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Spleth with children

Ann Updegraff Spleth '71 furthers the Kiwanis goal of serving the world's children

by William A. Bowden

Photo above: Ann Updegraff Spleth is escorted into a village in Sierra Leone’s Talia Province by a crowd of children. She was there as part of the Kiwanis and UNICEF program to provide immunization against maternal and neonatal tetanus. Photo c. UNICEF/Sierra Leone/2011/Thomas.

Growing up, Ann Updegraff Spleth ’71 associated the Kiwanis Club with tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

“My father was a Kiwanian, and his club had their weekly luncheon meetings on Wednesdays,” she recalled. “Since he had had a big meal at lunch and wasn’t all that hungry at night, we always had tomato soup and grilled cheese for dinner on those days. That was my impression of Kiwanis when I was a kid.”

These days, Updegraff Spleth’s relationship with Kiwanis runs quite a bit deeper. In 2011 she became chief operating officer of the Kiwanis International Foundation, which is charged with raising money and providing grants to advance Kiwanis’s overarching mission of serving the children of the world.

Her primary focus is running an international $110 million fundraising campaign in support of The Eliminate Project, a joint effort of Kiwanis and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to eradicate maternal and neonatal tetanus in developing countries. The funds are given to UNICEF, which delivers the tetanus toxoid vaccine and related services.

In this role, she traveled to Sierra Leone, West Africa, in November 2012 on a UNICEF site visit for a close-up look at the nature of the problem and UNICEF’s services.

“It was overwhelming to realize that I was in a country where the average lifespan is mid-40s and the average age of a first-time mother is 13,” Updegraff Spleth said. “It is also sobering to know that somewhere in the world a baby dies every nine minutes from a preventable disease (maternal and neonatal tetanus).”

Part of that mission was to show invited donors the effectiveness of their support of The Eliminate Project. The group followed the “tetanus trail” and saw UNICEF workers going house-to-house and visiting middle schools to deliver services.

“We took six people who are six-figure donors so they could see for themselves what’s happening,” she said. “When you send a bunch of money far away, people worry about whether it’s getting to the people in need. They were able to see that the providers will do anything to deliver the tetanus vaccine to the people, even to places where there are no roads. Plus, in the weeks we were there, UNICEF trained 5,000 volunteers for Mother and Child Health Week.”

Updegraff Spleth said Kiwanis aims to meet its $110 million goal by 2015, which is also the 100th anniversary of the founding of the service organization. That will pay for the immunization of more than 100 million mothers and their future babies, and will reach the poorest, most neglected mothers with additional lifesaving health care.

“The elimination of this disease will be our birthday gift to the world,” she said.

Updegraff Spleth’s role with Kiwanis is the latest stop in a long career devoted to philanthropy and ministry. She has held positions in congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and with the denomination’s administrative offices, and has also worked in fundraising at other service organizations.

After graduating from Transylvania with a theology major and earning a master of divinity in theology from Vanderbilt University in 1974, Updegraff Spleth headed for California to become a congregational pastor in Sacramento and later senior associate minister for the Pacific southwest region, living in Los Angeles. As associate minister, she was responsible for campus ministry, summer camps and conferences, leadership training, local church education consultations, meetings with clergy cluster groups, and preaching several times a month.

She became a charter member of the Los Angeles Professional Women’s Forum, an experience she says was helpful in furthering her career.

“We were all fairly early in our careers and on the fast track,” she said. “We came from many different professions—lawyers, accountants, bankers, scientists.There were no role models for us, so we had to be that for each other. It was really valuable to share what worked and what didn’t.”

She earned a doctor of ministry in ethics and counseling from the School of Theology at Claremont, California, in 1985, and then moved to Indianapolis, where she has lived ever since.

In 1986 Updegraff Spleth became executive vice president for program planning, coordination, and staff development for the Division of Homeland Ministries, which is the domestic mission arm of the Christian Church (DOC). Four years later, she was elected president of the Division. At 40 years old, she was the youngest since the denomination’s 1968 restructuring to be elected president of a general unit of the church.

It was during her years with Homeland Ministries that she co-authored two books. The Congregation: Sign of Hope (CBP Press, 1989) was written with William Chris Hobgood ’58, and Worship and Spiritual Life (Chalice Press, 1991) was written with her husband, Randall Updegraff Spleth.

In 2002, after completing a second term as Homeland Ministries president, Updegraff Spleth took some time off to ponder her future and decided to focus on fundraising.

“When I left Homeland Ministries, my children were small and the travel associated with the position began to be wearing on me,” she said. “It was time to move on. I took a year off, worked with a career coach, and looked at everything I had done as chief executive with Homeland. The part that would carry into the secular world was fundraising.”

Her next step was to accept a position as director of major gift planning for Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, the third largest Goodwill organization in the country. During her tenure there, she earned the Certified Fund Raising Executive designation from CFRE International.

Updegraff Spleth found that her experience in pastoral ministry served her well in her new, secular role.

“I think church people have a real edge in fundraising because we are used to cold-calling and to having conversations about end-of-life decisions,” she said. “When you work in planned giving, you’re talking with people about their goals for their resources and how they want their legacy to be carried on. All of that comes very naturally for people who have been in ministry.”

In 2005 Updegraff Spleth returned to the church world, but this time her focus was solely on fundraising. She became vice president for seminary advancement at Christian Theological Seminary, which was the position that led into her present role with Kiwanis International. 

Fundraising has been a common thread throughout much of Updegraff Spleth’s career and is now her primary responsibility with Kiwanis. While acknowledging that being persuasive is certainly part of any fundraiser’s job, she said the most rewarding aspect comes from working with those who already have a charitable intent and are simply searching for the best way to fulfill their thoughts and feelings about a particular giving opportunity.

“Helping people determine how they’re going to spend the meaning in their lives is one way of defining this role of a professional fundraiser,” she said. “One of my favorite quotes is from Frederick Buechner’s book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC—‘The definition of vocation is a place where your greatest joy and the world’s deepest need intersect.’ I think our job in fundraising is to help people find that intersection.

“My father, who was a part-time planned giving officer after he retired, used to tell people that your will is your last opportunity to teach values to your children and others.”

Teaching and being a pastor’s wife also occupy Updegraff Spleth’s time. She is an adjunct faculty member of the Fund Raising School of the School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, a role that lets her draw on the value of her Transylvania education.

“Those of us who have a good liberal arts background and are seminary trained are really good at communicating information, so becoming a faculty member has been a good step for me,” she said.

When Updegraff Spleth moved to Indianapolis, her husband founded Geist Christian Church (DOC), where he is now senior minister for the congregation’s two locations in the greater Indianapolis area.

The couple have two children, Andrew, 23, and Claire, 18.

When she reflects on what keeps her motivated toward her career, Updegraff Spleth turns to the essential meaning of her work.

“Toward the end of my time at Homeland Ministries, I realized that my core purpose was not centered on institutions, but on transformation and change,” she said. “I’ve worked in two professions—ministry and philanthropy—where the theme of the day is the opportunity to transform a person’s life, a community, or the world. There’s nothing I can think of that’s more compelling than that.”

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