Building Blocks of Giving

For close to 100 years, the name Dunn has been synonymous with the concept of corporate philanthropy in the Kansas City region. For nearly half that time, Terry and Peggy Dunn have been moving that same ball down the field, then taking it even further on a personal level with giving made possible largely through his work at JE Dunn Construction Co., where as CEO for 24 years he turned a Kansas City brand into a multi-billion-dollar national contracting monolith.

Indeed, the Dunn family story is a powerful narrative about wealth creation’s ability to finance a greater good. Yet to hear Terry tell it, it’s still not enough. The need is too great; the call to serve for everyone—individuals and corporations—retains its urgency.

But few are in the same league as this Kansas City power couple, whose philanthropic fingerprints range from one end of the metro area to another. At the corporate level, nearly a decade after his retirement, JE Dunn still donates 10 percent of its pretax profit to philanthropy. On a personal level, the Dunns themselves directly fund a long list of charitable concerns. Through their family foundation, their reach is extended into another generation with their four children.

In terms of civic engagement, their impact is immeasurable. It’s a history of board service for the region’s most influential non-profits and corporations; it includes advisory roles in business-related and community groups; it has impacted the arts, health care, education, children’s and social causes. They’ve even done their part to help keep Kansas City a major-league city  as part of the investor group that helped John Sherman pony up $1 billion to acquire the Royals from the Glass family in 2019.

For those reasons and, frankly, too many others to count, Ingram’s 2022 Philanthropist of the Year award goes to Peggy and Terry Dunn. They follow previous honorees Henry Bloch and Bill Dunn Sr. (Terry’s Dad) in 2017, Charlie and Kent Sunderland of Ash Grove Foundation in 2018, Shirley and Barnett Helzberg in 2019, John Sherman in 2020, and Mick and Marlys Haverty in 2021.

And, just as each of their predecessors has done for the previous five years, Peggy Dunn greeted news of that distinction with a humble “we feel we are not deserving of this honor.”

The mayor of Leawood isn’t wrong about many things, but she’s wrong about that one. Let us count just a few of the ways their impact reverberates across the city, and will for decades to come:

• They have served as the chairs a capital campaign that raised more than $200 million for the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Peggy earned a degree in sociology and Terry earned his MBA a year before going to work for the family construction company in 1974.UMKC remains high on the list of favored causes, and Peggy was designated co-chair for the university’s 80th Anniversary celebration, and is a senior fellow at the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership in the Henry W. Bloch School of Management.

• In keeping with their Catholic roots, their foundation has funded hundreds of thousands of dollars to faith-based causes, including the Society of the Most Holy Trinity in Corpus Christi, Texas, as well as the One Faith campaign for the Kansas City archdiocese, the Jewish Community Relations Bureau and many others.

• Their support for youth organizations includes the Boy Scouts of America and the Children’s Miracle Network, Children’s TLC and the Marillac Center, among many others.

• Health-care concerns they’ve funded include what is now University Health, the National Kidney Foundation, American Heart Association, Ability KC and others.

• Secular education gets a lift with gifts to the endowment foundation at the University of Kansas and to Park University, and faith-directed schools to that have benefitted from their work and contributions include Rockhurst University and Benedictine College, St. Thomas Aquinas High School and the Catholic Education Foundation. Again, among others.

• The arts are covered at both the performing and visual levels with donations to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts (which JE Dunn built, by the way) and Starlight Theater, two iconic venues for the region. 

• Civic champions? The foundation’s gifts have included $100,000 to American Public Square, while other recipients include the National World War I Museum, United Way of Greater Kansas City and the Salvation Army, plus board service for the Kansas City Area Development Council and the Economic Development Commission of Kansas City.

There are also plenty of honors and tributes from, or service on behalf of, organizations well outside this region. They range from household names to the truly obscure, as with Peggy’s affiliation with the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. 

As we said—an unusual level of engagement and commitment.

Early Influences

So where does this depth of philanthropy originate? Just as it has done with their own children, it started at home.

“Both of us have been privileged and honored to come from a background of parents who have been very generous people, who raised us in households where giving back was important and where charity was important,” Peggy says. Too, their exposure to charitable events and causes during their parochial school education played a role. “I can recall even as a child, giving part of my allowance to St. Anthony’s Boys Home, and still give to this day,” Peggy says. “St. Anthony is the patron of lost things, and I can find almost anything with a prayer to St. Anthony. People who know me call and ask me to pray for them if they lose something. It was just instilled in us from the beginning.”

It was, Terry concurs, experiential while growing up. “From my education to my parents to others, the whole responsibility of giving time, talent and treasure was very much ingrained in us from an early age,” he says. “And not just giving charity, but time and whatever you could do to assist others and actually be there and experience people in need. All of it reinforced how we give and what we give to.”

With such a lengthy roster of beneficiaries, one might think it a challenge to reach agreements on where to give—and how.

“We give to a number of organizations, but probably have a top 10 we give to that I believe are addressing people at risk or in line with our Catholic faith,” Terry says. “We do donate to a number of schools for those who can be assisted with a hand up—basically, services for those at risk really have our attention. The experience and evangelization of faith is very import to us.”

When you have a passion for almost everything, it’s easy to identify a need. “Our giving is pretty broad-based,” Peggy says. “We certainly focus on organizations where we are involved, primarily, where we have a passion and generally where we believe in the leadership of that organization and the fact that they are using best practices. But it can be the gamut from religious institution, social service agencies, the arts and culture, health care, and education. We don’t simply focus on one area like so many foundations with their philanthropical focus. Terry and I are far more liberal in our giving as far as who we give to and the causes, but we do have a passion always, for those we donate to.”  

Two-way consensus, then, isn’t hard to achieve.

“When things pop up, we do talk,” Terry says, “but typically, we look at what was done in previous years, and unless there is something meaningful that has come up, we’re close in line to previous years.”

The task is simplified somewhat by their diverse interests. Their engagement logbook, past and present, includes service to more than 100 civic, educational and non-profit charities, yet you can count on one hand the number of organizations where their service and support have overlapped.  

“I’m involved in some organizations where Terry is not; sometimes he’s involved in something I’m not, but he’s certainly willing to support those when I bring them up,” Peggy says. “We do talk, but he has certain things he’s ultra-passionate about and wants to give to, and I support those, as well. We do try not to have surprises, but generally, we’re both passionate about the same things.”

But their gifts are not entirely unrestricted. Terry Dunn didn’t assume leadership of a multi-billion-dollar construction company without a keen grasp of metrics, and he draws on that experience when assessing impact.

“With any major commitments we do want to see measurement; we want to see that the charity is viable and has an impact,” he says. “The bottom line on measuring what they are doing and how they are using money donated to them is extremely important. Basically, you get reports, in some cases quarterly reports or annual reports, but again, we want to know how many lives are being impacted: are they impacted from a quality standpoint and in a positive way.”

The metrics, then, become “very important. It’s almost like investing in a business—investing in a charity with a return, doing the good they promised to do. Accountability is very important.”

Of Philanthropy and Legacy

They haven’t just been part of a Kansas City legacy of giving; they have helped shape it. The metropolitan area has long enjoyed a reputation for being a national leader in philanthropy, and the Dunns would like to see that reputation stand. But in a post-pandemic world, with the threat of deep recession looming, there are reasons to worry.

On the upside, “I can think of a number of individuals over the last 10 years who have been able to create wealth and reinvest in their own foundations, many of them quite substantial, but who are not interested in advertising what they are doing,” Terry says. “The other side is, we need to be very aware that the engagement level of Corporate America is somewhat meandering. We must make sure we are engaging the business leaders of today to be proactively engaged with time, talent and treasure and giving back to this community. That would be an area I think that deserves dialogue and encouragement. 

“I believe we are always changing and don’t think we can drive the car backwards by looking in the rear-view mirror. We have to look forward, we have to encourage others to share in that opportunity. We have a great legacy as a city, but the challenge going forward is how to move toward truly becoming that City on a Hill vs. where we are today.”

Peggy points to the remarkable growth of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, which now manages more than $5 billion in assets, as an indicator of increased philanthropic spirit. Much of that growth has come from a kind of democratization of philanthropy, with the region securing more small donors, and becoming less reliant on titans of commerce with names like Bloch, Hall and Helzberg to lead the way.

“I think you can look at that foundation and growth there to know that Kansas City still, on a per-capita basis, is one of the most philanthropic communities in the nation,” she says. “Perhaps there are, as you say, more people giving and perhaps not as recognizable as certain specific names. A quieter giver, I suppose, but I do think people are extraordinarily generous. When I work on capital campaigns, I’m amazed at finding folks who we’ll approach who I sometimes don’t even know, but they give generously to causes they believe in. I think Kansas City is holding its own.”

Carrying that Kansas City spirit into a new generation, the Dunns have worked diligently to instill their level of commitment to four children— Patrick, Brian, Katie, and Michael. 

“At some point, when we mature from this life, we hope to have left a foundation that our children will oversee and be involved in,” Peggy says. “Even at this stage of our lives, we’re trying to educate and encourage philanthropy with them. Really, if our kids can live lives of charitable giving and philanthropic focus, I think that would be a great legacy.”

“I’m a believer,” Terry says, “that you can plant many trees, but those who enjoy the shade need to be to the mothers and fathers of that going forward. We try to be as invisible as we can be, but hope we can impact somebody else who follows in those footsteps to invest in areas of the greatest need. As far as my own legacy? I’m not concerned. When I’m in the grave, it really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, if we can inspire others to pick up the baton on their own, that’s the legacy I’d be very interested in.”