Passion with Purpose

Sarah Richter, Evening UST MBA student, finds purpose in loss

When Sarah Richter began the Evening UST MBA program, she had a clear plan: Continue working full time for the St. Paul Foundation and fast-track her degree to complete it in three years.

Throughout her life she had been an organizer, the one with five- and ten-year plans who seemed destined for success in business. As a young girl, she had wanted to be an actress, but a few theatrical forays soon demonstrated that her interests were better suited for behind the scenes as a director or producer. She fell into roles that would allow her to give structure to chaos, an important skill in her family, given the busy nature of her father’s vocation as a minister and the unstructured, theatrical exuberance of her younger sister.

But a year later, in October 2007, Richter’s plan was radically altered when her sister, Katherine Olson, was murdered after responding to an online posting for a nanny.

In the two years since, much has been written about the “Craigslist” murder – articles exploring the motive behind the murder, the reaction of Katherine’s parents and the outpouring of support from the community. Olson’s murder spurred debate about the safety of online forums and other aspects of global interconnectivity. But it also spurred a change in the trajectory of Richter’s life and, most unexpectedly,a change in her desire and use for an M.B.A.

The Need to ServeRichter began her studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., as a business major. She admits to having little idea of what that involved. “I was interested in international aspects of business; I applied to the Peace Corps and looked for other global volunteer opportunities,” thinking, she says, that she would work in a multinational corporation or other international arena. She spent a semester abroad while at St. Olaf and traveled to the Dominican Republic for one month to study international microfinance. She laughs when she admits that, at some point during her undergraduate studies, she realized she didn’t really want to be in business. “But I was already halfway through the program by then!” she says.

Fortunately, she found an outlet for her need to serve the broader community, her business training and her organizational skills as an intern for Lutheran World Relief and, later, as a fund development assistant for the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church. There, she had the good luck to be teamed with a mentor who taught her about the importance of making the connection between donors’ contributions and their values, in helping them understand how their monetary contributions were directly tied to issues they cared about.

For Richter, this experience explicitly tied her passion for global philanthropy to skills she had never seen as strengths. “When I graduated from college, I knew how to do things, but I needed someone to guide me down the right path.” Richter says she is lucky to have found that guidance in mentors at Lutheran World Relief, United Methodist and in her current employer, the Minnesota Community Foundation and the St. Paul Foundation.

Her work as a development associate for the foundation merges her talent for efficiencies with her dedication to philanthropy. Donna Dalton, director of development initiatives for the foundations, says Richter was an ideal candidate for the position because of “her interest in learning, her ability to organize and her commitment to helping people.”

Dalton has seen those qualities enhanced since Richter began her UST MBA program. “In the beginning, her questions were about ‘what’ – What is this or what is that? Now her questions are about ‘how’ and ‘why’ – How does this have an impact? Why does this need to work this way and not another? How could we make it work another way to make it even better?”

Richter, too, sees the evolution of her skill set. “As I started exploring classes, I kept finding ones relevant to my job. I don’t always recognize that I’m applying the knowledge, but I am.” For example, she was enrolled in a business law course at St. Thomas at the same time the St. Paul Foundation was having contractual issues with one of its vendors. An applied learning lesson in class helped her negotiate with one of the vendors. She also sees a direct impact from lessons learned in her marketing courses.

“In nonprofits, we’re really ‘selling’ a service … we’re promoting the connection we make between our programs and services and the desires of the donors.” She sees that the concepts of product, price and positioning apply just as directly to nonprofits as to consumer goods, and will not hesitate to tell you how this realization has not only shaped her work but also could have a dramatic impact on the future of nonprofits.

“There’s going to be a deficit of leadership in nonprofits,” Richter states. “Nonprofits need more than a passion for a program – they need management skills.”

Historically, nonprofits have begun at a grassroots level, tapping the passions and interests of a committed few and growing into established nonprofit organizations. Many never lose that start-up operational mentality.

Richter sees the need for nonprofit organizations to approach operations, management, marketing and even sales from a corporate-minded standpoint, an opinion fueled by her MBA program’s focus on nonprofit management and borne out in her daily work with the foundations. Dalton has noticed this emphasis: “All staff at Minnesota Community Foundation and the St. Paul Foundation understand that we are in the business of managing charitable assets; however, not all staff want to understand the financial investing rationale. Except Sarah. From day one, Sarah has wanted to understand more about the financial policies that move the foundations toward fulfilling its mission.”

A new directionWhen Richter looks back, she says it sometimes seems that the choices she has made in her life have each, in their own way, prepared her for the challenges she faced when her sister was murdered. In the days immediately following the murder, as she and her family dealt first with the shock, then the media coverage, then the grief, Richter fell back on the tools she had discovered at a young age and honed through her work in nonprofits – providing structure to chaos and looking for a means to organize not only events but the thousands of gifts and offers of support the family received from friends and strangers. Almost immediately the family began to discuss hosting a concert in Katherine’s honor “some day.”

Eventually, Richter returned to her MBA studies at St. Thomas. But she discovered that her drive to complete her degree in record time – as well as her ability to focus on her studies – had waned. “I went back to class and work and discovered I needed to do something focused.” She began thinking about the idea of the concert she and her family had discussed.

A marketing course in spring 2008 provided the spark of an idea to help her decide how best to honor her sister. Her marketing professor said that an organization needed to know what the audience wants, not just guess. So the following week Richter sent an email survey to 75 people asking for their opinions on the best way to pay tribute to Katherine. In 10 days, she received 900 responses.

“The core of volunteers just appeared spontaneously. In that first week after Katherine’s death, we were inundated with offers to help. We couldn’t use them all then,” Richter said. But as the idea for a benefit began to grow, the volunteers became critical to its development and Richter’s ability to manage them to its eventual success.

Richter asked one of the volunteers to organize the data from the survey, giving them real data she could use to assess the various ideas she and her family had discussed and also to measure their worth in terms of community interest and potential for success. In the end, they chose to organize a benefit concert, with proceeds establishing a scholarship fund at St. Olaf College to benefit a group Katherine Olson had worked closely with – Latino students.

And this was when Richter discovered a new use for her MBA studies. She decided to make the concert honoring her sister her MBA independent study project. Her faculty adviser and UST Marketing Department Chair, Lorman Lundsten, helped her structure the initial proposal. His goal was to make the process an in-depth learning experience. The success of the project would be dependent on the work Richter put into it, not the eventual outcome.

Her coursework provided a foundation upon which she could build an outline, while the faculty and staff provided guidance in transforming a kernel of an idea into a detailed proposal. “Everything I had learned and was learning was relevant,” Richter says. “St. Thomas does a great job of showing that everything is integrated and comprehensive and interconnected, so you learn to make connections between finance and marketing, law and strategy, accounting and public relations.”

This confluence of ideas and disciplines was important, but so was the program’s emphasis on making connections and building relationships. Through a foundation connection, Richter approached Sue McLean, a well-known concert promoter, for advice. She agreed to help Richter learn how to organize the event and book and promote the artists. Richter leveraged the commitment shown by volunteers into creating marketing, sponsorship and financial committees tasked with creating a Web site, identifying potential sponsors and tracking donations and expenses. Richter herself drafted the first official sponsorship letter, resulting in an immediate donation from Craigslist – the benefit’s entire operating budget – as well as donations to the scholarship fund from Thrivent Financial.

Merging a vocation and a passionA Tribute to Katherine: Letting Her Light Shine is scheduled for May 3, 2009.While the reason for the concert is never far from her thoughts, Richter has tried to focus on what she has learned from the experience. “I never believed I could do something like this. It’s as if I’m running my own nonprofit. The MBA program gave me confidence in my talents and skills. I learned we shouldn’t be afraid of asserting ourselves and asking questions.”

For more information about A Tribute to Katherine: Letting Her Light Shine, visit

This was never more apparent than apparent than in an encounter with an artist’s agent. Richter sent the agent the prospectus for the benefit and called to see if his artist was available. The agent lambasted Richter for thinking that an artist of his client’s caliber would be interested in performing for free. Richter still looks surprised when recounting the tale. “I told him there was no need to speak to me like that; I had a detailed proposal, support from the community, publicity and advertising, and a venue. I stood up to him, when in the past I might have just hung up the phone.” Though schedules didn’t permit the artist to perform, Richter used the same negotiating tactics when approaching other artists and music industry professionals.

One of Richter’s greatest challenges as work on the benefit moves forward is keeping herself, her family and the dedicated cadre of volunteers connected to the original goal of the benefit: to honor Katherine Olson’s life.

As interest in the event has increased, Richter and her family have talked about causes this type of publicity might impact: violence against women, Internet safety, etc. Each idea has been set aside as worthwhile and necessary, but not part of their journey. “The benefit has shown a tendency to spiral out of control. No matter the temptation to grow and expand, you have to stay true to your mission or you’ll fail – all of my classes have emphasized this,” Richter says.

Good MBA programs give students the knowledge and theory required to do their jobs. Exceptional MBA programs provide graduates with something more intangible – the confidence to lead. In Richter’s case, this leadership sensibility is clear at the foundations, where Donna Dalton notes, “In team settings, Sarah has become more comfortable in taking a role that convenes and delegates work.”

It also is clear that Richter’s burgeoning comfort with leadership has helped her succeed in planning a tribute that not only will honor Katherine Olson and the life she lived but also act as a lasting reminder of Sara Richter’s own intelligence, strength and determination.

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