Profile of Ernie Vargo and How a Hospital Changed Its Name
When you have been in the nonprofit profession for a number of years, you interact with many colleagues. I am blessed to have known and continue to know colleagues who have impacted me during my career. One special person who I admire for a variety of reasons is Ernie Vargo, II, CFRE, in Indianapolis. He is president and CEO of the Eskenazi Health Foundation.
Prior to joining Eskenazi Health, he was a senior consultant with Johnson Grossnickle & Associates. He also worked in marketing communications in the nonprofit field and law enforcement in Akron, Ohio. Ernie began his career as the director of marketing and communications for Lamda Chi Alpha General Fraternity, then moved to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as director of development.
Ernie is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) with a bachelor’s degree in communications and marketing from the University of Akron. Ernie serves as chair of the National Alumni Board at the University of Akron. He also serves as an adjunct faculty member at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University with a specialization in capital campaigns. He is the founder of the Prevention of Child Abuse Foundation.
I asked Ernie a variety of questions concerning his career in the nonprofit profession that continues today.
DH: Who has influenced you the most in your career?
EV: George Spasyk, former CEO at Lambda Chi Alphas General Fraternity, hired me. He was a wonderful mentor and exposed me to the concept of relationship building and the meaning of the word integrity.
DH: What did you like most about consulting?
EV: Being exposed to diversity of thought and action, plus learning about the differences in nonprofits.
DH: What is your definition of philanthropy?
EV: Giving each person the opportunity to change the world in their individual but profound, unique way.
DH: What are key traits needed by every development professional?
EV: The ability to communicate and relate to others in a very positive and long-term way. It is all about relationship building.
DH: What do you think about the nonprofit profession now as opposed to the beginning of your career?
EV: It is a more thoughtful profession today with elements of caring and passion woven in professional development. IU Lilly School of Philanthropy enables you to train for a career in the fundraising profession with an undergraduate or advanced degree. These options were not available when I started in the profession.
DH: What do you look for when you hire staff?
EV: I can teach fundraising techniques. What I cannot teach is the ability to develop relationships with prospects.
DH: What are you concerned about with the current profession?
EV: I do not know if there are enough quality candidates to fill development positions now and in the future, particularly in the area of major gifts. There are many fundraising professionals who have moved to the for-profit world, and this is a long-term concern.
DH: What major areas do you focus on when you teach?
EV: I focus on capital campaigns, board governance and board development.
DH: Can you tell me your most gratifying fundraising story?
EV: I was senior consultant at Johnson Grossnickle & Associates in Indianapolis when I was assigned as a consultant to Wishard Hospital, a public hospital in Indianapolis. Wishard Hospital was interested in starting a capital campaign. Over time, I became interim president of the Wishard Hospital Foundation. The campaign goal was $50 million and a project was underway to build a new $754 million hospital.
Our foundation board chair suggested that Dr. Lisa Harris, CEO of the Wishard Health System, and I go on Florida visits during the winter. One visit was with Sidney and Lois Eskenazi for dinner. We met at a country club. At the end of the four-hour dinner, I asked Sidney if I could bring a gift funding request proposal back to him for consideration. He said yes and, “Be bold!”
The proposal included a very large ask amount to rename the hospital after them. They made a $40 million gift. We promptly changed the $50 million campaign to a $75 million campaign. The Eskenazi’s were looking for a legacy gift. Sidney had grown up poor on the Southside of Indianapolis and knew the value of a public inner city hospital.
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi, compassionate and humble donors, contributed one of the greatest philanthropic gifts ever to the people of Central Indiana, and one of the largest gifts ever made to a public hospital in the U.S. Through this gift, Wishard Hospital became the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital. The new hospital opened in 2013.
Lois Eskenazi said, “In the process of learning everything we can about this institution, we have fallen in love with it and are tremendously excited to support its mission with this gift.”
Ernie Vargo did not begin his work career with a focus on the nonprofit sector. Like many of us, fate, friends, connections and conversations moved him to this field. As a practitioner, consultant, teacher and philanthropic leader who made a very successful career in the profession, I salute him as a leader in the field of philanthropy.
I am honored to have known him for many years. He continues to set an example of excellence we all should strive to follow. Ernie Vargo is a valued colleague, and like all of us, cares deeply about others and to the betterment of society that nonprofit excellence and service provides on a daily basis.
F. Duke Haddad, EdD, CFRE, is currently associate director of development, director of capital campaigns and director of corporate development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition, he is also president of Duke Haddad and Associates, LLC, and freelance instructor for Nonprofit Web Advisor.
He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO for the past 13 years.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis on education administration, master’s degree from Marshall University with an emphasis in public administration and a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University in business administration, with an emphasis in marketing/management. He has also done post graduate work at the University of Louisville.