Dan Whalen’s impressive vitae reveals his diverse interests as well as a knack for bridging the traditional and the entrepreneurial. Dan followed graduation from Saint John’s University of Minnesota with work on a factory assembly line and stints as a policy analyst and political campaign manager. His fellow GSB classmates of course know that Dan received his Master of Business Administration degree at Stanford, but few realize that in 1980 he also earned a Master of Arts degree in Food Research. His post-Stanford career focused on telecommunications. Over the course of thirty plus years, Dan oversaw significant cellular operations for AT&T and Cellular One, served on the Board of Tetra Tech, and co-founded five telecommunications start-ups.
A number of non-profit enterprises have benefitted from Dan’s talents and generosity. He’s always been closely involved with Saint John’s, but he’s also found time for a number of charities, including several in Minnesota, where he grew up, and in Oakland, California, where he currently resides.
Here, Dan discusses his overall philosophy for investing in non-profits through the Whalen Family Foundation, and his unusual and intense involvement with youth in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Are your investments in charitable organizations guided by an area of focus or a particular set of principles?
Early on Katharine and I decided to thank the organizations that, through their people, had lent us a hand as we grew up. That was our first focus. So our high schools, universities, and a summer camp were among the first to receive grants, usually in honor of specific teachers and professors. In some cases there were multiple grants over a period of years. We also made grants in honor of our mothers to causes that we knew were consistent with their respective interests.
After addressing the organizations and people who helped us, we adjusted our focus to youth development, particularly low-income youth, and reducing poverty across generations. These two focuses led us to look overseas as well as here in the United States. Domestically we addressed needs where we live now in Oakland, California, plus where we each grew up, Jacksonville, Florida for Katharine and Minnesota and North Dakota for me. Overseas we addressed needs in Tanzania, Uganda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and England.
First Guiding Principle: Do more for fewer (or depth over breadth)
We aim to do enough to make a significant and lasting difference. Our way of trying to make a difference is doing more for fewer people rather than less for more people. Said another way, we tend to choose depth over breadth. For example, when we support students through university we do for them what we have done for our children. That means rather than partial financial support for each of many students we arrange for one hundred percent scholarship support for fewer students. Each student gets to study abroad for a semester. Each gets two free trips home per year. Each student gets a small monthly stipend to supplement work-study earnings. Each student graduates debt free.
Second Guiding Principle: I am part of the deal
Typically I become rather deeply engaged in the work of any project or organization that we support in a significant way. Our work in Bosnia and Herzegovina is an example. In that case, I spent roughly from ten to thirty five percent of my time actively engaged over the course of fourteen years.
How did you become involved in Bosnia and Herzegovina? What was your work there?
I got involved in Bosnia and Herzegovina through serendipity. The story begins in the summer of 1997. I had just sold our business, was feeling flush, and probably a bit guilty about being so fortunate. Also, I had already developed a habit of giving. I mean that in something like the way that an alcoholic has a habit of drinking. Along came an “enabler” in the form of a long time friend. He introduced me to the president of an international non-governmental organization (NGO) hoping that I would make a gift. I didn’t then. Two years later I did.
The NGO at the time of my introduction was working with Greek and Turkish Cypriot teenagers at a summer camp in Pennsylvania. You might recall that Cyprus was for many years divided into a Greek zone and a Turkish zone.
During the course of that first meeting, I mentioned that I was on the board of a summer camp along the Minnesota and Ontario border. In selling mode, I said that “my” summer camp would be a great place for the NGO to bring international teenagers the next time there was such a program.
Fast-forward a year to 1998. The NGO president invited me to Bosnia a few months after the Dayton Agreement was signed ending armed conflict in ex-Yugoslavia. It was quite clear that my family did not want me to go. So I did not go.
Another year passed and in 1999 I again was asked to visit Bosnia. This time I went.
I knew that I would be asked to support a program of some sort involving Bosnian young people attending a summer camp in the United States.
When I arrived in bombed-out Sarajevo, my American host asked me what I wanted to see and do while in Bosnia. I told him that there were three stages I would likely go through while in Bosnia. I was in stage one then. That meant that I could not answer his question. I didn’t know enough to ask a question, much less have an answer to his question; we should just see and do whatever he chose. The second stage would manifest itself when I asked questions like “How does that work?” or “Have you ever tried this?” or “What might happen if you tried that?” By the time I entered the third stage, I knew what I wanted to do, meaning the program that I would support. Four days after arriving in Bosnia I was at stage three and the program that I wanted to support was not the same as the one the NGO had in mind.
I was engaged in the program we subsequently implemented in Bosnia for fourteen years starting in 1999. For the first four years, I spent one week per month there. In later years I was there perhaps four to six times per year for two to five days per trip. The program ended in December 2012.
The Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy was our administrative partner in the first year of our program in Bosnia. The mission of the Institute, based in Washington, DC, is to promote a systems-based approach to peace building and to facilitate the transformation of deeply rooted social conflict. In turn, the Institute collaborated with a then newly created Bosnian youth organization, Nesto Vise, which means “something more”.
From the second year onward we partnered directly with Nesto Vise. Our program and Nesto Vise were closely intertwined. In fact, our program was virtually the only project of Nesto Vise for fourteen years. After our Bosnian program wound down we nurtured and supported Nesto Vise for two years as they successfully transitioned to independence from our support.
The Program and Participant Selection
The program in Bosnia and Herzegovina was called PeaceTrails and billed as a Leadership Adventure Program. Our engagement went through three stages over fourteen years.
The participants were aged eighteen to twenty-four years, one half were female, the other half male. At least thirty percent of participants were from each of the three main ethnic groups, Croat (Catholic), Serb (Orthodox Christian), and Bosniak (Muslim). Also only forty percent were from the country’s three major cities, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Mostar.
Selection into the program was competitive. In the first year, seventy-five people applied for thirty-six slots. In subsequent years, two to three hundred applied for fifty slots. Selections were made following interviews. In the first year, each applicant was interviewed one at a time for fifteen minutes by the same group of four program staff. The results were adequate but otherwise unremarkable.
In the following three years, the interview process shifted dramatically with much better results. In those years, six to eight applicants met simultaneously with three staff. At these gatherings each applicant was asked to take three objects out of a real or imaginary box and describe what the object meant to them. Of course, they had been alerted well before the meeting to bring three objects. Only one object could be a family photo. A staff member began by talking about an object that she brought thereby setting an initial level of intimacy. After three rounds of describing objects a fairly deep level of trust and consequent revelation emerged. For most applicants, our interview was the first time in their lives that anyone ever asked them what had meaning and significance for them.
Our selectors came to know the applicants better. That led to better selections. It also made it far easier to match a participant’s passion with a community need, which was a major program goal.
Stage One: Individual Projects
Stage one, which lasted four years, was marked by a series of four one-year long programs. Each year, each participant led an individual community service project in his or her hometown. We provided coaching to guide participants. In the first year, three dozen were enrolled while roughly four dozen participated in each of the following three years.
In the first stage, each year-long program began with a three week trip to the United States. While over here, the participants stayed for two weeks at a Minnesota summer camp (Laketrails) located at the border of the United States and Canada. The participants went on five-day canoe trips into Ontario, walked on hot burning coals, sang and danced to the accompaniment of a Zulu drumming master, and developed individual project proposals.
The third week in the United States was focused on tourism in either Chicago, Minneapolis, or Washington, DC. A modest stipend for shopping at Target was always a highlight.
Upon return to Bosnia and Herzegovina the participants were each assigned a personal coach and finished their project proposals. The proposals were then vetted by our staff and either approved for funding or sent back for revision before approval.
Work on projects began immediately upon project approval and related funding. Some examples of projects included creation of a day care center for preschool children, training for women to run for elective office, creation of an agency to place teenagers in part-time jobs, and visitation services for home-bound elderly.
Participants were paid above market wages for half time work. Each one also met once a week with their assigned coach to guide participants in successfully completing their projects.
A little historical background is called for to set context. After the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two territories along ethnic lines, with the Serbs in one, and the Croats and Bosniaks in the other, a bit like the former East and West Germany.
Once a month all participants met together for two days and one night. They visited a different city each month alternating between the two territories. Because of forced migration, or ethnic cleansing, at least a third of the participants were in “enemy territory” for our monthly gatherings.
Success was the focus of the monthly gatherings; each participant publicly declared the successes in his or her project. Failures were discussed privately with the participant’s coach. Trainings of various types also took place at the monthly gatherings.
In the evening the participants did what 18 to 24 year olds do on a Saturday night; they drank, danced, and talked together deep into the night. Sometimes romances bloomed. In other words, they began to know each other as individuals and not just as representatives of a particular ethnic group.
In addition to individual projects, the participants were required to work together on group projects for fifteen days over the course of the year. A typical group project lasted for one or two three-day weekends and involved manual labor. An example was renovation of a school to house displaced elderly persons.
Over the course of the project year, I visited each participant in his or her town at least twice for a little prideful “show and tell” about the participant’s project.
A celebration marked the end of the program year. It was held in Sarajevo, the nation’s capital. A graduation-style ceremony was held either in the National Theater or the finest hotel. Each graduate walked on stage to receive a certificate. Group and individual photos were taken. television and newspapers reported the event. Family members of every participant were invited from throughout the country, all expenses paid. A banquet meal was served with music and dancing closing the event.
Stage Two: Group Project
Stage two, the group project stage, began shortly after the fourth one-year program ended. Twenty men and women who had completed the one-year program were offered full-time jobs for two years. Their collective mission was to engage in work that would make a significant and lasting difference in their country and could be completed in two years. After several weeks of thoughtful discernment the group decided to work with agricultural cooperatives to improve their purchasing and marketing practices.
The twenty-person group self-organized into ten two-person teams. Nine of the teams selected and worked with one co-op per team. The tenth two-person team provided research, training, and advisory support to the other nine teams.
Despite having only one of the twenty participants with any farming experience, the teams proved to be very helpful to the co-ops that they adopted. In fact, the program worked so well that it was extended for a third year. Also, members of these teams were sought out by government entities and NGOs as experts in food production and marketing.
Stage Three: Launch Into Real Life
The third stage, launch into real life, began at the same time as stage two for every participant except those working on the group project. Stage three programs included scholarship support (undergraduate, professional, and graduate levels), housing support, job placement support, and loans to start businesses.
In stage three, every participant who had not graduated from college was offered a full scholarship plus a living allowance. The recipients of these grants were required to perform a minimum of ten hours per week of verified community service. They also performed fifteen days of community service per year as a group. In addition, they were required to finish their coursework on pace to graduate in the minimum standard time, which was either four or five years depending on the academic discipline.
In total, all ninety-nine participants who had not previously finished university took advantage of the program and graduated with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree.
Fifty of those students completed their coursework in the United States. Students also studied in Austria, Japan, China, France, Greece, Italy, Chile, Australia, South Africa, and England. Those who did not finish their bachelor level degree in the United States did so within ex-Yugoslavia, either Croatia, or Serbia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Members of the stage two group project teams also received scholarship support once they finished their three-year long work with co-ops.
Besides supporting completion of undergraduate degrees, our program also encouraged participants to pursue graduate and professional degrees. In those instances, the scholarship support, including stipends for living costs, was set at fifty percent of need rather than one hundred percent, as was the case at the undergraduate level. Participants earned Masters degrees in a variety of disciplines, a couple of PhDs, plus several law degrees and MD degrees. All in all, about thirty participants went on to earn graduate and professional degrees.
Getting housing to live independently of one’s parents was a special challenge. That challenge was addressed by providing each participant with a housing grant equal to a down payment towards a mortgage. The participants had a set period of years to take advantage of the grant. Every one did.
Getting a job after finishing school was also a special challenge. Our program addressed that in three ways. First, we required every student to have an internship with an employer the summer before graduation. Our program matched our students with employers and sometimes subsidized the employers. Second, we created an employment agency to help place our participants with full-time jobs.
Third, our program reimbursed employers for the first six months of employer-paid employment taxes. In one part of the divided country the rate approached fifty percent of employee pay while in the other it approached eighty percent.
Six participants were given business development loans for enterprises like real estate development, commercial printing, restaurant ownership, retail electronics, and a health club. Results to date are mixed. Three enterprises are prospering, two are still in business but not prospering, and one has failed.
How have you assessed the effectiveness of this project?
I have two answers to the question of effectiveness. The first is that of a retired United States Ambassador. He claims that our program in Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most successful international development program in his forty years of experience in the field.
The second answer is more personal and involves a story. In December 2008, in the depth of the last great recession, I flew to Sarajevo to participate in an annual recognition ceremony to honor our program participants who graduated from an academic or professional program.
While in transit from the U.S., I found myself thinking about how much our family’s net worth had plummeted within a few months. In our household it is my job to manage our investments. After all, I went to a pretty darn good business school and had taken investment courses from some of the best professors on the planet. I did all the standard “right things” and yet our portfolio value headed south. So I was feeling like a failure.
After the formal part of the recognition ceremony and after the dinner that followed, music and dancing began. While I watched the hundred or more participants mingling, talking, and dancing I realized that because of our program, their lives, and their families’ lives for generations to come, were better off in ways that I could not fully imagine. There and then I realized that I had never made a better investment than in their lives. The positive return on that investment was incalculable.