As a youngster growing up in Chicago, Bob Ottenhoff ’70 read all four of the newspapers his father brought home each day. He knew journalism was his calling. WOOD TV and Radio hired him after his Calvin graduation, and within a few months he became executive producer of the weekend evening newscasts.
He went on to earn his master’s in city and regional planning from Rutgers University. Rutgers then hired him to create the first public radio station based in New Jersey. It covered the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area and had a strong emphasis on news, public affairs, and jazz programming.
From there he became the executive director of the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority and chief operating officer and acting president of the Public Broadcasting Service, overseeing 350 stations around the country.
Ottenhoff recalls during his time as COO, he had the opportunity to lobby Congress for continued PBS funding. “We had several times when public funding was threatened, and it was one of my tasks to oversee our lobbyists.
“It was always fun to go up on the Hill with Mr. (Fred) Rogers and have him talk to a congressman. Mr. Rogers was in person exactly like you saw him on television, and he would say to a congressman, ‘Mr. Congressman, have you been doing good work? And the congressman, who probably grew up watching Mr. Rogers, would say, ‘Yes, Mr. Rogers. I’ve been trying to do my best.’ Another good time was accompanying Big Bird up on Capitol Hill. That was always a lot of fun, too.”
Following his time at PBS, Ottenhoff became the second president of GuideStar, currently the largest source of information on the 1.8 million nonprofits in the United States.“What we were trying to do is gather information about them,” he recalls, “so that donors and others who deal with a nonprofit community could make better, more informed decisions.”
After growing GuideStar, Ottenhoff was asked by several foundation leaders to head the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “We help primarily foundations, corporations, and institutional donors make more strategic, more intentional contributions around disasters,” he said.
After a disaster there is an immediate outpouring of support that slows within two to three days, according to Ottenhoff. It is then that the hard work of “taking care of individuals and rebuilding a community begins.”
“So part of our focus is on getting donors to think about the full life cycle of disasters: planning, preparation, mitigation, and then long-term recovery,” he said. “All of the dollars we get, that we manage on behalf of foundations and corporations, we put into mid- to long-term recovery and focus on vulnerable populations, those who are least able to bounce back after a disaster.” In Sunday school, Ottenhoff recalls learning Jesus Loves the Little Children. “We sang the words, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. That’s a song that really had an impact on me, really made a difference in how I viewed the world,” he said.
“It suggests respect for others, dignity of the individual, inclusiveness, equality. Those are all ideas that Calvin helped me to turn into action. I looked for opportunities in my career where I could be entrepreneurial, where I could make an impact, where I could provide public service and help build community, which I think is so critical in today’s world where we often feel alienated,” he said.
“I was looking for ways that we could feel like we’re all in this together. So interestingly, I think my grounding in both my heritage and my time at Calvin has made me more optimistic about the future.”