Lessons in Leadership: An Interview with Ben Pierce, President of Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program

I had the privilege of sitting down with Ben Pierce, President of the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program (VC), to have a discussion about leadership, charitable giving, and teamwork.  Pierce has been the head of VC for 13 years, and has more than two decades of experience in the field of charitable giving.  VC is a donor-advised fund, with the mission of increasing philanthropy in the United States.  Since being founded by Vanguard as an independent public charity in 1997, donors have entrusted VC with more than $5 billion in contributions.  Presently, VC is the 27th largest charity in America (in terms of total annual dollar contributions), and has granted more than $3 billion to nonprofits across the country.

It was interesting to note that during the course of our interview, Pierce was quick to deflect attention away from himself, and toward the VC team and culture.  Indeed, his approach was consistent with his philosophy on leadership – one of the major principles of effective leadership is that of building a core team spirit, uplifting the whole organization and recognizing collective accomplishments.  Our discussion touched on many inspirational points and bore lessons for us all:

*A Big Heart and Great Management Are Key to Achieving Goals:  Although VC is organized as a charity, Pierce and VC’s staff of 40 run the organization as a business.  In Pierce’s words, “A big heart is primary, but leaders have to stay focused.”  Leaders have to create discipline, manage effectively, and remember that bills must be paid on time.  This type of management requires leaders to prioritize and keep things simple in order to achieve the organization’s objectives.  Leaders have to be able to diplomatically say no if the task is not consistent with the organization’s true objective.

*The Team Drives the Organization:  Any organization will have failures.  But the organization will survive, bounce back, and thrive, if it has built a core team spirit.  Pierce explains that at VC, the organization strives to ask itself, “Who are we as humans?  Why are we doing this?”  Armed with the answer and a core vision in hand, the organization can overcome any obstacle.

*Charitable Giving is a Thread that Binds America:  After the 2008 financial crisis, charitable giving was paralyzed for almost a year.  Although 2011 saw marginally improved donations, negative stock market returns in July and August may cause this year’s giving to fall once again.  Moreover, some endowments were hit with a “double-whammy” after both the value of the endowment fell and donors stopped making contributions.  The whole country will suffer from the resulting decline in giving.  Why?  Pierce explained that charitable giving constitutes approximately 2% of the US GDP and employs roughly 10% of the US workforce.  In Pierce’s words, “Those are good, middle-class jobs.”  While leaders in charitable giving organizations cannot control the stock market, they can plan for downturns, remain disciplined and maintain a long-term focus.

*True Leaders Walk the Talk:  Pierce explained that the mission of VC is “to increase philanthropy in the United States.”  This has to be done not just by including the phrase in the organization’s charter, but also by facilitating a culture of charity in the organization’s own employees.  To that end, VC has instituted a “volunteers’ day off,” and encouraged its employees to take a day off each year to directly perform community service.  Another anecdotal example of walking the talk can be found in VC’s own internal staff meetings, which usually last about one hour.  In those meetings, Pierce himself speaks only about fifteen minutes, and the rest of the staff speaks for the remaining 45 minutes.  In running the meetings this way, Pierce sees the employees themselves leading the organization from the ground up.

*Transparency Builds Trust:  To date, more than $5 billion has been contributed to VC, and more than $3 billion has been given away by VC to nonprofits around the United States.  Pierce explains that handling other people’s money requires the highest level of responsibility, transparency, and ethics.  Because donors trust VC to handle their money, they should be able to obtain immediate information about anything VC does.  To that end, VC’s annual report, auditor’s report, and tax return (IRS Form 990) are readily available on its website, both to current donors as well as to the outside world.  This is the kind of transparency that builds trust.

*Find What You Love:  Pierce tells the story of how it was actually his exit from a Fortune 500 company in 1989 that led him to find his true calling in the field of charitable giving.  Upon leaving the private sector, Pierce did some deep introspection, and found that he was a person who was not meant to sit in front of a computer all day.  Instead, he wanted to be doing a variety of different things, working with people, and helping others.  Pierce found that charities, like many good businesses, need people who can and will do a variety of different things.  Pierce found that he loved the role that required him to stretch in different directions, and he has found the resulting career immensely fulfilling.  

Interview conducted by Sarah Hammer (MN ’94), investment analyst at The Vanguard Group.  Vanguard is one of the world’s largest investment management companies. Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program was founded by Vanguard as an independent, nonprofit organization.

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