Eileen R. Heisman, CEO of National Philanthropic Trust (NPT), has a 30 year record of professional achievements in philanthropy, but it all started with being a social worker. I wanted to learn more about Heisman’s early social work origins, and also about how she led NPT from a small nonprofit in 1996 to the $6 billion dollar grantmaking organization it is today, making an indelible imprint on the landscape of modern philanthropy.
When we began our conversation, I asked Heisman to comment on what it felt like to run the country’s largest host organization for Donor Advised Funds. “When I read my own bio, sometimes it feels kind of like an out of body experience,” said Heisman with a chuckle. “But it’s nice to be able to say all those things are true.”
For all the time and energy Heisman has put into growing NPT over the past 22 years, she says the things that have kept her up at night were more parenting-related than work-related. Her children are now young adults and Heisman, now age 64 (“I feel like I’m about 39!”), is still steering NPT toward bigger and better things, with NPT now managing over 7,400 Donor Advised Funds and continuing to grow. NPT has raised over $13 billion in charitable contributions and currently manages $7.4 billion in charitable assets, making it one of top 25 largest grantmaking institutions in the US.
Vision + Decision-Making = Success
With her breadth of experience, I asked Heisman to talk about what attributes she sees as critical to success for philanthropists today.
“Two things are key to success: having a vision and being able to make decisions in a timely way,” said Heisman. “Even if you make a wrong decision from time to time, people want to see leaders who are decisive.”
Heisman emphasized that being able to envision growing the organization is critical, even if plans take a change of direction. “I like planning and I would do a lot of incremental planning about how it was going to work.”
In terms of how to make decisions, Heisman advised, “knowing your conscience and being a great data gatherer,” as a key combination.
While seemingly obvious, Heisman says paying attention to these two key elements — vision and decision-making — will put you leagues ahead as an organizational leader. Next, Heisman credits her ability to hire well and form successful professional relationships with her staff. “Hiring smart people, making sure they have enough resources to do their job, that they’re well trained, and relying on them when you’re not the best person to make a decision,” said Heisman. “I loved the idea of hiring people who were better at something than I was, and giving them the chance to do it.”
Leadership: It’s About the Relationships
I commented on how Heisman depended on relationships to build the strength of NPT as an organization. “I think relationships are almost more important than knowledge sometimes — learning who you can trust, who is a big picture thinker, who is a detail person, who do you go to when you’re upset and angry, who can go to who to process information and they aren’t threatened by it or upset by it.”
For Heisman, this kind of relationship-building is a big key to NPT’s growth over the past two decades. She talked about keeping a close eye on the roster of people around her, choosing carefully who to be in contact with, and what the intent is of the relationship. “I love having those thought partners around me.”
Heisman also described how leaders need to be fluent in dealing with disagreement, and create an environment where people can be different but also stay connected. “So if you have divergent points of view, how do you have civil discourse about it?”
Women’s Leadership and Political Giving
On the role of women in leadership, Heisman expressed frustration at the slow pace of change. “I think that women are really effective leaders, and I’m astounded at how few women are on corporate boards or running publicly traded companies. I find it really sad and unfortunate.”
While criticizing the lack of leadership opportunities for women, Heisman suggested that the most effective way for many high net worth women to influence this problem is through political support for candidates and PACs.
“The way women come to the forefront on topics like gender equality is through PAC’s and supporting campaigns of the leaders taking us there,” said Heisman. She sees tremendous potential for philanthropic women to direct some of their resources toward gender equality political action. “Philanthropy does effect the fringes of how some ideas get started, but the real substantial things happen when the government gets involved.”
Heisman cautioned, though, that NPT’s intent is not to direct donors in giving in any way. “Donors come to us from all different arenas and political points of view,” she said. “I’m in a different position [at NPT] where my personal points of view are really not important. I really have to stay out of that public discourse, and it’s hard sometimes.”
The Potential Chilling Effect of the New Tax Law on Small Nonprofits
I offered Heisman a chance to comment on the effects of the Trump tax laws on charitable giving, particularly the laws which took away the charitable giving deduction for a certain segment of the middle class. “I think small gifts to charities are going to decrease,” said Heisman. “The question is how much. You need two or three or four years of data points to see a trend. Maybe by that time, the tax laws will change back to being more reasonable relative to giving.”
“Another trend is even scarier,” added Heisman. “Twenty million fewer households are giving in the US, but giving is going up. So the wealthier are giving the lion’s share of the gifts in the US and regular everyday households are already giving less. Then we add the tax law change,” said Heisman, and suggested that the new tax law will likely even further exacerbate the trend of reduced giving from small donors and increased giving from the ultra-rich.
“Do we want giving in the US to be only the domain of the ultra wealthy? I think no,” said Heisman. She sees philanthropy’s definition as tied to the definition of a democracy in which people can use charitable giving to organize at the grassroots to improve their communities. “I think the idea that fewer people are giving is concerning,” she said, “And if I were running a small human services charity in a community, I would be concerned right now.”
Heisman described a dynamic whereby high net worth givers get cultivated by hospitals, universities, and research institutions and end up giving large sums in that direction. Meanwhile, small charities have a hard time accessing wealthy individuals, so there is a big division between the haves and the have-nots in how this plays out.
“This is going to be the first time people are trying these new regulations on,” said Heisman. “There’s been a big push on Capitol Hill to have a universal deduction, where people get to deduct every charitable gift regardless of where they stand for income. If I had my wish as a policy maker, that’s what I would be promoting.”