NATIONAL PHILANTHROPY DAY |Philanthropist of the Year
Digi Schueler may have been named Philanthropist of the Year for 2019, but the award could just as easily recognize a lifetime of achievement.
Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, she learned from her family the importance of giving back.
“I was influenced very early by my parents and grandparents, all of whom were involved in their communities and really set a good example for me,” she said.
Schueler has followed suit and gives both time and money to a long list of organizations here in Cincinnati, the community she has adopted as her own. Lazarus Department Stores relocated her from Houston in 1989 to fill a buyer position. Her husband had died three years before.
“I came by myself with no dog, no children and only knowing one person,” she said. “When I came here, I knew I needed to recreate myself.”
Lucky for Cincinnati, that’s exactly what she did. All these years later, she’s “a pivotal philanthropist in our community,” according to Vanessa Freytag, president/CEO of 4C for Children, one of the organizations that nominated Schueler for the award.
“Digi is the board member everybody wants,” as Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park Artistic Director and CEO Blake Robison put it. “The influence of someone like Digi is immeasurable.”
Schueler’s transition from a 23-year department store merchandising career to helping local nonprofits happened organically. She married Mike Schueler and got her real estate license to learn about his business. (He’s chairman and CEO of The Schueler Group.) She decided she was “on sabbatical” from merchandising.
“I got redirected and spent more time on the activities and outreaches I was doing anyway while I was working,” she said. “I had the time then to apply my experience from my career and direct it toward philanthropy.”
Applying her experience wasn’t much of a stretch. In merchandising, she would purchase a product she liked and thought she could sell. Then she would market it, encouraging people to buy it to reach a sales goal. Philanthropy follows a similar formula. “You support a cause you’re passionate about. You spread the word to others to support the effort. Then you ask them to give their time and treasure to reach your goal,” she said.
Schueler gives generously herself. She supports a range of causes, including the arts, she says, because doing so gives her perspective. But issues related to women and children are particularly close to her heart.
“A true servant leader, Digi’s talents and passion are a gift to those children and their families – and frankly a gift to our entire community.”Vanessa Freytag, president/CEO of 4C for Children
Female-focused nonprofit Dress for Success Cincinnati also nominated Scheuler. Even before executive director Lisa Nolan worked there, she knew of Scheuler “as a legend within the Junior League,” where Nolan is also a member.
(Schueler had volunteered with Junior League, which focuses on both women and voluntarism, in Houston. She has been involved with the Cincinnati chapter since she moved here.)
At Dress for Success, Schueler was also influential. “By being one of the early board members and her generous donations of time, talent and treasure, she really helped build the foundation of what Dress for Success is today,” said Nolan, describing Schueler as “gentle and approachable and likeable.”
Within the realm of women’s and children’s issues, Schueler is particularly passionate about early childhood learning.
“When children begin in kindergarten, if they haven’t had any quality early childhood learning opportunities, they fall behind and they stay behind,” she said. “That certainly impacts the entire community in a major way.”
4C works to address that issue.
“Through her work with 4C, Digi has chosen to focus on the future of children,” wrote 4C’s Freytag. “A true servant leader, her talents and passion are a gift to those children and their families – and frankly a gift to our entire community.”
Thinking over her years of philanthropy and volunteerism, Schueler is struck by one stand-out memory: Years ago, she and other Junior League members collected items they used to redecorate women’s rooms at a domestic violence shelter.
“The look of appreciation that came over these women’s faces was priceless,” she said. “It was … so heartwarming and inspiring to feel you could touch someone by doing something as simple as that.”
Today, her fundraising skills are in high demand, so she often is more removed from the people she helps. She takes a businesslike approach, working hard to ensure fundraising efforts pay off.
“In the long run, you’re helping to serve the people by raising money,” she said. “That’s powerful, too.”
Schueler currently serves on the boards of 4C, Playhouse in the Park, East End Adult Education Center, Every Child Succeeds and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She’s an emeritus member of the YWCA board. She also co-chairs Junior League of Cincinnati’s Centennial Campaign and serves on the cabinet of the Capital Campaign raising funds for Playhouse in the Park’s new theater.
With all that on her plate, she has to be selective about new commitments. She takes to heart her father’s advice – “Whatever you do, you must sweep in the corners” – jumping in fully and giving her best effort to whatever she does.
Schueler notes that although she volunteered during her career, she couldn’t devote the hours she does if she were still working and traveling as a buyer. “I feel blessed that I’m in a position to give my time in this way,” she said. “I have a husband who’s very supportive.”
She takes great pride in her family: Mike, her husband of 22 years; six stepchildren, and 12 grandchildren. “My family is not necessarily the traditional family, but I’m very blessed to have it,” she said.
Although her efforts undoubtedly have helped the organizations she’s involved with, Schueler also feels better off because of them.
“I’ve found that the involvement has enriched my life in many ways,” she said.
“I do not regret a moment of it. I have thoroughly enjoyed the people I’ve met along the way, the experiences I’ve had and the various causes I’ve been able to touch.”
The Association of Fundraising Professionals hosts National Philanthropy Day each November to promote philanthropy and recognize individuals, organizations and businesses inspiring change through their significant impact on nonprofit organizations.
Honorees will be celebrated Nov. 7, 11:30 a.m., in the Music Hall Ballroom. afpcincinnati.org
Organization honoree profiles:
• Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy: Cincinnati Youth Collaborative’s Jobs for Cincinnati Graduates
• Corporation/Foundation of the Year: The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation