Q&A: John Zeller

John Zeller, VP for Development and Alumni RelationsPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Large fundraising campaigns are nothing new for John Zeller.

Zeller, Penn’s vice president for development and alumni relations since 2004, came to Penn from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he successfully guided two major campaigns: One that raised $1 billion for Johns Hopkins Medicine, and another that collected $705 million for the university.

But even by Zeller’s lofty standards, the campaign Penn launched late last month is, well, huge. The $3.5 billion campaign, “Making History: The Campaign for Penn,” is the largest campaign in University history and also one of the most ambitious ever launched by any U.S. university.

More than $1.6 billion has already been raised toward that $3.5 billion goal, and the campaign is off to a roaring start. Still, Zeller says, much more work remains— and he says he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I find that this is a privilege,” Zeller says. “It really is something that I’m very excited about.”

Q. Something this big, I imagine, has been in the works for years. Can you give us the background on how this campaign came to be?
Much of the planning for the campaign began in 2000-2001, and people around the university began to think about what the priorities of the institution were going to be during the transition of the presidency. Then, with President Gutmann’s arrival in July 2004, the process really accelerated. Under her guidance, we began working with the deans and the center directors to identify what their highest priorities were going to be going forward. There was a very elaborate process that occurred over the course of, really, from 2004 and early 2005 through up until a year ago, where there was refinement of what the overall objectives were going to be. We eventually identified the highest priorities, the core priorities, of the schools and centers. And we realized that was going to require about $2.5 or $2.6 billion, in addition to some other priorities that weren’t in the highest level, but still fit within the framework of the campaign.

Q. So from there, I assume you began looking for donors?
Yes, we first looked at what we thought be the possibilities for fundraising from individuals and organizations. We went out to select individuals around the country, where Dr. Gutmann made a presentation about what the goals might be for the campaign. Then we listened. We listened to what they had to say. They gave us feedback on the messages, the content. We asked if it had the resonance to those that would be asked to be supportive, and the answer was a resounding yes.

Q. How did you arrive at the $3.5 billion goal?
The $3.5 billion comes from a series of priorities, the largest being our goal to add about $1.75 billion to the endowment. That would support a number of key elements of the campaign—undergraduate financial aid, graduate and professional aid and faculty support, both in endowed professorships, the Penn Integrating Knowledge professorships, as well as assistant and associate professorships and fellowships.

Q. So what will it take for this campaign to be a success?
A lot of hard work. What’s the benefit of having a comprehensive campaign? Well, first and foremost, it has a shared timeline. It has an overall brand that is associated with the campaign. It focuses our resources around everything we do. That’s one of the great benefits of having this type of activity, and it all began with the event on October 20. If you look at the response to the event, the number of people that showed up on College Green, it was good turnout. Now there will be a series of events around the country and the world to help us build on that. It’s going to require a lot of work on everyone’s part—the deans, the center directors, the trustees, volunteers and staff. And I think we’ve seen a great deal of success already.

Q. What makes now a good time to do this?
I think it was the presidential transition. You want always want to be able to have the president’s visions embedded [in a campaign]. You want the president to be here for that campaign, to help execute it. And I think with the timing of the presidential transition, it wouldn’t have been possible before that.

Q. The $3.5 billion goal makes this one of the largest public campaigns in higher education. Does that distincition—being among the biggest of all big campaigns—carry a certain caché?
Some people would argue that it does. But I will tell you that piece that I really try to stay away from is the number. This is not about the number. It’s about what that big number represents, which are the core priorities of this institution, and raising funds for them. In the end, if we haven’t met the goals and objectives of adding to our endowment, and our key priorities for undergraduate, graduate and professional aid, and faculty support, then we’ll have not been successful. I think we will be successful. But our goal is to look at what the most important things are about this campaign, and dedicate our energies to getting those things done. Penn has been a very successful fundraising operation, but this campaign helps create focus and purpose. That probably is one of the distinguishing factors that is different when you’re in a campaign as opposed to not being in a campaign. And one of the underlying goals here is to build the fundraising success of this institution to a level that is sustainable going forward.

Q. How much can a successful campaign improve the way Penn functions? Will the impact be real and noticeable?
. I think there’s always that question of what we’ll look like at the end of the campaign. But that’s pretty hard to predict. We know right now that 15 percent of our financial aid budget is derived from our endowment. If we add $350 million to that, and leverage it going forward, we would hope to move that number up significantly. Significantly might mean just 20 or 25 percent, but when we look at our overall annual operating budget for financial aid, those are funds that we don’t have available today and come from our core budget. I think for the faculty—the PIK professorships, the support of endowed professorships across the institution—the campaign will have a significant impact on our recruitment and retention of world-class faculty. If you look at the overall budget [for this] that is derived from our endowment, it’s only about 8 percent. That is significantly lower than what our peer institutions do.

Q. So, in a way, this is about just staying competitive?
I think it’s not only about remaining competitive. I think it also gives us the resources to really move on and satisfy the visions that President Gutmann has for this institution.

Q. Does the campaign tie into Penn Connects at all?
. Yes. The Penn Connects plan has an awful lot of potential for partnership with developers, as you’ve heard. Penn Connects is really the campus master plan, and the eastern expansion allows us to look at the entire campus and the way it’s configured. Embedded within the campaign, there are some really core priorities for us—for nanoscale technology, there is the new nano building. There are the athletic and recreation fields and the creation of the Palestra Green. There’s the medical research center and the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. The Roberts Proton Therapy Center and the new research building is a big part of it. There’s also the new college house on Hill Field. And the last capital component, among many other less major ones, is the renovation of the Arch. And all of these projects, although they don’t exist physically on the 14 acres of the postal lands, are all part of the Penn Connects plan, the idea of which is really to strengthen the academic core and move some of those other administrative functions to the outer fringes of campus and also provide some of the green space that everyone covets.

Q. What is the atmosphere right now in the philanthropic world? Speaking more broadly, is it a good time for Penn to be launching such a large campaign?
Yes, I think philanthropy in the U.S. is at an all-time high, and Penn over the last three years has enjoyed three record-breaking years in fundraising, which is critical going into a campaign. Our alumni are responding very well to the messages that each one of the schools and centers are putting forward, and that ranges from annual giving all the way up through the kind of significant commitments you normally see in a campaign. Our annual giving across the institution is setting records on every front. People might sometimes say, ‘Well, in a $3.5 billion campaign, where does my $500 fit into all of that?’ But if you look at the support we’ve enjoyed in the last year, for example, and you take gifts ranging in size from $1 to $100,000—and I know that is a fairly broad range—there are over 105,000 gifts amounting to almost 25 percent of our total fundraising.

Q. Is that a message you have to really get out there?
Yes, because people look at a big campaign and they think, ‘I’m young, I’ve only been out five or ten years, but I want to be supportive and I want to give my $100—but does $100 even create a ripple in a pool of $3.5 billion?’ But the reality is, it does. ... I think people are engaged. The trajectory of the insitution is so positive. In most cases, that’s really the key piece. People will give. But you have to ask them.

Originally published Nov. 1, 2007.

Originally published on November 1, 2007