Time, talent and treasure. And pheasants.
By volunteering, graduates can help others while they help themselves, says Pheasants Forever CEO and UND alum Marilyn Vetter at Women for Philanthropy luncheon
On April 25, more than 150 guests filled the Gorecki Alumni Center’s Gransberg Community Room to listen to UND alumna Marilyn (Koble) Vetter, ’88, as part of the Women for Philanthropy luncheon, a premier networking opportunity for female leaders and philanthropists.
Vetter, who grew up outside the small town of Anamoose, N.D., and attended school in nearby Harvey, recently was named president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever — the nation’s leading upland habitat conservation organization. She is the first female to hold the position. She’s also the president and owner of Inspired Strategic Solutions, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses craft comprehensive strategic approaches that drive progress and create measurable results.
The annual event about women’s perspectives on charitable giving is hosted by the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, and its CEO DeAnna Carlson Zink welcomed Vetter to the stage for a candid conversation. A partial transcript of their conversation follows; it has been abridged and edited for clarity.
DeAnna Carlson Zink: So Marilyn, first of all, congratulations on your recent appointment as CEO of Pheasants Forever. That’s phenomenal. Can you share with us some of the highlights from your career that led you to this position? What did that journey look like for you?
Marilyn Vetter: If somebody had asked me 35 years ago if I could see myself involved in this organization, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. So, I think that’s one important message for the students in the room: Have a vision, but always keep your eyes open because you don’t know what will change in your life.
I started my career as a journalist after leaving UND, and it was just a wonderful training ground for everything I did in life. In fact, when you talk to people and ask them what’s wrong in organizations, they’ll often say it’s communication. And so no matter what skills I deploy on a daily basis, I learned that communication is at the root of everything.
One of the things people don’t realize about NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), particularly when you think about Pheasants Forever — and now we’re nearly 500 employees — it’s a very complex space. You’re working with agencies, partners, volunteers and staff. And so communication really was a great training ground.
But along with my career, I’ve been a volunteer my whole life. My parents really instilled that in all of us. And if you know any of my siblings, you know that they’re all very active volunteers. And so throughout life, I’ve just been able to marry my professional world with learning through my volunteer space. I was on the Pheasants Forever board about seven and a half years ago, and I really got to know the organization. I’d been a member for almost 30 years, but I didn’t get to know the staff really well until I joined the board. And then when Howard Vincent announced his retirement about a year ago, it seemed like a really great way for me to marry my professional and personal lives.
Q. Thirty years; so this was not a snap decision on your part. You had gotten to know what was going on, and you had a really good history. But one of the unique things when you stepped into this role was you were only the third CEO of the organization and the first woman CEO. What opportunities or challenges did that present?
A. So it’s interesting. Susan Felege, who’s on our Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever boards — and a member of your faculty — we’ve talked about whether the organization was ready for that. Honestly, that was one of my concerns in the beginning. But I’m so thrilled that with every member I’ve met, this has not been a challenge. It absolutely has been seen as an opportunity.
I’d only been in the role a few weeks when we had our big annual meeting in Minneapolis, and I can’t tell you how many elderly gentlemen came up to me and thanked me for taking a leadership role so that their daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters could see themselves in these spaces some day. It was so affirming that it was the right choice.
There aren’t a lot of women leading NGOs in the conservation space. I think what’s exciting is there’s such an amazing pipeline of women coming up through the conservation space now. It’s really exciting to see that transformation happening in the industry.
Q. That just makes my heart very happy. The trail that you’re blazing is amazing. You also were a first-generation college student. Can you tell us about that journey and what made you decide to come to UND?
A. I was talking to someone on your staff earlier today, and she asked about where my mother grew up. We were talking about the fact that our grandmothers probably knew each other and about how I recently found my mother’s eighth-grade diploma when I was going through some of her things.
That diploma gave her the opportunity to go to a high school — she never did get to go — but it was such a different time then. We’ve come so far since the ’30s.
My parents never had that opportunity, so they really wanted all of us to do that if we wanted that opportunity. And of the seven, four of us at some point had some higher education. Three of us came to UND. An older brother and older sister came here, and when I knew I was going to go to college in North Dakota, it just never was a question of where.
The University gave me a leadership scholarship, and I’ll never forget reading that letter — I still have it. It was such an amazing feeling, and it was such a relief for me. We were not a wealthy family, and that college opportunity opened doors for me.
Q. Yes, those scholarships are critical. Even today, they very much still are. You talk about not having any wealth in your family and that both of your parents had an eighth-grade education and were raising this large family … as you think back, what was philanthropy like in your household? What was your first memory of having a heartfelt ‘giving’ conversation while growing up?
A. So, we went to church every Sunday, and no matter how little money there was in the house, when they passed the basket around, we always tithed. My parents would ask us to do the same to some degree. If you got $10 in birthday money from all of your aunts and uncles and godparents, you knew you should at least give $1 here or there. They certainly always set that example. They didn’t have a lot of treasure, but they knew they had time and talent, so they gave that freely.
They volunteered with their church. And every time a neighbor, cousin, aunt or uncle needed some help, they were there. When new farmers moved into the area, my dad was always the first one to go over to help if they needed to leave for some reason. I’ll never forget when my mom said, ‘Well, we’re going to milk the Franklins’ goats this week.’ That sure was an experience, but (we had to do it because) they had to be out of town that week.
That was how our parents instilled in us that sense of community and that connection. We’re all tethered by the experiences we have. When it comes to time, talent and treasure, we all have more of one than another at different points in our lives.
That’s where we create not just rewarding experiences but also the relationships. The closest relationships I have in my life have come from those volunteering opportunities.
Q. How do you start those conversations about giving, whether it’s with colleagues at work or your friends? How can we start that philanthropy conversation and also say it’s more than just the money?
A. So, I think you have to find what people are passionate about. If it is the alma mater, it fits. Maybe it’s the American Cancer Society because you have a family member it helped along the way. When you can get people talking about what gets them excited, then you can start having conversations about how you engage in a way where you feel like you’re now giving back and are more a part of it and more connected.
So when I think about the times that we were involved with Pheasants Forever, it was not just because we really believed in the organization. My husband and I are what I call DIY hunters. We don’t own land of our own, so we’re big proponents of public lands and the North American way to hunt the landscape. We are absolutely blessed. And that is done only with continued investment.
So for us, we not only have a passion for it, I have a responsibility. So when you can find that connection in people, you ask, what is it that means the most to you?
For me over the years, it’s been professional associations and dog-related organizations, because my husband and I are involved in that space. If it’s with student associations, it was, how do you get people to really dive into their passion? And you just bring them along.
You have to ask people to do it the first time, and a lot of people are uncomfortable. But once they do it, they’re absolutely entranced by it. Right? It changes your life.
Q. Yes, they are. Thank you for that. See, you never know where this is going to go back to passion and responsibility.
Let’s take that to the corporate level. You’re a big company. How do you infuse philanthropy or that feeling of passionate responsibility for your team?
A. It’s fascinating: Most of our team is really charged with volunteering throughout their work year. We have 750 chapters that all are supported by our staff. So if there are 500 events or banquets a year, they’re dependent upon us to be there. And almost all of them are involved in numerous chapters across the country.
In fact, I get a lot of emails from them saying, ‘Oh, we had a gangbuster banquet and raised $30,000 or $50,000.’ They get energy from those volunteer opportunities, and it helps inspire them.
Q. In the nonprofit world, we talk about the trillions and trillions of wealth transfer that’s going to take place over the next 30 years, especially in our tri-state region. In my opening comments, I talked about having some of those earlier legacy conversations, and for me, it often was the men sitting at the table — not the wife or daughter.
How do you bring the family, or that new perspective, to the table? It probably isn’t anymore, but I think of it as a very male-dominated organization.
A. Well, certainly from our membership perspective, I think that’s changed a lot. We know that if we’re going to have a heritage of conservation and hunting going forward, we have to have the entire family involved.
I see a lot more women in this space. And when that happens, then the whole family comes. That has changed it.
I think when we sit down with families now, we make sure their children are there, too. Because to be honest, if land is going to be left behind, it’s important that the children are embracing that as well, because that means they’re giving up something. And that’s important.
Q. What are some of the key initiatives or other projects that you’re currently excited and passionate about leading as CEO for these organizations?
A. This certainly may not be novel in our space, but that is an effort to broaden that base of people who see themselves in our world. Whether it’s youth, women, children or maybe other ethnicities that have not experienced the North American conservation space, we really want to make them feel like they’re a welcome part of that. The organization really has taken hold in that.
You know, our employees are quite young. Our average age for our members is 60, but the average age of our employee is 34. So when you think about a lot of very young biologists who are coming out of academia, they want to be connected to people who — yes, are landowners — but they also want to be connected with people like themselves.
I was really thrilled when you talked about the power of ‘we.’ For me, connection is really important, whether it’s connection to each other, connection to mission, but quite honestly, connection to community.
And so we did a couple of these little pilot projects, and Aberdeen, S.D., is one of them. Patagonia-Sonoita, Ariz., is another where we went into a community and said, ‘Let’s sit down with business owners and landowners and hunters and enthusiasts, and talk about how transformational this is in your communities.’
So, for example, Aberdeen completely embraced this and said, ‘We know how important this is to our economy.’ So they have found ways to work with landowners and incentivize them so that they’re engaged. And so you see this entire community engaged in conservation. And it’s blossomed for the community.
Of course, Main Street is helped by all of the people who come through in the fall and at least four months in the year. But then in the offseason, the community’s involved in workdays and sitting down with landowners and asking what do you still need, what’s not working with this?
So we’re really excited about being able to find a handful more of these communities this year to really partner with them. It’s really fun to see that community come together.
Of course, it’s hard to do this all over, but what we’re trying to do is find those pockets across the country where you talk about economic development and how that transects with communities and the people who live there and the conservation space.
Q. So do you have any specific youth programs where you’re trying to get young people involved earlier? Can you talk about that … has that helped bring down that average membership age of 60, or how are you sustaining that membership?
A. Yeah, we’re definitely trying to do that. You try to hit people throughout life, so there are children who are involved in the organization.
We have a lot of youth events such as youth hunting events. There’s also a lot of youth pollinator events to try to teach children how they can have an impact with community gardens. It’s a great way for kids to get involved. Grandparents are really great about trying to get their grandchildren involved, too.
We know that’s a place we really have to lean in hard the next few years so we’ll have an enthusiastic audience prepared to be able to step into the shoes of those folks who want to retire.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring leaders who are looking to make a meaningful difference or maybe a change in their careers and in their communities through philanthropy or leadership?
A. Never miss an opportunity to network, because you never know if that next person you meet could be your next best friend. They could be your inspiration. That was something taught to me really early on.
You often find with organizations of philanthropy, people say when they volunteer, they get this lifelong network. So, I would say, first and foremost, never pass up an opportunity to network.
Also, be open-minded about your career — yes, have an idea of what you want to do; but stay open-minded.
When I look back, I was an undecided student, all the way into my fourth semester. I was insatiably curious, and I had to tell myself it was OK to be curious until I found what my sweet spot was.
So, I would tell people to continue to do that. And once you find that sweet spot, it doesn’t mean you don’t look left or right — peripheral vision is where you really see some gems. I never would have thought this is where my professional and volunteering world was going to take me and, in fact, it took a little nudging from people because I had this certain vision in my mind of what a CEO should be.
That’s the other thing, I think, is finding mentors you can really connect to — and be very clear with them that that’s what you want is a mentor, and then what does that mean for you. It’s really important that you’re driving that conversation and that relationship.
Then when you come together for coffee once a month, come with a list of things you want to talk about, what you need guidance on. You really need to lean into that and try to find people who inspire you because mentors can make all the difference really, because now you get to tap into their network. And they’re the ones who are talking about you when you can’t be in the room.
And that’s when a lot of times, magic is made — when you’re not even there.
Q. Right. So those are great pieces of advice. Now let’s flip it and say, ‘OK, how do we, as individuals, become advocates for those individuals? And I mean, I know STEM has been important in your life, too, and of course, the conservation side, but how do we become better advocates for the females around us?
A. So first of all, you have to accept the hard work, and you have to be willing to do it. If you’re going to be someone’s mentor or someone’s sponsor, don’t take it lightly. It’s super important. You can change their life.
Then the next thing is, don’t assume you know what they need. I think that’s the hardest part I’ve struggled with over the years. I’m like, ‘I just know and … oh, sit on your hands.’
No, you need to ask the questions because you don’t know necessarily what inspires the person you’re mentoring. And assuming can be so damaging, because all of a sudden, when you’ve said you should do this, if you have someone who’s not willing to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ then you will have pushed them in a direction they may not want to be.
So be inquisitive, and really help people find their own sweet spot. But don’t find it for them.
After that, you should open your networks to be there when they can’t be there. Even years later, you can say to your mentee, ‘I thought of you when I met this person, because they’re so passionate about this, and I’ve heard you talk about it.’
Connections take time, but it’s just like relationships. They should take time. But they give back tenfold, and you’ll never regret it.
Q. What is the legacy you would like to leave when you’re finished being CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever? What’s the professional legacy you want to leave? And how about your personal legacy?
A. Well, when you’re following a CEO who was there for 23 years, it’s hard to think of what legacy I could leave, because he’s a legend!
I think if anything, it’s that community-based connection to conservation and that people accept that they individually have a role in that and it’s not someone else’s job. Because if we don’t all accept that role — whether we’re birders or hikers or mountaineers — it really doesn’t matter. We all have to own it.
This North American model of the outdoors is here because people before us protected it. It is our responsibility to do the same, or it won’t stay.
From a personal perspective, I might say it’s to stop the existential crisis in volunteerism. I really worry, but it is the one thing that keeps me up at night. People are very eager to write a check but not as eager to get engaged.
Check-writing is important, too. In fact, treasure is super important; but think about the times you’ve written a check. It’s because you are connected — it’s your alma mater, it’s a health care group, it’s your local community. You have an engagement that was created through time and talent, which makes you inspired to give treasure.
If people don’t volunteer, they never build the connection. It’s a very short-sighted thing if we think, ‘Well, if I can get a check today, but I don’t need to worry about them being engaged,’ someday they won’t be engaged. And that’s probably the most important thing for me is that people understand the value — to themselves, personally, and to an organization — in being involved on all three tiers: time, talent and treasure.