A career of turning on the lights in donor’s hearts and minds

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT IN FUNDRAISING:  John Olberding

Researchers have identified more than 60 reasons people donate to nonprofit organizations. Those reasons include “mortality, legacy, guilt, true altruism or an emotional reaction to something,” according to John Olberding, a principal at Chanticleer Consulting and this year’s recipient of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

 John Olberding by Tina Gutierrez for Movers and Makers 2022
John Olberding by Tina Gutierrez for Movers and Makers 2022

For Olberding, whose career in nonprofit development has spanned four decades, the reasons for giving were intuitive, imbibed simply by growing up in a home devoted to the greater good. At age 15, Olberding was already assisting his father, the first development director at St. Xavier High School, by organizing index cards for the parents’ fund drive. 

“He was new in the fundraising profession at the time, 1969, so I saw what it was like firsthand,” Olberding recalled. “He loved interacting with people, inspiring them, helping them give. When I had the opportunity to move into that profession, after going into sports early in my career, I had a mentor, a model and a cheerleader in my dad.”

The Olberding family’s connection to philanthropy extends far beyond the father-son bond. Meg Olberding, one of John’s younger sisters, was a long-term spokesperson for the City of Cincinnati, a publications director for the Cincinnati Museum Center and executive director of JDRF. David Olberding, an uncle, as an early and longtime president, helped make the Dater Foundation a major force. Don Olberding, another uncle, and Don’s wife, Irma, founded the Reggae Run as a positive response to the loss of their 26-year-old daughter, Maria, who was stabbed to death while jogging. For 20 years, John Olberding ran check-in for the run, which became the second largest run in Cincinnati before being incorporated into the Flying Pig’s half-mile event.

Olberding, who caddied at Cincinnati Country Club throughout high school and college, experienced the fruits of charitable giving as an Evans Scholar at Miami University. The Evans Scholars Foundation, which covered his tuition and housing, was one of the first charities he donated to as a young adult. 

Caddying also shaped Olberding’s understanding of people who have the means to give. 

“It was an interesting way for someone who didn’t come from a lot of money to get comfortable with people who did and to understand they’re good people – not ‘the others’ – and they have the same qualities, good and bad, as anybody else,” Olberding said. “Years later, I ended up working on charitable campaigns with many of the people I had caddied for.” 

“Philanthropists are born in the sense that the inclination to give and the reward that we get from it is pretty universal. That said, I think philanthropy itself – giving – is something that requires help.”

– John Olberding

Olberding believes the desire to give is innate. “Philanthropists are born in the sense that the inclination to give and the reward that we get from it is pretty universal. That said, I think philanthropy itself – giving – is something that requires help. People don’t know how to do it as well as they could. They don’t know what’s needed. They don’t know what their role is in the universe. When I think of the great families I had the privilege of working with, they all needed help, whether they were a Herschede, a Rosenthal, a Corbett, a Lindner, a Durr, a Fath or a Budig. Many of the great families who have given so much had to learn how to do it by teaching themselves or getting help along the way.”

Not everyone who can give actually does. Olberding estimates that a quarter of wealthy older adults give generously. What holds the others back? 

“Fear is the visceral answer,” Olberding said. “Older folks who have gone through ups and downs may have a reluctance to face their mortality and what they want done with their assets after they die.” 

Others might shy away from the commitment that comes with making a major gift. “We fundraisers can be pesty,” Olberding added, with a laugh.

It is one of the ironies of philanthropy (and perhaps human nature) that, according to statistics, the wealthier a person is, the smaller their giving is as a percentage of their wealth.

“I’ve never personally seen a sacrificial gift – which I define as lifestyle-changing – made by a rich person,” Olberding said. “The greatest philanthropists I’ve known have not been the wealthiest people. 

“African Americans give a higher percentage of their income than other people. It’s a degree of sacrifice when you can say, ‘I’m willing to put the common good above my fears of having my life taken care of, my children’s lives taken care of, my grandchildren’s lives. I saw a lady in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, whose appliances were stored on her porch, who gave $100,000, her life’s income. I saw a janitor at seminary who cared enough that he had saved to give a six-figure gift. Those are the philanthropists – the millionaire next door, or the not-even-a-millionaire – who are significant to organizations.”

Then again, nothing is more satisfying for Olberding than when “the light goes on” in a donor’s heart and the financial floodgates open. 

Olberding views the late Marge Schott as one of those individuals. Schott gave donations over the years, but her first million-dollar gift, which Olberding took part in seeking, came near the end of her life. 

“And once she started giving in a major way, she couldn’t stop,” Olberding said. “After a lifetime of being fearful and all that comes with it, Marge Schott began to give especially generously later in life. And I think she started changing for the better as a person.”

To those considering taking the first steps toward a philanthropic future, Olberding advises approaching the move as you would any other investment. He mentions Otto Budig as an example of someone who educated himself about the arts organizations he wanted to support by engaging with them and serving on their boards. 

“He has become a generational force,” Olberding said. “He’s someone who followed his instincts very well – for the benefit of the arts and for himself. He’s one of the happiest people I know of.”

Olberding’s own personal legacy likely will be in the world of fundraising. Although he isn’t sure how that legacy will look, he knows that the fundraising profession needs help.

“The major challenge facing philanthropy has been for many years, and continues to be, turnover,” he said. “The average life-expectancy in a fundraising job is only 20 months. The result is that in a relationship-based world, those relationships don’t have time to take root and grow.”

His legacy, he added, will be “a considerate philanthropy.” His big-money philanthropy – the gift of commitment and rare talent over a period of four decades – is still accruing.

Although Olberding is reluctant to take personal credit for gifts made to organizations that he has worked with – some of those gifts could have happened without him – we do know this: The hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and bequests that he has helped to inspire and coax across the finish line will be paying dividends in perpetuity.

National Philanthropy Day 2022

National Philanthropy Day is set aside by the Association of Fundraising Professionals to recognize individuals, organizations and businesses inspiring change through nonprofit organizations. AFP Greater Cincinnati Chapter helps members and nonprofits practice ethical and effective fundraising to improve our community. 

Area nonprofits can nominate exceptional donors, volunteers and friends. Honorees are selected by a diverse committee of AFP stakeholders. Read more about this year’s honorees:

National Philanthropy Day Luncheon:

Nov. 17, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Music Hall Ballroom


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