Interview with Howard Dahl

The founder of Amity Technology discusses his giving to rehabilitate the former Soviet Union and assesses Ukraine

Howard Dahl is a third-generation manufacturer. His grandfather’s company created the Bobcat loader. His father and uncle ran a business that produced four-wheel-drive tractors. As a young man, Dahl wanted to guide a company that would help poor farmers and alleviate worldwide famine, but “global poverty was a bigger task than I could handle, so I put my energies into creating a sustainable business,” he told  Inc. magazine. Today he runs Amity Technology, which started selling harvesting equipment for sugar beets and now builds a range of advanced agricultural implements. The company, based in Fargo, North Dakota, has found much of its business in the former Soviet Union, and Dahl has made scores of trips there and reads at least one book on Russian history every year. His philanthropy reflects this: He has given millions to colleges in Moscow and Lithuania, and for support of Ukrainian orphans. Shaped deeply by his evangelical Christian faith, Dahl’s donations also extend to U.S. higher education, youth ministry on Indian reservations, development in Africa, Fargo arts organizations, and more. Howard and his wife, Ann, attempt to give away 75 percent of their income and live on the remaining 25 percent. He also gives his time to several boards: it was while he was in the nation’s capital for a Trinity Forum board meeting that Dahl sat down with Philanthropy for a lemonade and conversation about the various ways he tries to translate his business success into social good.

Philanthropy: Let’s start with what brings you to D.C. today. The Trinity Forum brings business leaders together to discuss Western civilization’s big ideas, religion, and great works of literature. How did you get involved?

Dahl: I met the founder of the Trinity Forum, Os Guinness, in 1974. He’s a friend I respect enormously because of his commitment to religious freedom and excellence in all thinking. There are so many aspects of what the Trinity Forum represents that I find worth supporting. It’s the intersection of three areas of life: the best of great literature, leadership principles, and faith.

One Trinity Forum seminar that I remember especially was on the seven deadly sins and how they affect all of our lives. It meant spending a couple of hours talking about each of the deadly sins and reading from great literature and Biblical references, and then having a rich discussion.

Philanthropy: Do you believe businessmen need to think more about these issues?

Dahl: I certainly do. Our actions flow out of our deepest convictions. Someone committed to truth, justice, and right thinking will see things differently than someone who says “my only goal in business is the bottom line.” If you’re running a manufacturing business, you have lots of warranty issues that come up. You have your official warranty policy, but the first question you ask is: What is the right thing to do versus the most profitable? For the good of the company long-term, “the right thing” is always the best place to start. What is just, what is fair, what is true are healthy questions for any businessperson to ask.

Philanthropy: How does your faith influence your work?

Dahl: The golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I’ve never found that inapplicable, to any moment or any day of my life.

Philanthropy: It sounds like business and philanthropy go hand-in-hand for you, and that much of your work would fall under the category of “social enterprise.”

Dahl: My company is doing a project in Dagestan in the Caucasus Mountains where the Boston bombers’ parents live and where one of the bombers was radicalized, where many policemen and moderate Islamic clerics have been killed in the last few years. It’s a very difficult area. We’re trying to do an agricultural development project there, putting in irrigation systems, vegetable and grain storage buildings, along with machinery, training, and technology. It’s seemingly impossible to do what needs to be done. I’ve made decisions to extend them credit that probably don’t make a lot of sense. But I have such a sense of wanting to help.

I just came back from Siberia where I was honored by the government of the Kemerovo Oblast for helping to create an agricultural machinery manufacturing business there, Agro, that has become very successful. I call it my mini-Marshall Plan. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there weren’t many people going there to help. I felt that the situation was so desperate that even if our company never made any money but could make life better for them, it would be a really good thing. It was almost embarrassing to hear them give me thanks for helping them develop something that is not only good for their 200 employees in the region, but sustainable and profitable. Communities have got to have an economic foundation that’s real and viable. That’s what we’re able to create with this company.

Philanthropy: You recently took a sabbatical to read old journals and think about where to spend your time in the future. Can you tell me more about that and why you did it?

Dahl: To quote Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It was a time of deep reflection on what I should be doing with my time: Are there any corrections I should be making? There were some wonderful ideas that came out of the sabbatical. During that month of reflection, I cut off all business e-mails and phone calls.

I read my old journals; they went back 40 years. I have journaled weekly for much of my life, though for some years it’s become infrequent. During critical times of my life, I did it on a daily basis. It was helpful to read them.

Some simple ideas came out of it. For example, our company had always given a birthday gift as a company, a $50 check in the mail to the spouses of employees. We’ve done this for years, but I thought, “Why don’t I write a personal note with it?” So I began writing personal notes, and the response has just been unbelievable from employees and spouses. I’ve had so many notes back from them.

The sabbatical was just a real simple, personal time, but a number of wonderful little ideas like that emerged, as well as a sense of commitment: Yes, I’m doing what I should be doing, and the business that I’m involved in is worthwhile.

Philanthropy: What can you tell us about the Russian-American Institute, the American-style Christian liberal arts college you’ve supported in Moscow?

Dahl: John Bernbaum, the current president of the institute who was doing some work with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, went over around 1994, and the Russian minister of education said, “Please come and start a liberal arts college in Moscow.” Ann and I supported it financially, and it flourished for many years. We sent about 300 wonderful young men and women into the workplace who were bilingual and had a deep sense of the value of a liberal arts education, all computer literate, and all with strong Christian faith. They thrived. And we had a number of initiatives with the Russian Orthodox Church that led to special relationships between our school and leadership in the church.

But for a variety of reasons the institute had to cease operating as a four-year undergraduate program. The institute had a great social work program, and we’ve spun that off in conjunction with the Russian Orthodox Church. We’ve sold our building and are using the proceeds to continue strategic initiatives that can foster bridge-building between our two countries at this critical time. With that coming to an end, we’re rethinking our giving in the former Soviet Union, which has been a big part of our life.

Philanthropy: You also support Lithuania Christian College. Why do Eastern Europe and Russia need the liberal arts?

Dahl: Having a broad understanding of the world is so enriching, but most Soviet and post-Soviet education has been strictly discipline-focused—for instance, an in-depth study of chemistry, mathematics, or psychology.

However, historically there has been a rich appreciation of music and opera and ballet and literature among Russian leaders. I remember going into Rostov, a city on the Sea of Azov, in 1994, and picking up a magazine with an article about the ten leading businessmen of Rostov. These business leaders in a city of one million all had answers to questions like “Who is your favorite poet?,” “Who is your favorite composer?,” “Who is your favorite novelist?” I thought: “If you ask those questions of average American businessmen, they’d say: ‘Poet? Composer?’”

Philanthropy: You’ve spoken about the tragic history of mismanagement and neglect that has left people impoverished in Russia.

Dahl: There’s a terrible crisis of trust. Russia needs to be repairing the brokenness of spirit, the damage to self-esteem. The risk-averse culture—middle managers are afraid to make a decision because they might make a mistake—also has moral aspects. Developing leadership, building a culture with the freedom to make decisions without fear of getting squashed—there’s just such a need. Some companies are making progress, but the situation is not good. Every government employee, customs official, or policeman is used to making adequate money by taking bribes. Corruption makes it really difficult to have a healthy, trusting culture.

Philanthropy: What do you think about the situation in Russia right now, with the annexation of the Crimea and ongoing tensions in Ukraine?

Dahl: There is a narrative in Russia suggesting that all the Ukrainians who want to align with Europe are Nazis or fascists. When I was in Siberia recently the propaganda had taken hold of people: They really think Mr. Yanukovych was overthrown by fascists. But in Ukraine, the facts about public opinion are clear. The extreme right parties have only about 2 percent support.

Every Ukrainian I know speaks Russian. So this propaganda that the Russian-speaking people in Ukraine are in danger—it’s just amazing that it’s been believed by so many in Russia.

The reality is that Crimea was for a long time a part of Russia, and in 1954 Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine. Many of the people in Crimea are Russians by background, so if you did a legitimate vote in Crimea, you probably would find more than 50 percent that say they prefer to be part of Russia. But of course there was no legitimate vote. The bottom line is that Putin does not want Ukraine to become part of the European community, so he’s going to continue making life difficult for Ukraine.

Philanthropy: Does all this surprise you in any way?

Dahl: It does not surprise me that Putin doesn’t want Ukraine as part of Europe and free of corruption. What does surprise me is the snipers on the roof shooting so many on Maidan Plaza, and the subsequent violence. Yanukovych was corrupt, and Ukraine was even more corrupt than Russia. Yet Ukraine had freedom of speech, and people there could hear both sides of every issue on television or in newspapers, whereas in Russia the media is far more controlled. The irony is, Russians in eastern Ukraine have more freedom to speak out than they would if it became part of Russia.

Philanthropy: Do you see these events affecting your business or philanthropy?

Dahl: They significantly affect our business. There’s very little credit in Ukraine, and so our orders are way off in Ukraine, and likewise in Russia.

As for philanthropy, Ann and I will continue with a number of projects in the area. For 16 years we’ve been supporting a group in Krasnodar in south Russia connected to Young Life, a Christian youth ministry, and the National Prayer Breakfast movement. They work with orphans, and have mentored lots of young people, some of whom come to the National Prayer Breakfast every year. It is a wonderful group.

Philanthropy: What is Russian philanthropic culture like?

Dahl: It’s almost nonexistent. It’s starting, but there’s been no heritage of giving. We had a hard time raising money from Russians for our Russian-American school. Even very wealthy Russians don’t like to make contributions. But we had an opportunity to influence one of our dear friends, a successful Ukrainian businessman, after telling him about our philanthropic work. He and his wife are now paying for 270 orphans to go to college. They personally select and meet with them. It’s just thrilling to see. After he learned about philanthropy, he said, “I want to do that as well.” There are more and more Russians and Ukrainians who are thinking about philanthropy, but there’s no tradition.

Philanthropy: You’ve contributed to Tim Keller’s City to City initiative. Do you think cities need more churches?

Dahl: We think the world of Tim Keller. His capacity to speak truth to hip, urban people in a loving manner is very rare. His desire to see what is going on in Manhattan go to other urban centers of the world—Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, São Paulo—is something we are very excited about.

Philanthropy: You’ve given to endow a chair at the University of North Dakota to foster entrepreneurship. What have the results been thus far?

Dahl: My brother and I wanted to honor our father who was a great entrepreneur and was on the first advisory board for the university’s Center for Innovation. We’re looking at eventually creating a college of entrepreneurship. Students are involved in managing an angel fund, investing real dollars in real companies. I have seen tremendous young leaders emerge. It’s releasing the creative juices that young people have.

Philanthropy: Tell me about your interest in Young Life on Native American reservations.

Dahl: There had been a tremendous number of suicides amongst young people in the Standing Rock Reservation south of Bismarck. An Episcopal priest began working there in conjunction with Young Life. Almost half the kids on the reservation between seventh and twelfth grade were involved in the Young Life program, and there was something like an 80 percent reduction in suicides on the reservation. Now they’re working on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, and looking at the other two reservations in North Dakota.

Philanthropy: You also do some local arts giving. What drives you to that?

Dahl: There are four classical disciplines to philosophy—metaphysics,  the study of what is real; epistemology, what is true; ethics, what is good; and aesthetics, what is beautiful. All four dimensions are important. We’ve got a fine local art museum that we support, and we sponsor a concert for our symphony orchestra every year. I served as chairman of the North Dakota Council on the Arts for a couple of years and was president of our symphony board, where my wife now serves. We are passionate about the arts.

Philanthropy: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your philanthropy, and what have you learned from it?

Dahl: We’ve made some loans to friends and family and when they were unable to pay them back, it created some real tensions. So now we don’t make a loan to any friend or family member without treating it as a gift, because we don’t want to hurt a relationship. We tell them that this is a gift, and if you’re ever able to pay it back, what we’d ask you to do is make a donation to a charity that we consider of value.

Second, we sometimes gave to groups without understanding the final outcomes. There have been many unintended consequences of giving to development work in Africa and other poor countries. We want to make sure it’s not just meeting immediate needs but is sustainable. We like our gifts to not just plug a hole in a dike, but help make life better for people on a long-term basis.

Philanthropy: What philanthropic accomplishment are you most proud of?

Dahl: That my three children, who are now all adults, also have a sense of stewardship, a belief in giving. One of our sons is living in the Middle East, helping Syrian refugees right now.