Hillmans take on new leadership role with Eliot Society

A conversation with the co-chairs of the Danforth Circle membership committee

For alumni Jennifer and Tom Hillman, Washington University is more than just their alma mater. Natives of Texas and New York, respectively, they stayed in St. Louis after graduation, married, and bought a house a block from the Danforth Campus. Over the years, their lives became increasingly entwined with WashU as they stepped into positions as volunteer leaders and benefactors.

Portrait photo of Jennifer and Tom Hillman with their grandson
Jennifer and Tom Hillman with their grandson in Colorado (Courtesy photo)

Mr. Hillman, AB ’78, founder and managing partner of investment firm Lewis & Clark Holdings, is deeply involved as a trustee, participant in multiple university-wide and School of Medicine committees, and member of the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship National Council. Mrs. Hillman, BFA ’79, a former sales promotion, advertising, and events professional, is a member of the National Council for Student Affairs. Both also serve on the Brown School National Council, which Mr. Hillman leads, extending their contributions to the school whose facilities include a building named in honor of their generous financial support.

Last fall, the couple took on new roles as co-chairs of the Danforth Circle membership committee for the William Greenleaf Eliot Society, the university’s giving club for Annual Fund donors. They are charged with helping WashU encourage and inspire alumni, parents, and friends to join the Danforth Circle, the highest level of Eliot Society recognition, reserved for donors who make unrestricted gifts of $25,000 or more each year.

Why did you agree to serve as co-chairs of the Danforth Circle membership committee?

Tom: Jen and I are partners, and we gravitate toward things that we can do together. On a personal note, I had a wonderful relationship with the late Chancellor Emeritus Bill Danforth, for whom the Danforth Circle is named. I considered him a friend. He was a mentor and role model for me. After his death last fall, I saw this as an opportunity to honor his legacy, so it was a very simple yes for me.

Jennifer: We have a passion for WashU, and it seemed like a natural evolution for us to use that passion to encourage other Eliot Society members to elevate their support to the Danforth Circle level. The university and its faculty are leading the way in so many areas that are important to our society, both on the Danforth and Medical campuses. Sharing the news about this work with alumni, parents, and friends is a powerful motivator.

What are your goals as co-chairs?

Jennifer: The Danforth Circle represents giving at a high level. Those who have capacity to give at that level are looking for something different, and this pandemic and the virtual world we live in have given us the opportunity to shift our approach. Tom and I are out-of-the-box thinkers and risk takers. We want to use our abilities to come up with fresh ideas, with the goal of bringing new people in and establishing a relationship with them.

Tom: WashU is fortunate to have a loyal group of donors who have continuously built the reservoirs from which we drink. We want to identify new leaders and philanthropists who have a similar mindset of wanting to pay it forward. Because Jen and I operate in an entrepreneurial environment, we have seen a lot of younger people achieve success. We can encourage that generation to live generously and move toward significance through their giving.

Why is unrestricted giving through the Annual Fund—providing support not designated for a specific purpose—important to the university?

Tom: In life, things don’t always move in a linear fashion. In order to be effective, leaders must have the ability to allocate resources when unexpected opportunities or challenges arise. The pandemic is a perfect case in point.

Jennifer: Because of our work with the Brown School National Council, we heard stories about students who needed emergency help for rent and food because of the COVID crisis. And when the dorms shut down in spring 2020, the university had to pack and ship students’ belongings to them. Those are the kinds of emergency situations that unrestricted funds can help with, along with things like recruiting the best faculty and staff, programming for first-generation students, and so many other areas.

How is giving at the Danforth Circle different?

Jennifer: Contributing at the Danforth Circle level is about investing in the future. It’s about providing flexible funding that allows the university to take advantage of strategic opportunities when they arise. And it’s about coming around the table with like-minded philanthropists to learn, collaborate, and make a difference. Members are not just writing checks. They participate in events and provide leadership that makes them vital members of the university community.

Tom: Personally, I am stimulated by learning about the reach of WashU’s different schools and the thought leaders who are changing the world and shaping students who will continue their work. We have this jewel here, and people can experience it if they want to engage.

As alumni, why do you support WashU?

Jennifer: I think the foundation is probably what we received from the university by attending it. WashU set us both on successful paths. Also, we value the relationships we have with students, faculty members, staff, and fellow supporters. That’s very fulfilling for Tom and me. We feel very privileged and grateful to be able to do what we do.

Tom: The university invites engagement and participation. For us, that’s very powerful. We have always prided ourselves on giving our time, talent, and treasure to the institutions we support. Because we are so involved, we know what the university stands for and respect the integrity of its mission and its leaders. We are confident our investment will generate long-term value for our community and the world.

Learn more about the Danforth Circle and other giving clubs that recognize Washington University donors.

Tom and Jennifer Hillman with member of Washington University's Class of 2021
Tom and Jennifer Hillman celebrate Commencement with members of the Class of 2021. (Mary Butkus photo)