The phone in Bill Hardt’s Princeton University office is not red. (Nor is it orange for that matter.) But make no mistake, his phone is a hotline for the Princeton community, and in his 47 years as a leader with Annual Giving, he’s never failed to answer the call. “I’ve called Bill on Sunday at the office, expecting to leave a message — and he’s there,” says Dennis Keller ’63, a former University trustee who graduated alongside Hardt. “I had to tell him he’s not supposed to be there on Sunday. But he’s always there, and that resonates: This guy really cares about what we do for Princeton and what Princeton does for the world.”
To many alumni, Bill Hardt ’63 is Annual Giving (AG) at Princeton. In 1971, when he returned to his alma mater after a stint at Time Inc., AG was raising a respectable $3 million-plus per year and setting their sights on breaking through the $4 million ceiling. In 2017, Hardt led the AG team of staff and volunteers to its highest total ever: $74.9 million. He announced this May his intention to retire as assistant vice president for development; the AG campaign that concluded in June raised another $69.6 million, the second highest total in Princeton’s history.
The unrestricted gifts raised each year by AG can be applied directly towards the University’s most pressing needs, and the collaborative effort — with participation rates that are among the most successful in higher education — exemplifies the University’s spirit. “The core of the program is the ethos that this isn’t the institution reaching out to the flock as much as it is alumni coming together to say, ‘We want to see Princeton continue to prosper and we’re going to put our shoulder to the wheel to make this happen,’” Hardt says, pointing to the more than 42,000 volunteers and donors who contributed to the effort this year.
Something to Believe In
Hardt’s lifelong commitment to Princeton might seem preordained. His father was Class of ’28, and the first person Hardt met at Princeton was admissions officer Joe Bolster ‘52, who would go on to be his predecessor and longtime mentor in Annual Giving. But when the opportunity arose to join the development staff as an assistant director in 1971, he didn’t immediately envision a career that would last nearly five decades.
“My wife, Julie, used to remind me that I told her that this might be a two-year gig and we’d be moving on,” Hardt says. “It was just serendipity. What I hadn’t fully appreciated coming in was just the human dynamic of all of this: why people care enough to give and to work as hard as they do as volunteers. When that is part of your daily activity, how uplifting — to have people who are doing something not to benefit themselves but to benefit something that they believe in.”
The same ideals that define AG also demand a leader who is loyal, patient, and, perhaps most importantly, unflappable. Hardt is the epitome of all those traits, says Kirk Unruh ’70, recording secretary for the University. “We used to talk a lot about individuals being force-multipliers — like a good point-guard in basketball who makes everybody else better than they otherwise would be,” Unruh says. “Bill is one of the most estimable individuals I've ever known, with an inherent goodness that draws people to him and to the causes that he’s involved.”
Knowing the Works
Since taking over the reins in 1991, Hardt has steered AG through several periods of technological transformation, from ledger books to the era of perforated computer printouts, from a comprehensive database to the quick-click ease of making your gift via Venmo. Yet there’s no tech upgrade for the whizzing computer that is Hardt’s mind, a treasure trove of Princeton history that recalls individual alumni and the stories behind their Annual Giving involvement, going back decades. “Annual Giving could be seen as an extremely complex piece of volunteer-driven machinery, and Bill knows every last cog in that machinery,” says Rand Mirante ’70, AG senior associate director. “You’d have to invest in at least a dozen Cray super-computers to try to duplicate his institutional memory.”
The engine starts up from scratch each year: it’s the annual in Annual Giving that makes it challenging. No matter how successful the previous campaign, the starting point each July is always $0.
“Every year we have ambitious goals and amazing volunteers,” says Sue Walsh, executive director of Annual Giving, who will succeed Hardt. “And we have had such strong leadership from Bill. He makes us believe we can do it, year after year — and he always inspires the staff and volunteers to make it happen. He has worked so tirelessly, and cares so deeply about this wonderful place, about keeping Princeton Princeton.”
Suited for Success
Hardt’s confidence comes from his faith in both the University and in the friendly competition among the classes that he’s helped foster during his tenure. Hardt is conscientious about recognizing the most active classes from each campaign. That solidarity is a seed that is planted early. “I’m always interested when I talk to students and I ask, ‘What year are you?’” Hardt says. “You half expect them to say, ‘I’m a sophomore,’ or ‘I’m a junior.’ Instead they say, ‘I’m in the Class of 2021.’ You think, great, they already have that imprint.”
Hardt has a perfect record of AG giving, and his Class of ‘63 is legendary for its generosity. Cumulatively over the years, the Class of ’63 has contributed more to AG than any other Princeton class; his classmates came through again this year, with their 11th consecutive major reunion dollar record while leading the 2017-18 campaign with nearly 78 percent participation. “Bill is a very big part of the why and how that has happened,” Keller says. “He’s been a constant strength and a constant part of the glue of our class.”
While his family owns a summer house in Maine that is a favorite vacation spot, Hardt isn’t exactly sailing into the sunset. In fact, he’s remaining involved part-time with Princeton Development as a senior advisor. It’s a role that will afford Hardt the opportunity to continue to style an orange tie almost every day. (For the record, he owns 26.) “I do have a few other ties that aren’t orange,” he says. “But if you reach in your closet and grab a blue tie, you know, anybody can do that without having any purpose behind it. When you grab an orange one, you’re doing that for a reason.”