This article originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In her spare time, Ardyth Neill, president of the Heifer Foundation, can be found weaving gifts
By JOE STUMPE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
Photo by John Sykes, Jr., Ark. Democrat-Gazette
- Ardyth Neill, Heifer Foundation President
When she’s not overseeing millions of dollars for the Heifer Foundation, Ardyth Neill can often be found weaving together thousands of strands of wool or cotton on an old-fashioned floor loom.
“It’s methodical,” Neill said of her hobby. “It’s calming. It’s centering.”
The same could be said of her work since May 2012 as president of the foundation, which helps Heifer International fight hunger and poverty around the globe.
Neill is responsible for just under $90 million in assets for the foundation, which was created by the Little Rock-based Heifer International in 1991 as a way to increase an endowment through planned charitable giving. Although technically separate, the two nonprofits work together and are housed in the same headquarters along the Arkansas River.
Admirers say Neill’s low-key, conscientious style fits the job perfectly.
“She’s a very down-to-earth and sincere person,” said Norm Doll, a Milwaukee businessman who’s chairman of the foundation board. “Consequently, longtime supporters of Heifer have really taken a liking to her.”
Neill’s goal is to more than triple the foundation’s endowment. It’s an ambitious challenge, and one in which Neill’s faith finds an outlet. Finds purpose.
“I think the thing that I appreciate about Ardyth is that she gets that her job is her ministry,” said the Rev. Ed Wills, her pastor at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock. “She doesn’t feel like she has to come to church to do her ministry. She does her ministry in the world.”
World is no exaggeration. Since its founding 70 years ago, Heifer International has worked in the United States and 125 other countries, helping more than 20 million families through the gift of animals, training and community development. The hallmark of Heifer is its “share the gift” program, in which aid recipients pass on animal offspring to others.
Neill, 53, didn’t really want the job of Heifer Foundation president. In fact, she turned it down the first time it was offered, agreeing to serve only on an interim basis.
“I loved being the financial officer,” she said. “I did not see my skills being a fundraiser. Truthfully, it’s worked out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Neill grew up in Springfield, Mo., spending a lot of time on the farm where her mother had been raised. “I’m a city girl, but I have farm roots. It helped shape who I am.”
Asked what she learned there, Neill said, “That there’s a lot of hard work that goes into life.”
By high school, Neill’s interests in math and art were well established. She was a Girl Scout and volunteer swimming instructor for the American Red Cross. She went to Drury University, a small liberal arts college in her hometown, partly because her father worried she’d get swallowed up at a bigger school.
“I was a shy, quiet kid, and Dad thought I’d get lost. He’s been wondering for years what happened to that girl. It did bring me out of my shell.”
To some extent, that is. Neill is quick to describe herself as an introvert, albeit one who enjoys people.
Neill, who majored in business administration, worked in accounting for the Dillon supermarket chain while still in college, then as a controller for the Red Cross, which had a regional blood and tissue bank in Springfield in addition to its regular services.
“When she worked for the Red Cross in Springfield, she was very passionate about that as well,” said her husband, Jerry Neill, who’s also from Missouri. “She chose that path very early on, rather than going the corporate route.”
The couple’s courtship was quick and dramatic. In January 1990, a few months after they started dating, Jerry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes. They got married in May of that year Neill underwent months of chemotherapy only to have the disease return in February of the next year. After a bone marrow transplant and high doses of radiation, it finally went into remission and has remained that way since.
Ardyth Neill, who’d been married before, had not planned on repeating the experience.
“The turning point for us was when he got sick. It just makes us look at life a little differently. It’s precious.”
Added Jerry Neill: “She was there for me when I needed somebody the most. It’s a kind of unique relationship for us that’s not typical of most couples.”
GIVING AIN’T SIMPLE
The two moved to Arkansas in 1994 when Jerry, a geologist, took a job with the state’s department of environmental quality.
Ardyth, after a year working for a chemical dependence facility, got a job as director of accounting for Heifer International. She spent four years in that role before becoming chief financial officer at the foundation in 2001.
Because of that background, Heifer International Chief Financial Officer Bob Bloom said, “She’s really able to understand both sides of the organization really well.”
Heifer International grew rapidly during the 1990s, but most of the money came in the form of donations for operations. The foundation was set up to increase long-term financial stability through an endowment, with a separate fundraising staff and its own offices. It’s designed to produce a portion of Heifer’s operating expenses while continuing to increase its own principal.
After the recession of 2007-08, the decision was made to save money by selling the foundation offices and shifting fundraising, payroll services and other functions to Heifer International. Neill, while serving as interim president, was put in charge of trimming the staff to its current size of five people. Some people were reassigned to jobs with Heifer International, and Neill tried to find others jobs elsewhere.
“We had great staff,” she said. “That was a really hard thing to do.”
Doll, the foundation president, called the savings “significant,” and Neill continues to do “quite a bit of development” – the nonprofit world’s term for fundraising – despite the shift. Foundation donors are often the same people who’ve donated to Heifer International throughout their lives.
“We develop a very personal relationship with these people, which I love,” Neill said.
The foundation’s job is a lot more complicated than just depositing checks. Gifts can come in the form of cash, stocks and bonds, real estate and other types of assets. Some people simply make a sizable monetary donation (gifts of less than $1,000 must be made to Heifer International), or name the foundation as a beneficiary in their will. Others set up a charitable trust annuity, transferring property to Heifer in exchange for a tax deduction and fixed income for life; execute a bargain sale, selling Heifer property at less than its market value in exchange for a tax deduction; establish a life estate, deeding their house or farm to Heifer in exchange for a tax deduction and the right to live out their life there; or choose one of numerous other ways to help Heifer and themselves as well.
“It’s a way to help them today, but also to help the charity they’ve supported in life,” she says.
THE GIVE NARRATIVE
And with state tax laws differing across the country, Doll noted, “It’s pretty complicated.”
Neill spends about a week per month out of the office visiting existing and potential donors. She will be at many of the “Beyond Hunger: Communities of Change” events that Heifer has planned around the country this year, the first of which was held in Little Rock on Saturday.
“I will be attending many of those just to thank those who have supported Heifer.”
Neill has also been to just about every area of the world where Heifer International is active today, among them Nepal, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central America. Projects in those areas include Heifer’s traditional gifts of cows in Malawi, dairy goats in Kosovo, and training in sustainable vegetable gardening in Honduras.
“You can’t talk to folks about planned giving without talking about the work,” she said.
Because women do the bulk of the agricultural work in developing nations, much of Heifer’s work is directly with them. Many are discriminated against within their own societies, and some of those are physically abused and denied sufficient food while men and children are fed.
“I think the women are amazing,” Neill said. “I’ve learned from them. They work so passionately for their children, they’re building schools, they’re building day care centers. In many of the cultures we work in, women don’t normally own property. When you give them an animal, it gives them the ability to know they’re helping themselves.”
Neill’s husband accompanied her to Albania and Kosovo, where they witnessed “Passing on the Gift” ceremonies, which Jerry Neill calls “a big deal” in impoverished rural communities.
“To see her interact with those people, and step out of being an introvert, it takes an effort to do that,” he said. “You kind of have to take a deep breath and go forward.”
Doll saw the impact of Nepal on Neill.
“I think for Ardyth it’s a real emotional deal. She runs into these women, and it’s just an emotional exchange about their lives and what they’ve been living, and it comes back and it spills into her life and into her work in positive ways.”
Bloom agreed. “She’s just soaking it in and thinking about how to relate what she’s seeing in the field to the donors,” he said. “She’ll come back and write a story for her website, then call big donors and relate those experiences. That makes those experiences really real.”
THE GET IN THE GIVE
Heifer International has recently launched a couple of new initiatives. One is what the organization calls “scaling up,” with the goal of getting animals and training to 3 million people a year. Another is the “Seeds of Change” program, which is designed to help farmers in the Arkansas Delta and Appalachia regions increase production and reach new markets.
The Foundation has its own goal: increase the endowment to $200 million by 2025. Today that number is $64 million. The rest of the foundation’s assets are held in trust for donors.
“That’s an awful lot to go from 64 [million] to there, ” Neill said. “But I do believe it’s doable just because of the supporters we have, and them knowing the income off of that would really help.”
The foundation is looking at ways to increase its “socially responsible” investing, which seeks to combine good returns with social good. Neill sits on the foundation’s investment committee, which chooses and reviews fund managers.
Neill said her various duties at the foundation dovetail nicely with her tendency to be “a little cheap” in her personal life.
“I have a tendency to look for the best deal and make sure we’re not overspending, and I carry that on to what we do here.”
Neill still gets back to the farm in Missouri where she spent time growing up. She weaves blankets and scarves on her floor loom, a skill she picked up in college. She’s a big reader. She and her husband love music and attend concerts frequently. Both Neills are active at St. Michael’s, where Ardyth has served as treasurer and sometimes pops in for morning prayers.
Reflecting on her years with nonprofits, Neill said her career choices probably proceeded in some manner from her grandmother and mother, who “were always out helping others.”
Today, she finds inspiration in the very people she’s helping.
“They always thank us and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I’m learning so much more from you,’ because we’re asking so much more from them. They have so little when they start, then we ask them to pass on the gift. When have we been asked to do that?”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: June 5, 1960, Springfield, Mo.
BEING A GIRL SCOUT, I LEARNED how to lead and how to follow, as well as when to do each. It’s all about being prepared.
FAVORITE MUSICAL ACT: I love music of all styles and enjoy going to concerts, so picking a favorite would be difficult. Concerts I’ve attended recently include Three Doors Down, Michael Buble, Maroon 5, Harry Connick Jr., The Eagles, and Kenny G.
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT COWS: I know how important cows can be to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers around the world and in the United States.
EVERY DAY, I find an inspirational way to start my day.
I DRIVE A Subaru Forester.
I COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT my husband, family and friends.
MY HUSBAND THINKS I am driven, passionate and compassionate.
FAVORITE PLACE I’VE VISITED: Nepal
GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Gandhi and John Wayne
TWO WORDS TO DESCRIBE ME: Servant-leader