John V. Saeman is a devout Roman Catholic, whose loyalty to the Catholic Church has been expressed through generous contributions of time, treasure, and talent. Indeed, fidelity seems to be the hallmark of his philanthropy, characterizing his life, his friendships, and his charitable giving.
“In every sense,” says Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, “the Saemans are a heroic example of public service, fidelity to the Church, and love for her good works.” Mr. Saeman is the founding chairman of the Catholic Foundation for the Archdiocese of Denver and a former board member of two Catholic colleges, Loras College and Regis University. Carol, his wife of 46 years, has chaired the development committee of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Together, they are founding trustees of the Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust, which provides scholarships to low-income students in the greater Denver area to attend Catholic schools.Both Saemans have served on the board of the Papal Foundation.
Mr. Saeman is likewise faithful to his friends, past and present. Through his service on the board of the $1 billion Daniels Fund, he worked to ensure loyalty to the philanthropic vision of his late friend, business partner, and mentor, Bill Daniels. As chairman of the board, Mr. Saeman led a systematic effort to recover, refine, and realize Daniels’ charitable intent. His efforts serve as a model of the proper stewardship of philanthropic assets.
He is equally committed to the charities he supports, whether in Denver or the developing world. Mr. Saeman has given of himself to the Catholic Radio Network and the National Jewish Hospital, to the Boy Scouts and the Young Presidents Organization, to Catholic Charities and the Colorado Alliance for Reform in Education. But he also expects from these charities a measure of fidelity in return—and structures his giving accordingly.
Philanthropy spoke with Mr. Saeman about his work in service to the Catholic Church and his efforts to honor the intent of his friend Bill Daniels—and to ensure his own philanthropic legacy.
PHILANTHROPY: You were born and raised in a small town in Wisconsin. How does that experience inform your giving today?
MR. SAEMAN: I grew up in a Midwestern farming community with a population of about 350 people. Generosity was a way of life. We didn’t have homeless people walking the streets. If people came to our town, they had a place to stay. If they were looking for a job, there was always work. People ate regular meals. Some were more fortunate than others, but there was a spirit—not published, not public, not profiled in any way—that people took care of people. If somebody had a need, somehow people were always there to take care of it. If somebody’s barn burned down, there was a barn-raising group that would get together and volunteer to help the farmer put his barn back up.
My parents were of modest means, but they were very generous. When I was a kid, my dad made $350 per month. I specifically remember one time that they budgeted $1,000 for a local church campaign. I thought, “Wow, how do you do that?” I was just a boy, so it didn’t quite register, but I knew that my parents were committed to the things in
life that mattered to them—and that they were willing to make the sacrifices necessary to see them succeed. A person doesn’t forget those things later in life.
PHILANTHROPY: For 34 years, you worked alongside telecom pioneer Bill Daniels. Would you mind saying a few words about your business partnership?
MR. SAEMAN: I graduated from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1958. Like most people coming out of college back then, I went straight into military service. I joined the Marine Corps. After that, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know what my real ambitions were, what my calling in life might be. I would say I went through my first two jobs without any direction.
Then I met Bill Daniels. He was already a major figure in the cable television industry. He took a liking to me, and I to him, and the rest is history. Bill brought out the best in me, without really trying, just by being who he was and acting how he acted. I watched him closely. I listened to him, I was motivated by him—and I wanted to be a success like him. I wanted to do all the things he did so well: making money, putting people together, being an entrepreneur. He wasn’t a hands-on mentor; he was very much a global guy. He saw everything from 30,000 feet.
PHILANTHROPY: When Bill Daniels passed away, he named you a founding board member of the $1 billion Daniels Fund. Did he give the board much guidance?
MR. SAEMAN: In some ways, yes, he did. Bill left very specific guidelines as to where he wanted us to work. He wanted us to operate in four states. He allocated specific percentages to be spent on each of those states. Within each of the states, he allocated between educational programs (meaning tuition assistance, mostly) and other areas of giving: homelessness, drug abuse, and so forth. We had a very clear template for at least some of what he wanted.
But those instructions didn’t actually tell us much about how he saw the world. Even before Bill died, it was pretty obvious to both Jack Daniels—Bill’s brother—and me that we needed to put more meat on the skeleton, so to speak. In the year leading up to Bill’s death, we tried—unsuccessfully—to set up a meeting in which we would sit down and ask Bill questions: “What do you mean by this? What do you mean by that?” But we never got that opportunity. As a result, after Bill died, it became important for all of us to understand in greater detail what Bill would’ve wanted.
PHILANTHROPY: You’re referring, I take it, to one of the most remarkable achievements of the Daniels Fund: its systematic effort to reconstruct the charitable intent of Bill Daniels. You were chairman of the board during that process. Can you say a few words about it?
MR. SAEMAN: First off, the intent of the donor always has to prevail. It’s not our money. If a man is giving away his money, by gosh, he gets to decide where he wants it to go. If he trusts me to give away his money, then I have a responsibility to direct it where he wants. And if I think for a minute that I get to decide where his money ought to go, that’s the moment for me to step off the board and get out of the way. That was our attitude when we started this process.
Now, because Bill was such an open and public person, it was possible to construct what he meant for us by going through his letter-writing, his speeches, and things of that kind. Bill was quite a prolific speaker and writer. So we went back and pored through the files from the last 15 years of his life. We pored through his charitable giving manifest, his check registers. We wanted to see what kind of charities he gave money to when he supported the homeless. We wanted to see what kind of notes, if any, he sent with the checks.
We were looking for anything that would give us an indication of where his heart was. We wanted to establish much more clearly what exactly Bill would want from us. Simply saying that you want to provide tuition assistance doesn’t provide a clear enough map. By the time we got through with this process—with poring over Bill’s writings and studying in detail how he gave to charity during his lifetime—we had a much clearer sense of what we should be doing.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you give an example?
MR. SAEMAN: Sure. Bill indicated he wanted to support ethics programs. Well, “ethics” is a pretty broad word. Every school in the country has an ethics program; everybody believes in some kind of ethics. But we wanted to make sure that we were supporting the kinds of ethics programs that Bill would support, not just anything that called itself an “ethics program.”
What did Bill Daniels mean by the word “ethics”? We went through his files, his letters, and, just as importantly, his actions. What kind of a man was Bill? What kind of an ethical posture did he have? The board concluded that Bill was fundamentally a principle-based ethicist. He believed that there are certain principles—man’s integrity, honesty—that are inviolable. He believed in the reality of absolute ethical principles, and the need of all people to follow them. He was known for being extremely honest and fair in business. He made business decisions solely on the basis of what he thought was the right thing to do, not what was in the best financial interest of the company.
Take an example from his life. At one time, Bill owned the [now-defunct] Utah Stars. It didn’t work out, and in 1975 he had to file for bankruptcy. But Bill couldn’t live with himself until he had sufficient money to go back to Utah and pay every single one of the people who had suffered as a result of his filing bankruptcy. He kept track of who he owed money to, and five years after filing for bankruptcy, he went to Salt Lake City and handed out checks to everybody: season ticket holders, concession vendors, everybody. Everybody got their money back, with interest. In all, it cost him more than $750,000 [nearly $2 million in 2010] out of his own pocket. Now, Bill was under no legal obligation to do that. But he could not live with the fact that somebody, some small businessman, might have suffered because he had to close down the Stars. He couldn’t live until he corrected that.
So the Daniels Fund supports ethics programs—but only if they’re principle-based. If they don’t follow the guidelines of a principle-based ethics program, the Daniels Fund won’t support them. Period.
PHILANTHROPY: Was this intended to be an ongoing process, or does the board feel that the job is now more or less finished?
MR. SAEMAN: Well, I’m no longer on the board, so I can’t speak for how it feels about this today. But here’s how I felt when I was a board member. I think certain parts of the process are finished. I think it’s basically a closed matter that Bill was a principle-based ethicist. That’s who Bill was. That isn’t going to change. Can there be fine-tuning and tweaking? Absolutely. There probably needs to be. But nothing can change the fundamentals.
PHILANTHROPY: If I may, I’d like to turn to your work with Catholic charities. Now, one cause near and dear to your heart is Catholic schools. How are Catholic schools faring in the Rocky Mountains?
MR. SAEMAN: I think we’re doing a pretty darn good job. We have a number of educational institutions, from colleges and universities to private schools and parochial schools. We have scholarship programs like the Seeds of Hope, which do a terrific job in helping many young people have the access to an education that would not otherwise be available to them because of a parent’s lack of resources. We have programs like ACE [Alliance for Choice in Education], a Colorado-based scholarship program that has provided more than 6,000 scholarships in 10 years.
When we talk about Catholic schools, it’s important to recognize that just because a school is Catholic doesn’t mean you need to be Catholic to attend. We’ve got one school in Denver that is about 80 percent non-Catholic. That school still has tremendous needs. Nearly all of the students at that school come from families that cannot afford the education that they want for their children. It’s only because of tuition assistance that they’re able to educate their kids and give them a leg up in society. But Catholic schools recognize those economic needs; we welcome and educate the needy. We do whatever we can for the benefit of our fellow man.
Could we do better? Always. There’s always room for improvement.
PHILANTHROPY: You and Carol were actually founding trustees of the Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust, correct? So let me ask you: are private scholarships enough? Or do Catholic schools need tax credits and vouchers?
MR. SAEMAN: I don’t think that private initiatives are enough in this area. Private schools in general, and parochial schools in particular, provide a very real service to our entire society. I think that we need to have an integrated program that provides choice and opportunity for all families.
We as a people have decided that education is so important that we mandate it for everyone. I don’t understand the logic of the government then saying, “Fine, but we can’t give you a choice. You all have to stay in school and you all have to reach a certain grade level, but we’ll only fund your education if you go to our school. We collect the tax dollars from everybody, but we’ll only give them to certain schools.”
That’s bad for public education, too. Without competition, you get the failure you see in so many of our public school systems. Everybody from the federal level on down pours billions and billions of dollars into education. What we end up with is a gigantic bureaucracy, untamed by any forces of competition, with more and more rules and less and less benefit to the young kids who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the public school system. It seems to me that if all of our kids are important—which they obviously are—then we have to give every kid in our society the best opportunity to achieve and succeed in a vibrant, flourishing school.
But we have this brain lock that says, “Oh my gosh, no, this is a matter of separation of church and state!” Well, we give federal loans to students at religious colleges and universities. How is that different from a voucher? It’s strange that people will leave kids in awful inner-city public schools when there are nearby schools that would actually give them a fair shot at success. That attitude—that it’s better to sacrifice poor kids than to have a system of vouchers or tax credits—is kind of insane.
PHILANTHROPY: What could Catholic schools—and the donors who support them—be doing better?
MR. SAEMAN: Well, we need to do a better job of telling our story. We don’t tell our story well enough and often enough to cause people to sit up and say, “Wow, we have to get in there and help!” Other nonprofits here in Denver—the art museum, the hospital—market themselves better. As a result, they’re more likely to get a contribution, even from some of our own Catholic laity. It’s really unfortunate because the Catholic Church in Colorado—and I think this is true in most states—touches an incredible number of lives, whether you’re talking about educating needy kids, running hospitals, taking care of the elderly, running homeless shelters. The list goes on and on.
For many of us Catholics, we get locked into giving to our parishes. We think that once we put some money in the collection box, well, we’ve taken care of our responsibility. But the Catholic community is involved in a countless number of causes. The needs are enormous and the opportunities are abundant. But unless and until our story is told—including all of the different dimensions of our philanthropy—the mindset of Catholics just giving at the parish level will probably continue.
PHILANTHROPY: Let’s talk for a moment about Catholic higher education. You have served on the board of directors at two Catholic colleges: Loras College in Dubuque and Regis University in Denver. Based on your experience, what do you think are some of the most encouraging developments in Catholic higher education?
MR. SAEMAN: I no longer sit on those boards, but from what I see, I think the use of new technology is very exciting. For example, in Colorado we have a startup organization called the Augustine Institute. It’s designed to be a resource for teaching the teachers, but with a commitment to be consistent with the Magisterium of the Church. It provides master’s degrees in evangelization and scripture.
Say you’re a religious instructor at a Catholic grade school or a high school, and you want to strengthen your background in philosophy or theology. You can earn a master’s degree online through their distance education program. Most of the students at the Augustine Institute are studying online. They’re already employed as teachers, and they don’t have the financial ability to leave teaching for two years to get a degree.
The Augustine Institute has also developed programs for the training and education of deacons. You’re well aware of the support and help that come from deacons in a parish. So they train deacons, they train teachers, and they train youth ministers. It’s a wonderful program.
It’s one example of what I see coming. The old model—one campus, lots of students—well, I don’t know how it continues over time. It gets more and more costly, with more and more distractions from the real mission of higher education. Higher education is supposed to center on teaching and learning, professor and student. But it’s currently arranged so that professors are more interested in communicating with each other than they are in teaching their students.
I think the whole model of college and university education is going to change. We’re seeing more emphasis on community colleges. We’re seeing more interest in hands-on, technical education. We’re seeing students working while going to school part-time. We’re seeing people take six or eight years instead of four. And we’re seeing more and more efforts put into making distance education work.
PHILANTHROPY: You mention the training of deacons. As you know, one of the great challenges facing American Catholicism is the sharp drop in the numbers of priests and nuns. What can lay Catholic donors do to increase vocations to the religious life?
MR. SAEMAN: Well, Catholics certainly need to generously support our seminaries and our convents. But I’m not sure if money is the real issue here. In the small town where I grew up, there were eight nuns, four of whom were teachers. Mind you, this was a community of 350 people. That was a fairly decent number of nuns. And the sisters were visible: they were in our grocery stores, they were outside, they were in church, and they were in habits. Young people—young women—were attracted to them as role models.
It seems to me that encouraging religious life starts with the family. I would have been tremendously proud if either of my boys or my daughter had chosen a religious life. I have no priests on my side of the family, but I have a lot of aunts and great-aunts who are members of religious communities. It was always a great source of pride for our family. Additionally, the Catholic clergy has to promote vocations. We’re blessed here in Denver. Our archbishop is the happiest priest I’ve ever known. It makes him a natural salesman for religious life. That’s incredibly important, because the one thing you always have to do is ask for the order.
PHILANTHROPY: You and Carol are affiliated with the Papal Foundation. Could you say a few words about it?
MR. SAEMAN: The Papal Foundation is a U.S.-domiciled 501(c)(3) founded in 1988 for the purpose of assisting the Holy Father in his missionary work to third-world countries. We have a number of donors in the United States who contribute to a corpus. Then, the Cardinal Secretary of State makes requests of the Papal Foundation on behalf of the Holy Father. The Papal Foundation reviews the requests and then makes grants from the earnings on the corpus. I was on the board for many years. Now Carol is on the board.
Within the Papal Foundation, we have a specialty fund which helps men and women religious from third- world countries attend universities and colleges in Rome to receive pontifical degrees. These are men and women religious who, at the sponsorship of their ordinary or their bishop, are sent to Rome to earn a degree. These are the standout young men and women, the people with the potential to be the next generation of leadership. Once they have a degree from, say, the Gregorian University or the Lateran University, they are able to return to their dioceses and become the heads of seminaries and convents, and very often become the next ordinaries or bishops. I have to say, it’s wonderful work. It’s a cause that Carol and I love dearly. And it is a great gift to the Holy Father.
But we always try to keep perspective on our charitable priorities. When we were young and getting started, we supported our parish. When we got a little older, we began to take on more responsibilities, supporting the diocese and the seminary. Now, we are in a position to support the work of the Holy Father and the universal church. But it all starts with supporting our local church.
PHILANTHROPY: When you support these charities, how do you structure your giving? Is it primarily through a foundation?
MR. SAEMAN: Our giving has historically been either out of our own checkbook or through a family foundation. We established the foundation, oh, maybe 30 years ago. It’s a pass-through entity. It is not currently funded, and it will not be funded until the last of us dies. After that, it will have a limited life. Within five years, the foundation’s assets are to be liquidated and distributed according to our instructions.
Right now, we mostly practice deferred giving. Say my alma mater asks for $1 million. We will not give $1 million to their endowment. What we will do is commit to giving them the earnings on $1 million of capital, subject to the provision that they continue to act in accordance with our wishes as donors. In effect, we’ll give them, say, $50,000 per year, but the underlying assets remain in our possession and under our control. If the institution fails to live up to the letter of what we expected and agreed to, we hold the assets and stop giving the earnings.
That gives us a tremendous ability to continue to influence our funds in a manner consistent with our wishes. It keeps us at the table. It also means we still control all of our assets in every respect, and we don’t have to concern ourselves with another entity and another layer of responsibility.
There’s a benefit for the institution, too. It gets immediate access to more money. Typically, if somebody is responding to a request for $1 million, there’s a staging-in period. Let’s say it’s five years. In the first year, the first payment—$200,000—may not arrive until the middle of the year. If it’s mid-year, you end up with the annual equivalent of $100,000. At 5 percent, you get $5,000 for the year. In our case, the institution would have received $50,000 in the first year.
Now, as a result of the way we conduct our giving, we have not given away large sums of money on a current basis, but we have made very large commitments for gifts after we die. Basically, we give revocable gifts and hold institutions accountable for what the money was supposed to be used for.
PHILANTHROPY: If I may ask, how much have you given away in your lifetime?
MR. SAEMAN: Let me answer this way. As philanthropists, we are committed to the common good. In our particular instance, that means everything we have will be given away. When the last of us dies, the estate will have five years to liquidate our assets and distribute them according to our plan. Our plan does not include giving to our offspring. Our offspring are in their 40s. We have assisted them (and ourselves) with investments made through family partnerships. Now, they’re self-sustaining and can take care of themselves. That means every dime that we don’t spend will end up going to the designated charitable entities in our estate plan. We believe everything we’ve received is a gift from God, and that when we leave, everything that we’ve got left should be given back to Him, through the works that help maintain the common good. The plan is in place. It’s just not funded.
PHILANTHROPY: For the benefit of your fellow donors, would you be willing to share an example of what you consider a philanthropic failure—an instance where you feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth out of a charitable investment?
MR. SAEMAN: Absolutely. If you’ve been active in philanthropy at all, you’re going to stumble into this. In our case—I’m not going to mention names—we were providing an annual gift to a school according to the terms I described a minute ago. When we made the gift, we qualified that the school must remain faithful and conform to the teachings of the Church. Well, we started to hear rumblings that they were doing things that were inconsistent with the Magisterium of the Church. With the permission of the institution, we hired somebody to go in and conduct a study for us. And at the end of the study, we ended our funding.
In our case, the damage was mitigated by the fact that we still had the assets in our pockets. But there will come a day when the bell rings. Then, five years later, we’re not going to have the opportunity to say, “Oops, wait a minute, you’ve changed course. I’m not happy with that, so I’m going to terminate the revocable obligation that my estate has on this pledge.” But at some point, you have to bite the bullet and trust somebody. I trust the Catholic Church, so that’s where the majority of the money will end up.
PHILANTHROPY: Are there any projects that you hope to take on, but haven’t yet started?
MR. SAEMAN: Oh, lots of stuff. I wish I had $100 billion. There’s always something out there—something you would love to be able to do, some place you would love to be able to make a difference. That’s the challenge. The list of things I would like to do is as long as my arm. If the Lord wants me to do them, He’s going to provide. That I know I can trust.