Impact Story: Lois Buntz

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Known throughout the Midwest for her expertise in nonprofit fundraising, Lois Buntz says her philanthropic mindset took root as a child growing up in Wisconsin.

“I grew up in a very modest household. We didn’t have money to give because we just didn’t have much,” Lois says. “But my parents were compassionate people. They were involved in their church and in our community. They were my first mentors.”

 Lois earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin and her Master of Social Work at the University of Iowa. She started her career working in social services in residential treatment with emotionally disturbed children. When her own children were young, she taught at Clarke College in Dubuque and the University of Iowa School of Social Work.  Before starting a 12-year career at United Way of East Central Iowa, Lois was the executive director of what is now called Horizons, A Family Service Alliance, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“That launched me into fundraising and philanthropy,” she says.

 Over the years, Lois met other mentors who taught her how to think about, do—and encourage others to practice—philanthropy. The latter has been at the heart of a career that spans more than four decades, including in Lois Buntz Consulting, the business she started in 2017. Lois focuses on strategic planning, major gifts, endowments, and women’s philanthropy programs.  In 2022, she added “author” to her impressive credentials with the publication of her book Generosity and Gender: Philanthropic Models for Women Donors and the Fund Development Professionals Who Support Them (Palgrave Macmillan 2022). The book, which took five years to complete, involved interviews with more than 70 philanthropists, including film producer Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney who co-founded The Walt Disney Company with Abigail’s great-uncle Walt Disney.

From her Cedar Rapids home, Lois talks with Return on Good about her career, her book, and her philanthropic journey.

Return on Good: What does being a philanthropist mean to you?  Lois: For me, philanthropy is really about giving back to the community in a variety of ways. It doesn’t have to always be money. A lot of my philanthropy is service to the community. I try and combine a lot of elements of what I define as philanthropy in how I practice it.  Return on Good: How do you express philanthropy in your life?  Lois: My career has been part of it because I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for many years. I’ve been very fortunate through my career to be connected to other philanthropists, important causes, and organizations. As I moved from a full-time job into my consulting work, it gave me more flexibility to give back in terms of volunteer service. I serve on a variety of boards. I chair fundraising campaigns as a volunteer so I give of my time and my talent. My husband (Robert) and I have a specific philanthropy plan that we practice in terms of giving financial resources. They always say philanthropy is about time, talent, and treasure, but it’s also ‘ties.’ Who are you tied to? What are your connections? Sometimes people ask if I would introduce them to somebody or make a connection for them. I also think philanthropy is about ‘testimony.’ It’s sharing what you are passionate about.  Return on Good: What are your philanthropic passions?  Lois: They have shifted a little in my lifetime. When I first started out in my career, I was very interested in children’s needs and social services. I had a career in United Way and other nonprofits that serve disadvantaged populations, so those will always be at the top of my list. Healthcare has become one of my priorities over the years, partly because my husband has some ongoing health issues. And now I am adding literacy. I am serving on the board of the Cedar Rapids Public Library Foundation. Writing a book connected me more deeply to literacy and literature. I’ve always been an avid reader, so I certainly want to be an advocate for literacy. And then women’s issues. Being a woman, having a career, and growing up in a time when there were maybe more challenges than there are even today has inspired me to do more advocacy for women.  

Return on Good: Who are your favorite philanthropists and why?  Lois: Through my work on the women’s philanthropy book, I got inspired by a variety of people that I interviewed. Certainly, Abigail Disney is one. I felt very fortunate to be able to talk to her. She’s a person who was born into a lot of wealth and opportunity, but she went through a process of figuring out how to be a philanthropist. She’s very generous with her money and very thoughtful about what she wants to get accomplished. I think MacKenzie Scott (novelist and former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos), who is in the news a great deal these days and is one of the top women philanthropists and is giving billions of dollars away is certainly somebody that everybody’s watching these days.  Her method of giving is really fascinating because she’s doing research, but she’s also trusting the organizations she gives money to, to know best how to use it. Sometimes philanthropists want to be very prescriptive about what they want their money to do, and I think sometimes that’s okay, but if we believe in the organization, we also have to trust them. Both of these women are doing a great job and I really look up to them a great deal. There are other women I ran across when I was working on my book that give very modest amounts of money, but for them it’s a big amount. I think that’s really important.  Return on Good: You have a lot of career left, but how do you hope you’ll be remembered as a philanthropist? Lois: Hopefully people will think about my service to the community because that has been one of the things both my husband and I tried to do a great deal of. And the other thing I’ve gotten very involved in is mentoring younger women who want to get into the field of philanthropy. Right now, I’m doing a mentoring program through the Association of Fundraising Professionals and I’m paired with a young woman.  It’s just been a blast because she is so young and energetic and has all these great ideas and we’re always bouncing ideas off of each other. It’s service and it’s also the financial contributions we make, but I think it is training people too. It’s leaving that legacy. There’s the next generation now that needs to continue it and they’re going to do it differently. There’s social media and all these new formats that people are using that are grand. So, I think it’s a combination of all those things.  

Return on Good: What are you most proud of?  Lois: I had a very successful run at United Way. I was lucky to be there at a time when things were going very well economically. Although we had some major challenges—we had to get through the flood (in Cedar Rapids in 2008), which was a major task and we recovered from that and helped the community recover. Writing this book—it really tested my patience, but I was determined I was going to do it.  

Return on Good: I think it’s the relationships. Organizations change and move on and missions and purposes and projects change over time. But the relationships and the connections you make with people, they become your extended family. The relationships are the lasting part.

Ready to Do the Most Good?

If you’re a philanthropist with an inspiring story to tell (or know someone who is), contact Return on Good. We may select you for our I Am a Philanthropist initiative.