Q&A with Bill Sternberg

Philanthropic Advisor Bill Sternberg spent the first half of his career in the financial services industry before joining The Minneapolis Foundation in 2002. He sat down with us recently to talk about why he likes working with entrepreneurs and how he made the transition from helping clients build wealth to helping them give it away.


Bill Sternberg

Foundation: You started your career in the financial services industry. What drew you to that path?

Bill: I was always fascinated by family-owned and start-up businesses. In college, I got a B.S. in entrepreneurship. I never really thought of myself as someone who would come up with a brilliant idea and start a business, but I always wanted to work with people who did. As luck would have it, I found a job with Citibank’s private bank in New York City after I graduated. My work allowed me to dig in and understand many entrepreneurial and family-owned businesses.

Foundation: Why did that interest you?

Bill: I enjoyed learning how entrepreneurs think about growing a business, and how they think about things like business and management succession. In some cases, my work allowed me to get in on the ground floor with the sale of a business. For example, I once worked on the sale of the National Enquirer, because the man who had owned it passed away, and the bank was the co-executor of his estate.

Fun facts about Bill
You’d never guess that…
Bill once ran the Broadway musical “Oh! Calcutta!” (The executive director of the show died, and the bank Bill worked for was the executor of his estate.)
Bill and his wife, an educator and stay-at-home mom, have been married for 22 years. They have a college-aged son who is majoring in business and a daughter who is a senior in high school.
In his spare time, he loves to…
watch youth sports.
His favorite place in Minnesota is…
anywhere there’s a good girls’ high school hockey game.

Foundation: What led you to transition to philanthropic work?

Bill: Some skill and some luck. I’d always been involved in the nonprofit world through volunteering and serving on boards. In 2002, I had two small kids at home, I was in a job that had me traveling all the time, and I knew I needed to do something different. I got to know The Minneapolis Foundation because I was on the board of a nonprofit that was trying to get a grant. This happened to be at a time when the Foundation was looking at expanding its staff as it recognized that many of its donors came as referrals from attorneys, accountants, or financial advisors. They wanted to hire somebody who could design and implement a program to broaden and deepen its relationships with those audiences. What intrigued me was that it wasn’t a position that somebody else already had, even elsewhere around the country. It was really a new idea for a community foundation to hire somebody specifically to do this work.

I’d spent many years working with individuals and families in the wealth creation and wealth preservation stages of their lives, but I don’t think it was until I got to The Minneapolis Foundation that I realized, “Hey, this is an opportunity to work with those same types of people, but in the wealth distribution stage of their lives.” I quickly realized how rewarding this work was, so here I am, 14 years later!

Foundation: Professional advisors often ask you why it would make sense for their clients to establish a fund at a community foundation rather than at a big financial services firm. What do you tell them?

Bill: Most financial services firms that offer Donor Advised Funds are very effective at taking in your money, investing it, and sending a grant where you want it paid. The Minneapolis Foundation does all of those things, too. The difference is that, if you want to have a more in-depth conversation about a local organization or issue, the community foundation is a better fit for you. If you need assistance orchestrating the involvement of multiple generations in your charitable giving, the community foundation is your guide and support. If you want to help your community through alternative strategies such as impact investing, the community foundation is your partner.

Foundation: What’s the best part of your job?

Bill: No two days are ever the same. Also, 99 percent of the people who walk through our front door are charitable, and I enjoy talking to people who have a desire to give back to the community. I get to learn a lot about the community, the issues that it faces, and how people are trying to use their good fortune to make things better.

Foundation: What’s an example of an interesting charitable project you’ve worked on with a donor?

Bill: Right now, I’m working with a couple that lives in the western United States. Their family owned a business in southern Minnesota that was sold last year, and this man and his wife received a large check. No one in the family has ever lived in the town where the business was located – it was a professionally run company – and while they felt that the company was charitable in the local community, they didn’t feel that the company was as charitable as it could have been. So with some of the money they received from the sale of the business, they set up a fund at The Minneapolis Foundation, the sole purpose of which is to benefit the town. The couple didn’t want to approach their giving by saying, “Well, our interests are ___, and this is what we’re going to support.” It was more, “What are the needs of the community?” Over the past year, my work for them has been to talk to people and do research to identify those needs, come back to them with my findings, and see what they gravitate to. We’ve narrowed it down to four focus areas, and last week, I mailed them my recommendations as to how they might invest the charitable resources in the community to have the impact they desire.