Jill Marsteller, former Ursinus College president and founder and CEO of CALICO (Creative Advisors Looking to Improve Charitable Organizations) grew up in rural New Jersey. She loved playing in the woods and cornfields and was surrounded by love from her parents, an aunt and uncle, and neighbors who acted as “surrogate grandparents.”
In high school, she was active in a wide variety of organizations, was a member of the National Honor Society, and took on new responsibilities working at a senior living facility.
Marsteller began her career as a teacher but soon transitioned to advancement, working most prominently at Ursinus College, Lehigh University, and Haverford College. She founded CALICO to help nonprofits work more effectively.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in New Jersey and lived there briefly, and then I grew up in Morrisville and Yardley in Bucks County, Pennsylvania until the week that I turned 7. Then we moved to a very rural area in South Jersey called Vincentown, now known as Southampton.
I went from very progressive Yardley, which boasted an “ungraded” elementary school system where you could be in first grade, but you might be doing fifth-grade science. We went from that to a place where they let the boys out early from school in April for planting season.
The best part is that I was exposed to a wide array of people. Adjusting to all of that as we went along was a big motivator for me to become a teacher. I have wanted to be a teacher since I was 4.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a homemaker, and my father was in the car business. He was in sales and management and ultimately was the president of an auto auction.
Where were you in the pecking order?
I was an only child. I also had an aunt and uncle with no children, so I always say I grew up with four parents.
What other memories have stayed with you from growing up in South Jersey?
In South Jersey, the value of being in nature and growing up initially in an all-boy neighborhood taught me valuable lessons. I wanted to do it all, so I was tromping through the woods, getting lost in cornfields, and finding stray dogs on walks in apple orchards. Those experiences and living 45 minutes from the ocean made nature a “go-to” place for me.
My parents’ best friends were 20 years older, and they became my surrogate grandparents. Other people in the neighborhood were like aunts and uncles. I grew up an only child surrounded by a lot of big-family love.
Did you play any sports in high school?
Although I’m a huge sports fan, I managed to get a JV letter in softball by sheer dedication. That was the extent of my athletic experience. Sports are not my talent, but they are one of my favorite pastimes. I am especially a huge Eagles and Phillies fan.
Since you weren’t gifted athletically, how did you distinguish yourself in high school?
I was in a number of clubs and organizations. Music was my thing – singing, and I learned to play the French horn and the alto horn to be in the band. I was in a state choir that did an opera. My leadership roles in student government and other organizations, such as Future Teachers of America also taught me a lot.
Another memorable thing is that another student and I decided it wasn’t right that only seniors got to have a prom, so we created a dance called the “Snow Ball” for all the other classes. That was definitely a learning experience.
Ironically, when I look back on it, I was always involved in volunteer activities and fundraising throughout high school and college.
Did you have any part-time jobs when you were a teenager?
My first job was really special. I worked in food service at Medford Leas. It’s one of the first multifaceted senior living centers where you could progress from independent living to full care. At one point, I thought I would teach during the year and run a bed and breakfast at the shore in the summer, so I asked my boss to let me do anything he needed. He put me on a steam table one day. He walked me into the refrigerator on another occasion and said, “Well, here’s where the food is – what would you make for a menu?” I was only 17 years old, but that job gave me a great deal.
I learned about doing things no one wants to do – for instance, I took the 6:00 morning shift on the weekends And I learned a lot about life because I was dealing with elderly people. There was a man named Mr. James, who was always first in line every single weekend for brunch, and one day Mr. James didn’t show up. As a high school senior I became very aware that life is on a timeline.
Other jobs that stay with you?
Inspired and assisted by an Ursinus College graduate who was and remains a close friend, I was a bank teller at Continental Bank in college. I traveled all over Philly and the suburbs to different branches in Pennsylvania. They also placed me in their operations center, which was fascinating. I would track down lost and missing items. It was fun to learn so many aspects of banking at such a young age.
What about music? You indicated that you had a passion for music – what kind of music did you listen to?
I listened to everything from Beethoven to jazz, classic rock, The Beatles, Moody Blues, Chicago and The Carpenters. Additionally, I enjoyed music from my parents’ generation and regularly tuned into to Sid Marks’ Frank Sinatra radio shows and even saw Sinatra live! I also loved Motown – still do. Personally, I wrote music and played guitar. Other than communing with nature, music was how I got through adolescence – that and poetry. I liked, and I still like, great music with great stories and harmonies.
Where did you go to college?
A friend of mine who also wanted to be an English major was going to Ursinus College. I also knew my geometry teacher had attended Ursinus, and she was one heck of a good teacher. My parents and I took a ride to campus. I opened the car door, looked around, glanced back at my dad, and said, “This is it.”
Was Ursinus a good choice for you, looking back?
It changed my life in all the best ways. I got challenged and pushed by my professors, and I rose to that. Beyond the classroom, Ursinus is a close-knit community; we could know our professors and administrators well and go to their houses for dinner. We weren’t just learning subject matter; we were learning lifelong skills.
Again, I was in student government and a lot of activities. But most of all, it was the liberal arts experience and the value of the relationships on that campus that impacted me the most. I sang in the Messiah every year when they had that. There was a madrigals group I belonged to where a very small group of us learned all of our parts by sight-reading sheet music. It was everything a liberal arts experience is supposed to be—exposing me to a vast array of subjects and learning opportunities in a residential living environment.
When was the first time you realized that you were coming to the table with something different than other kids?
I always knew I was more intellectually curious, for better and worse. Sometimes that’s a weird thing, and sometimes it’s a valued thing. At Ursinus, I found more intellectually curious kinds of people.
I didn’t think of myself as bringing something unique to the table for a long time. Probably the first time was when I was teaching at an all-girls Catholic school in the suburbs of Chicago. I later won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant in no small part because of my teaching experiences there. Another “aha” moment came when I realized that advancement would be my career and that the way I approached it—forming lasting relationships and inspiring people to be impactful and building very strong teams—were my hallmarks.
You had a special calling in the classroom. What do you bring to teaching that touches students?
I’ve always been passionate about my subject, and I’m passionate about my students. They ignite me. You see the potential in someone that they don’t realize they have. Doing that with multiple people in a single room is so exciting and wonderful.
It translated into my management leadership style, too. I could read people and loved motivating them to become more than they thought they could be. It’s a two-way street – I’m motivating them, and they’re inspiring me. It sort of became my way of giving back what Ursinus gave to me as a young college student.
Looking back over your career, Jill, who were the people who saw promise in you and opened doors for you?
The first one that comes to mind is Dick Richter, president of Ursinus, when I transitioned from being an adjunct instructor in English to advancement. We were starting to create the Berman Museum of Art. He said, “I’ve made speeches declaring we would not take from the operating budget, that we would look for new resources to fund the ongoing expenses. I want you to think about this as your project.” I said, “Great! I love art; I know how to raise money a little bit.” He walked out the door, turned back around, and said, “Oh, and by the way, you can’t ask the same people from the annual fund for money and rob Peter to pay Paul. I need this to be new money.”
I sat at my desk for the next week and stared at the telephone, thinking, “Where do I start?” Finally, I picked up the phone and started calling people I knew, asking, “Do you know anybody who appreciates art?” I swear to God, that’s how I did it. We created a Friends of the Berman Museum organization comprised of business leaders, community members, alums, and art aficionados, and we went from there. I had promised the president we’d raise the operating budget. It took three years, but, ultimately, we did it.
My first boss in advancement, gave me an opportunity by giving me flexibility, which was rare in that time period. He said, “I don’t care how you do it. Just meet your goals.” That was long before women were working from home.
The final person in that early time was when I went to Lehigh. I remember sitting in a meeting about the construction of the Zoellner Arts Center in my first couple of weeks there. I was listening and thinking about their budget numbers, and they seemed off to me. So, I went up to the president, Peter Likins, privately after the meeting and said, “I don’t know for sure, but I think you’re going to lose about $1 million in operating expenses if you continue to do it this way.” He said, “Well, could you raise the difference? Or at least come back to me with your ideas about how to solve this problem?” We opened the following year with a huge black-tie fundraiser and the New York Philharmonic performed. By then, I had also been tapped to be Lehigh’s first non-alumni and female Vice President of Advancement, which included oversight of the the first year of the Zoellner Arts Center operations.
After Lehigh University, I moved on to become Vice president for Advancement at Haverford College, and wow, did the Quakers teach me a lot! I went from the very hard-driving, quantitative, business-minded approach that is Lehigh to Haverford’s “seasoning” of proposals, patience, and allowing everyone a voice. That was the “goldilocks” moment of my career. Not only did my time there make me a better professional and person, but I met then President Tom Tritton at Haverford, and we are still business partners today. I also led a $200 million campaign there through the tragic time of 9-11 and its aftermath. I was actually going to see a donor and was getting out of a cab by the North Tower as the first plane struck. Haverford and I will forever be bonded by that experience.
So, tell me about your CALICO venture.
CALICO stands for Creative Advisers Looking to Improve Charitable Organizations. I created it as an LLC in 2014. I’ve been working with all kinds of nonprofits ever since. Education and the arts are our sweet spots. As with my students when I taught, I especially enjoy helping organizations reach their fullest potential, building better boards, finding new ways of working and developing close-knit relationships.
There’s a trend of fewer donors giving more money to fewer places. That means donors are putting more of their eggs in a few baskets. Therefore, nonprofits have to make compelling cases about how their donors can make a real difference and have significant impact on the future of an organization.
We try to help nonprofits communicate that, help them put into place best practices, inspire their creativity and, not insignificantly, work within the client’s culture. We’ve led several strategic planning processes, and each time we adjust the approach, process, and timeline to fit the organization. I think that’s what makes us distinctive – we’re so adaptable, and we meet the client where they are.
Do most of your clients start with a strategic plan?
Sometimes a client will ask me to do an assessment of their programs, fundraising or governance, and then maybe a third of my clients get to a strategic plan.
What do you do with all your free time?
I still love to read. I still love music. My therapy is cooking – usually creatively, sometimes with a recipe.
I love the ocean. I love to take long walks. That childhood experience of connecting with nature has not left me. And my family – I have a 90-year-old mom, and I’ve got sons and daughters and family here, and in Florida and Georgia, so I love to be part of their lives.
I also still like to travel a lot in this country. Despite all the places I went to as a college administrator, there are still a lot of places I’ve never seen such as Nashville and New Orleans that are on my bucket list.
Do you have a favorite place that you’ve been in the United States?
I still love New York City. My passion for the place somehow grew even stronger after 9-11. My husband and I have a timeshare there. I love to go to Key West and chill out in the winter, especially since my birthday falls in January. Key West is an anything-goes, everybody-loves-everybody place.
I lived in Chicago for a while, and I love Chicago as a city. I am not as fond of the weather as I am the people there, and I appreciate the midwestern culture. My best friend remains there, so I always enjoy going back to “My Kind of Town.”
What about favorite authors? Do you have a favorite author?
I like John Irving. He takes such interesting things and makes them more so. I embraced Faulkner when I was growing up. Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” really were thought- provoking to me in high school.
I wrote my Masters Thesis on whether the 19th Amendment changed the role of female protagonists in the 1920s. I like anything that’s social history wrapped up in fiction. I am inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou and am blown away by Amanda Gorman. Recently, I have enjoyed works by Richard Russo, Kristin Hannah, Lisa See and Celeste Ng.
The best beach reads, though, belong to Elin Hilderbrand—by the way, a granddaughter of an Ursinus alum!
What is something big that you’ve changed your mind about over the last 10 years?
Ironically, my comfort level with older people and health issues and death. I’m not afraid of it anymore. I love being with older people – like when I worked with one of my recent clients, we built the McClean Memory Care Center at Meadowood Senior Living. What a great experience that was. I came full circle to my original first job. It will always be scary, but I have found that aging is something to lean into and embrace in your own way. Those Meadowood folks continue to inspire me.
It’s a crazy world out there, Jill. What keeps you hopeful and optimistic?
Young people! I did focus groups as part of the strategic plan for Haddonfield Friends School recently. The last ones I did were with a group of fifth graders and eighth graders. The person taking the notes was an early childhood educator and parent at the school. The eighth graders were so impressive in how they engaged in civil discourse, how they answered, and how articulate and thoughtful they were that she was crying.
No one staged this. They were being eighth graders, but eighth graders who’ve been exposed to this incredible educational opportunity, holistically, for life. They are going to go out and take that with them forever.
Similarly, I’m still in touch with a young Ursinus alumnus from Zimbabwe who’s trying to find funding to become a medical doctor and the female head of the Ursinus student newspaper who’s graduating in May. All you have to do is spend 15 minutes with someone like them, and you have such faith and confidence in where we’re going and how we can get along, talk to one another and listen. They embody hope. When I was the interim and first female president of Ursinus College last year, I spoke of “Grace,” “Gratitude” and “Greatness.” On a college campus, those words were reflected daily in our students.
Finally, Jill, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
In my drive to do what I did and be a mother of four children, I was always going and going and going (more than one person has nicknamed me, “The Energizer Bunny.”) But during my time at Haverford, a consultant told me, “Now that you’re in a senior leadership position, you need to block time for yourself and for clearing your brain to think. You need oxygen.”
After he told me this, I left my laptop on a plane twice in six months. Luckily, I recovered both of them, but after the second time, I thought, “This is a sign from God. I am never going to work on a plane again.” And I didn’t. I read, I closed my eyes, thought, and dreamed. You can only be a strategic or visionary leader with that time to clear your head or take those long walks.
The other advice comes from the old Shakespearean quote, ‘To thine own self be true.” You have to be an authentic leader. If you are different from who you are, everybody around you will figure that out pretty quickly. No matter what, when you’re in a crisis – and I’ve been in several now – you always, in a crisis, revert to who you are. It will come out somehow – you might as well “do you” as folks so often say now every day of your life. Be an authentic leader and maybe blaze a trail or create something new along the way.