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Lunch with Mimi: O. Richard Bundy III

by on November 30, 2017 1:45 PM

O. Richard Bundy III has always strived to accomplish his goals, whether it’s in fundraising or running marathons on every continent. One goal he set in 1997 when he left State College was to one-day return in a leadership role at Penn State. He had hoped it might be to succeed Rodney Kirsch as vice president for development and alumni relations. Twenty years later, in January 2017, he did just that.

Bundy earned two degrees at Penn State — a bachelor of arts in history in 1993 and a master of arts in history in 1996. He also earned an MBA with a focus in integrative management from Michigan State University in 1999, and he completed the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Management Development Program in 2004.

Born in Rochester, Pennsylvania, he grew up in State College since the age of 9. Prior to his return to Penn State, he spent six years as inaugural president and CEO of the University of Vermont Foundation, a separate 501c3 organization whose mission was to raise and manage private funds for the benefit of the University of Vermont.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Bundy at The Penn Stater Gardens Restaurant to discuss the future of public higher education fundraising, how Penn State is doing in its own comprehensive campaign, and what got him started in running marathons around the world.


Mimi: Well Rich, this is a reunion. You and I first met in a development situation. I remember with great affection working on the Sy Barash Regatta with you and Jeff Jubelirer. What’s your favorite moment from that?

Rich: We had so many memorable moments during the Regatta that year. Maybe instead of answering it as most memorable I’ll answer it as most proud. You’ll recall the year before I became regatta co-chair with Jeff in 1993, we had a rainout and we hadn’t purchased insurance, so we ended up losing a lot of money on the Regatta that year. It was the first time in many years that we weren’t able to make a donation to the American Cancer Society. The next year, we were able to pay the debts we had incurred from the previous year and hold the event, in spite of flooding at Bald Eagle State Park that forced us to move the venue two weeks before the event. However, we were still able to raise enough money that year to cover all of our expenses and make a nice donation to the American Cancer Society.

Mimi: And one would have never thought that shortly thereafter the Regatta would disappear.

Rich: No, I was very deeply disappointed that it went away in 1995. I remember having this conversation with you at a breakfast at The Corner Room that I did not want to be the Regatta chairman that lost the Regatta. So, we were deeply committed to having success and doing the right thing.

Mimi: I remember saying to you that you were so good at raising money that I hired you in a sales job. But I also said to you, you ought to consider the development field because you may be able to be a star. And lo and behold, you began at Penn State in the basement of Old Main.

Rich: Well, thanks to you.

Mimi: It’s so exciting to see you in the role that you’re in. You’ve undertaken a humongous challenge in this job, your dream job; tell us why it excites you.

Rich: Well, there’s an emotional part. This is my hometown. I grew up in State College. It’s my alma mater. I have two degrees from Penn State. So, the opportunity to feel that the work you do is contributing to the health, the vitality, and the strength of institutions in communities that you love means that it’s not really work. In fact I joked with President Barron when I had my six-month review that I’m working more hours that I can ever remember working and it doesn’t feel like work at all! Take the emotional piece away and the vice president for development and alumni relations job at Penn State is one of, if not the premier leadership opportunities in public higher education fundraising and alumni relations. I say that with a lot of confidence and would say that to my peers at other prominent public universities. In 2011, we had a really difficult news cycle at Penn State and in the 12 months after that terrible story first became public, more donors than ever before gave a gift to Penn State. We raised more money than we had ever done in a 12-month cycle and we had more new life members in the Alumni Association than at any time in Penn State’s history. For me, the only way to interpret that is Penn Staters said “my institution needs me now more than ever” and they doubled down their support for Penn State.

Mimi: At the same time, they’re faced then and now with a dissident group of alumni that are an impediment in the story of Penn State, in terms of our capacity to always come up from being knocked down.

Rich: There have been some challenging conversations with segments of the Penn State alumni population who are frustrated or angry with the institution’s response to what transpired in 2011. What I tell those folks is that we all love Penn State, so we have that in common. And as long as we recognize that we have that in common, we can have conversations with each other that don’t have to be antagonistic, that don’t have to be mean-spirited.

Mimi: Or disorderly.

Rich: Right. Because at the base level, what we all really want is for Penn State to be a better institution than it was yesterday, or the day before and the day before that. Sometimes, what well-intended folks want is inconsistent with the strategic direction or the reality of our circumstance. In my role, I have to be mindful that on any topic there are likely to be alumni who see the issue from very different, but equally reasonable, perspectives. I often coach our development officers that when you get that call from an alum who’s really upset at the institution, you can sometimes turn that into a conversation about how they can support the institution to fix what they’re upset about.

Mimi: And do you think what they’re upset about is going to go away? It’s a big thing that they’re upset about.

Rich: This is likely to be a narrative that persists at Penn State for a long time. It will eventually subside because time heals all wounds, but that doesn’t mean that we should just sit by passively and wait for time to heal all wounds. I do think that there is continued work to be done. I also think that over time, people’s love for Penn State and what Penn State means to them will help to offset some of their negative feelings. And it’s not just the big issue; I could name another half dozen topics where I’ll get a call from an alum one day who’s upset about the institution’s response, and the next day I’ll get a call from another alum who is supportive of the institution’s response and wants to be helpful. So we have to listen to people.

Mimi: And hopefully conclude the right decision to move the overall institution forward.

Rich: I do think that one thing I wish that we could see more of, in terms of feedback that we sometimes get from our external stakeholder communities, is a bit more patience to understand why the institution is responding in the way that it is. Because these are very complicated issues.

Mimi: Oh the Greek issue has been a complicated issue for decades.

Rich: Right. And, on some of these topics – like a pending court case – there are things, sometimes by law, that Penn State is simply not able to talk about. Another example, there are very strict federal laws about what kind of information we can disclose about our students. I have seen on a number of occasions, well-intended, good-minded supporters of Penn State react strongly in a particular way without full information. We can’t sometimes provide them with full information and so they get very frustrated with the institutional response because it feels like we’re not being transparent with them.

Mimi: With the status of the Pennsylvania state government, there is an even greater risk that we will need to raise even more of our money privately going forward.

Rich: Nationwide, there has been a significant decline in government support for public higher education. Couple that with the pressure of increased tuition on our students and their families, and the federal government’s reduction of competitive funding for research, and private gift philanthropy becomes one of the very few remaining options for universities to generate the funding they need. I think there are some public universities in the U.S. that won’t be with us in 25 to 50 years because the economics of those institutions don’t work anymore. Penn State won’t be one of them. We’re fiscally conservative. Our balance sheet is strong and we have loyal and generous alums. We continue to be a destination of choice for college-aged students from all around the world. We have everything working in the right direction at Penn State. So I’m quite bullish about Penn State’s future.

Mimi: So what are you going to do differently?

Rich: We need to be more aggressive and proactive about getting our best potential donors in front of our administrators, and that means rethinking how we assign potential donors to our fundraising staff for cultivation and solicitation. One of the things Penn State does really well is ask for a lot of gifts. Last year, we received 233,000 gifts. But we can and should continue to do better to generate really big, visionary philanthropic opportunities from our most capable donors and have more gifts like Donald P. Bellisario gave earlier this year to endow the College of Communications. Those are transformative gifts for a program.

Mimi: Overall how do we compare on participation among alumni, percentage wise?

Rich: We do really well. We are officially second in the Big 10 in overall number of alumni donors, but I think we’re actually number one. Ohio State is ranked in front of us, but they count alumni association memberships as gifts and we don’t – if we did, we would have approximately 8,000 more donors than OSU. And last year we had a 5-percent increase in the number of alumni donors while most institutions nationwide are seeing decreased alumni donor support. You know, one challenge for us is we have a very young alumni population. More than 50 percent of our graduates earned their degree less than 20 years ago, and young millennial donors think differently about how they want to support institutions like Penn State. They are more likely to consider “roll up your sleeves” opportunities. They don’t necessarily want to give to Penn State as an institution, they want to give to something special and specific to their Penn State experience, like the Blue Band or THON, where they feel their support will have an impact. We have had to innovate and increasingly explore how we use social media, crowd funding, peer-to-peer networking, etc., to reach out to an ever-changing audience.

Mimi: But still stay engaged with people like me in the traditional way.

Rich: Exactly, and that is the challenge. I often say in our line of work that we are stewards of our alums’ relationship with the institution. My job is to ensure that when I retire 20 years from now and am no longer in a role to steward that relationship any longer, you still have that great relationship with the university. It’s not about us, it’s about you and how we connect you with others at Penn State so that you feel this lifelong engagement, connection, pride, and affinity.

Mimi: Well it’s a good disease to catch. Let’s switch to how you got interested in these marathons.

Rich: Well, a shout out to my younger brother. When I was 29 years old, I was in graduate school at Michigan State and my brother called me a couple months before my 30th birthday and said, “We’ve talked about running a marathon many times; you had better run a marathon before you turn 30 and are too old to do it!” I didn’t like the “too old” part so I said I’ll do it, but I challenged him to race me. My brother and I ran our first marathon together, the Marine Corps Marathon in 2000. And I beat him by six seconds, let the record show! I was hooked. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The next three marathons I ran as fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I lost both of my grandfathers to lymphoma so I ran them in their memory. Then as things happened, I found a good group to run with, it became my social network, and three marathons turned into six, turned into 16, and now I just completed my 40th. I set many running goals and one was to get into the Boston Marathon, and I did that. Next, I wanted to run in all six of the World Marathon Majors (Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo) and I finished that in 2014, which put me on three continents for marathons. While I was in Tokyo, a friend mentioned that I was halfway there to having run on all seven continents. I thought that sounded like an interesting challenge and as fate would have it, there was a tour company in Tokyo advertising a trip to Antarctica for a marathon and I signed up. I ran in Antarctica in March 2015 and last year I ran in South America and Africa. So, this past November, Australia was continent number seven, my 40th marathon and it was my last. I retired from the marathon distance after Australia.

Mimi: What are you going to do for exercise otherwise?

Rich: Well, I’ll still run. I just won’t run marathons. I also started doing CrossFit a couple years ago, which I enjoy immensely – it keeps me in shape.

Mimi: OK, tell me where our current campaign stands.

Rich: We are off to a great start. We are 14 months into the campaign and we are at $376.3 million raised against a $1.6-billion goal (cumulatively in five years), right on schedule. What I think is the most exciting possibility for us is we raised $304 million last year, and that was only the third time that Penn State raised more than $300 million in a year. We have our projection that we have the possibility to raise $350 million, which would be close to the best fundraising year in the history of Penn State. Even if we don’t get fully to that goal, the likelihood that we get to over $300 million a second year in a row is very good. It shows that we have set a new bar in what we expect from philanthropy and that’s exciting.

Mimi: Well, I think you know on a personal level I’m so glad you got this job, and I know you’ve got a great motivation to make it better.

Rich: I want you to know, I wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for you. You’ll remember when I was applying to graduate school and I was accepted to Penn State but didn’t get an assistantship. I had no way to pay for grad school and I knew if I wanted to get my graduate degree, I had to work. You reached out to Dave Gearhart, who was the vice president for development at that time. It has been reported to me you said, “I know this really great kid – you ought to give him a look.” Dave met me and ultimately offered me a job in development at Penn State fresh out of my undergrad degree, so that was my start in development at Penn State, and it was because of you so these things come full circle.

Mimi: That’s why it was such a special interview to me. I like to think that most of us in life do things that make a difference and on that note, you’re making a difference for Penn State. I try to do that every day of my life and together I wish you tremendous success and I’m on your team. Keep excelling, make your bad days turn into good days.

Rich: How can you have a bad day in State College at Penn State? It is Happy Valley, after all!

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