Passion, Patience and Professionalism: Robert Balthaser '91's recipe for work, life success

Passion, Patience and Professionalism: Robert Balthaser '91's recipe for work, life success

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Kristin Simonetti
August 05, 2014

If you've climbed the 897 steps to the top of the Washington Monument since the landmark reopened in May, send some thanks to an alumnus of The Washington Center.


Robert L. Balthaser '91 secured a multimillion-dollar gift from D.C.-based philanthropist David Rubenstein that helped repair the monument, which suffered significant damage during an August 2011 earthquake. That endeavor is just a fraction of the impact Balthaser hopes to make through his work as vice president of development for the Trust for the National Mall. He and his colleagues at the nonprofit organization are leading an unprecedented campaign to preserve the Mall's hundreds of historic acres, which haven't seen a major renovation in more than four decades.


"Imagine that your job is to bring a piece of land to life - land that means something to your nation, not just to Washington," Balthaser says. "It's a big task."


But it's a job he relishes, and one he says feels like a natural progression from his days working the counter of his family's meat business in eastern Pennsylvania. Balthaser elaborated on that winding path in his commencement address to TWC's summer 2014 interns and in this Q&A with Alumni Engagement Manager Kristin Simonetti.


You were an English major at Alvernia University (Pa.) and then participated in TWC's Law and Criminal Justice program but ended up in fundraising. How did that happen?


I enjoyed reading about people, so I majored in eighteenth-century Romantic literature. When I finished my coursework early, my parents asked me what I was going to do for a career. It was my department chair who suggested I pursue law school, which of course involves a lot of reading and writing. I had a wonderful opportunity to go to The Washington Center, where I had an amazing internship at the U.S. Attorney's Office and took credits at Howard University Law School. It was a rich experience, and I learned something important: I didn't want to go to law school. So I went back to Alvernia, where I was provided an opportunity to work in student admissions and then recruited to direct alumni relations and development, where my career in fundraising really began.


Most people dread asking others for money, but you excel at it, enjoying great success on behalf of the Trust, the University of Maryland and others. What's your secret?


Focus on the product. Focus on the relationship. Don't think about asking for money. At the end of the day, find what you're passionate about. Everything about me is passion. I learned this from growing up in a family business. Our business supported us well, thanks to my family's passion for and attention to their product and the people they served. That has remained with me throughout my career.


How so?


I took this position at the Trust for one person: Our chairman and founder, Chip Akridge. He's a self-made man, a Vietnam Veteran, an engineer, a Harvard graduate, but above all, a citizen. He looked at the National Mall and said, "This place has fallen into disrepair on my watch, while I made my livelihood, and I'm going to do something about it." This has probably been the most challenging work I've ever encountered, but to work for someone like that, no matter how hard the work is, it's incredibly rewarding.


Tell us something we don't realize about the National Mall.


When someone says "National Mall," many people think of the Smithsonian museums and see the Mall as simply the thoroughfare connecting them to those destinations. Before I took this job, I bought six books about the Mall and learned about the many transformations it's undergone. It's a very aged piece of land, and it means so many different things to different people. The mall isn't just the monuments. People talk to me about how they played softball on the Mall while working on Capitol Hill, or how they met their one and only love on the Mall and have come back for their 50th anniversary. There are so many stories like that, and that's what people need to remember. The Mall is our space.

Now that you're living in Washington, what sparks memories of your time at TWC?


I remain in awe of our nation's capital as I cross the street each morning to enter my office on Pennsylvania Avenue just blocks from the White House. I enter into and cultivate relationships with confidence, the way I was mentored to by TWC's founder, Bill Burke. And there is not a day that goes by that I don't find myself enjoying or pondering the multitude of cultural offerings this really fine city offers. All of this reminds me of how blessed I am to have had a TWC experience. It connected me with our people, our country and our capital. I feel very lucky.

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