than it was at the beginning. And Penn has always had a very high-performing development and alumni relations program but the work that the staff has done over the course of this Campaign has really improved our performance by every metric. I’m very proud of that.

Q: Your team reached the number goal 16 months ahead of time. How did you still make the case that Penn needs support, even when you reached the goal early?
A: It comes back to the three tenants of the Campaign. One was the big number, which we got to, but we had a very long way to go on our core priorities. When we hit the $3.5 [billion], the School of Arts & Sciences had not raised sufficient funds to build the Neural and Behavioral Sciences Building. Our undergraduate financial aid program was a long way away from its $350 million goal. Our graduate aid was the same way, our faculty support, and many of the schools and centers still had key objectives and goals they had yet to achieve. We paused for a minute and celebrated and said, ‘Isn’t this wonderful, but look what we have left to accomplish.’ That’s where we really spent our time being focused.

Q: What’s next for Penn’s development office?
A: The President has gone through some of her key priorities and we’re really focusing on those. Some are evergreen. The fact that we were successful in reaching our goal of $350 million for undergraduate aid means that 78 percent of our financial aid program for undergraduates still comes out of operating. And this is the same way at the graduate aid level. So, those two areas are what you would characterize as evergreen.
Faculty support, which is really fundamental to the success of Penn, is clearly a high priority for all the deans across the institution. Capital projects are a little bit more nebulous, but I’m sure that over the course of the next few months, some of that will become clear. There are also things such as global initiatives that will be key elements to what we do. So, although we won’t have a large number that we will put out there and say, ‘This is our objective,’ we will have really key goals for all the schools and centers at the University that will have an impact.
The short version is, we’ve taken the performance of the University to a new level—that gives us the base, the platform to now jump forward. We don’t want to lose any of that momentum.

Q: How big of a team is there in the development office?
A: It’s a team of almost 500 people. Every individual had a key role. It’s a remarkable staff. It is really a privilege to be the vice president of this very dedicated group. Everybody at the institution has had some role in the success in the Campaign, but there’s only one group of people who wake up every morning whose job it is to figure out how to get this done.
You can have a vision, and how you want to move the needle for the University, but somebody has to really put that into practice. And that’s really what the staff has done. It’s a remarkable achievement.
This is a huge victory for the University and our alumni and our volunteers.

The entire Penn community is invited to celebrate the Making History Campaign on April 19 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Penn Park. For more information, go to the Time to Shine website.

John Zeller