Alumnus Meets Challenges of Running a One Billion Dollar Foundation

David Egner  ’84 of Detroit, MI, deftly exposes his Westminster College education by using a Churchill quote to describe his work with the $1.3 billion Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. “It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he says. 

Egner was appointed head of the Foundation in 2016 not long after Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, died in 2014. The Wilson Family Trust sold the Bills six months after his death and turned most of the profit over to the Foundation. But there is a catch. Wilson established that the money be carefully managed and spent on improving the quality of life of various targeted groups within exactly 20 years. Unique in scope, the spend-down foundation is the only one ever created that is more than $1 billion and covers a geographic area of only 16 counties. “Meeting the deadline is an enormous challenge that has our team starting each day exhilarated and terrified,” Egner explains. “It’s like running down a steep hill as fast as you can on gravel.”

We recently caught up with Egner and asked him about figurative downhill racing and his life since graduating from Westminster.

What was your major at Westminster? I majored in Business Administration and Speech.

Where are you from originally? I grew up in Cahokia, IL.

Have you received any other degrees from other institutions? I received an MBA from Western Michigan University in 1993.

Can you describe your career and how you became involved in nonprofit work? I fell into it. Shortly after graduating from Westminster, I joined the staff of Junior Achievement, first serving as Executive Director of JA of Springfield and Sangamon Valley and then on the national staff as a Director of Operations. I was recruited by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 1989 to serve as the Executive Assistant to the Chair and CEO. I became the founding CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association in 1993. I then served as CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation, a $175 million Detroit-based foundation, from 1997-2015.

Which of your achievements are you most proud of? I have two professional achievements that I am most proud of. One is staffing and building the systems and strategies at the Foundation. The other achievement of which I am most proud is leading, from 2009 to 2015, the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a $135 million philanthropic economic development effort in Southeast Michigan. During my time with NEI, the initiative generated economic impact in excess of $2.9 billion.

What honors or awards have you received throughout your career? DBusiness magazine recently included me as one of the “500 Most Powerful Executives in Southeast Michigan.” I was named one of Crain’s Detroit Business “Newsmakers of the Year” in 2010 for my work with NEI and Hudson-Webber, and I have served on numerous boards and councils. I was appointed by former Governor Granholm to the Michigan Arts Council and have served both Governor Granholm and Governor Snyder as Chair of the Michigan Office of Foundation Liaison – the nation’s first such office.

Can you tell us about your family? I married Tammy Heard in 1986, and we have four children: Alexandria, 28, Daniel, 26, Morgan, 23, and Madeline, 23. We are also blessed with four grandchildren: Landon, 7, Lorelei, 3, Skylar, 3, and Luke, 2, with a fifth on the way in October.

 What do you remember about your days at Westminster? I served as president of Delta Tau Delta in 1982, and I served as a resident advisor my senior year. I played basketball my freshman and sophomore years, and I served a year in student government and was named to the 1984 Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.

Would you recommend Westminster to prospective college students? I was the first kid in my family to graduate from high school, so the notion of college was foreign to my family. The small-school, liberal arts education at Westminster was the key to my graduation. I was not prepared for college and would have been lost at a larger university. Westminster’s size, which made possible intimate relationships with faculty, along with a team-spirited student environment – thanks, Louis Riggs for typing and correcting all of my hand-written papers – is the only reason I have an undergraduate degree. Finally, the leadership roles that I experienced at Westminster prepared me for the work I do today in community. I would not have had those opportunities at a larger college or university.

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