Jeff Smith: A ‘legacy of service in an ever-changing Baptist world’

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Since 2014, Jeff Smith has served as the president and CEO of HighGround Advisors and its subsidiary, HighGround Trust Company. From deep in the heart of one Texan, he shares his background and thoughts on financially serving Baptists. To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated leader to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.

Background

Where else have you worked, and what were your positions?

I have been with HighGround since November 1990, starting as associate trust counsel and was vice president and general counsel at the time of my election as president.

I have also worked at

  • the Collin County District Attorney’s Office as an assistant district attorney immediately after graduation from law school
  • Baylor University, in the Office of Development, between undergrad and law school
  • Dallas Symphony Orchestra, as executive director of the Dallas Symphony Foundation and director of planned giving

Where did you grow up?

Plano, Texas

How did you come to faith in Christ?

I accepted Christ at the age of 12 during a Sunday evening service at First Baptist Church, Alabaster, Ala.

Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?

  • Baylor University, Bachelor of Arts with an emphasis in commercial art
  • Baylor University School of Law, Juris Doctorate

Ministry/Profession

Why do you feel called to your particular vocation?

The work is a mix of legal and relationship-building. My undergraduate degree is in art. However, during my senior year, I had the opportunity to work in the Baylor University Development Office as an assistant development officer.

The University hired four graduating seniors to travel and thank Baylor donors. I coordinated the program the second year. During those two years, I decided to go to law school. Upon completion of law school, I worked briefly as an assistant district attorney in Collin County, Texas, before joining HighGround.

My work has always been about developing relationships. Utilizing my legal education to help people make gifts to worthy Baptist organizations and institutions is very rewarding. I have been at HighGround essentially my entire career, mostly on the trust and legal side.

My current role still focuses on relationship development but also on positioning the organization to continue its legacy of service in an ever-changing Baptist world. When I look back over the years, I am fortunate and blessed to work for an organization that has helped develop and grow our institutions’ endowments.

Please tell us about your BGCT institution—the breadth and nature of its work, including its mission, measures of scope, etc.

HighGround was created in 1930 as an integrated auxiliary of The Baptist General Convention of Texas to manage the endowment assets of our Texas Baptist institutions. It was founded to offset the crippling economic disaster that threatened the existence of Texas Baptist universities, schools, children’s homes and hospitals.

It was a daring endeavor undertaken by a handful of innovative businesspeople who had faith, foresight and a firm belief in putting the Lord’s business ahead of their own. Their vision was to build an institution that would play a unique role in enabling Baptist institutions to carry out their missions. The founders knew that by providing endowment management and charitable trust services, HighGround could provide invaluable support to its client institutions and thus enhance each institution’s ability to perform its charitable work.

For the past 87 years, HighGround has consistently and successfully carried out this original mission. Yet, HighGround is much more than a money manager. It is a story of dedication, a story of men and women of wealth and of average means who found practical application of the stewardship they heard preached in the pulpit on Sunday morning.

At its creation, Texas Baptists stipulated that HighGround would own no property in its own right and would make no grants on its own initiative. Property would be held and managed for the various denominational institutions, and each would receive income earned on their own endowment assets. Net assets have grown to almost $2 billion with over 6,000+ endowments and 1,100+ split-interest accounts currently under administration.

The organization has had a rich history of adding capabilities to its scope of services to better support Baptist ministries through the areas of account administration, minerals management and real estate services.

In 1996, a regulated trust company was added to protect the administration of the split-interest accounts. The growth of the trust company over the past twenty years has enabled HighGround to serve clients beyond the Baptist world as well as provide additional service flexibility to HighGround’s core mission.

HighGround is entirely self-supporting. We receive no cooperative program funds for operating expenses. Our purpose is twofold:

  1. to serve the institutions and agencies by managing endowment funds established by them or for their benefit; and
  2. to meet the needs of those Christian stewards who have the desire and the means to contribute to causes and ministries in Texas and throughout the world.

Responsibility for the administration of HighGround is vested with 12 directors — all active Baptist laypersons who are elected 51 percent by The Baptist General Convention of Texas and 49 percent by HighGround and serve without financial compensation. Daily administration of the investment, accounting, legal and trust affairs of HighGround is carried on by a professional staff of 52 individuals who are very attentive to the needs of those whom we serve.

OUR MISSION
Encouraging, receiving and managing charitable gifts for organizations and charitably minded families dedicated to transforming lives.

OUR VISION
To protect, strengthen and grow the organizations of our clients. We believe there is no pursuit more important than this because we believe the work we do now and in the future will not only shape our lives but will empower the many organizations that truly transform lives.

OUR VALUES
Our core values are the heart of HighGround. These values embrace our Christian heritage and guide us as we work with those who are transforming lives. We put the client first. We are servant-hearted. We act with integrity. We promote innovation. We are visionary. We lead with professional excellence.

OUR SERVICES

  • Asset Management
  • Planned Giving
  • Account Administration

What aspect(s) of your institution and/or its mission do you wish more people understood?

We have no mission of our own other than encouraging, receiving and managing charitable gifts for nonprofit organizations and charitably minded families dedicated to transforming lives. What makes us different is that when an institution partners with HighGround, we make their mission our mission.

We were created to manage endowment assets with all the necessary ancillary services so that our Baptist institutions could focus on their missions and ministries. The “economies of scale” model was thought to benefit the institutions and still holds true today.

How has your institution and its mission changed since you began your career?

Our mission is the same. How we provide services and the expectations of our institutions and donors have changed. Technology has driven a great deal of change as it relates to how information is provided and accessed. Donor expectations have changed. They are more involved and want greater input into how their gifts are used. What this translates to is a constant state of change in order to stay ahead of our clients’ evolving needs.

We have historically been behind the scenes, but, after rebranding, defining our core values and the changing Baptist landscape, we have begun to actively tell our story and pursue new business opportunities.

How do you expect your institution and/or its mission to change in the next 10 to 20 years?

We will continue to have the same mission but will become more visible and more diligent in telling our story. We have developed a strategic plan that will grow and evolve as we change to meet the needs of our institutions. We will become more flexible and agile as institutional needs grow and evolve.

This is an exciting time in the life of an organization with 87 years of institutional history and knowledge. We strive each day to continue to be relevant in the life and work of institutions that partner with us.

Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing your institution.

  • Staying relevant to our institutions both from a product offering standpoint and competitive price point
  • Waning loyalty within the Baptist family
  • A greater effort by for-profit money managers to attract Baptist dollars

What one aspect of your job gives you the greatest joy or fulfillment?

Knowing that the work we do has an impact on the institutions’ financial viability for years to come. We are helping to plant trees that we may never sit under. And working with phenomenal donors to our great institutions helping them makes gifts that truly transform lives.

About Jeff

Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?

My parents are lifetime mentors and supporters of my sister, brother and me — always encouraging. They continue to model for us what it means to be family with a focus on God and family.

Terry Simmons hired me and shaped my early development as a trust attorney. He taught not only the legal aspects of the transaction but also the relational aspects. A gift transaction needs to be viewed both from the legal and practical sides. Terry was an exceptionally gifted individual with a keen intellect and a huge heart who always championed my success.

Vester T. Hughes, Jr. saw potential in a relatively young trust lawyer and tried to help me be the man God intended. He mentored by example. He modeled that which he tried to get you to understand.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

“Be still and know that I am Lord” (Psalm 46:10). In today’s fast-paced world with all its noise, the verse speaks to me to be still and listen.

If you could get one “do over” in your career, what would it be, and why?

An eighteen-year-old girl was on the jail chain one morning in County Court at Law No. 2 while I was an assistant DA. She had been arrested for theft under $20. During my conversation with her, I asked why she had shoplifted the items.

She said, “I have a bed to sleep in and three meals to eat.”

That conversation has stayed with me, but I did not do anything to explore her situation. As a twenty-something prosecutor, I did not explore the opportunity to help her.

I would very much like to know what happened to her.

Write and answer a question you wish we had asked.

Why did you decide to change your name from Baptist Foundation of Texas to HighGround Advisors?

In 2015, we undertook a brand study to better understand client and market perceptions. This brand study allowed us to understand objectively where improvements needed to be made to continue building on the high level of service provided to clients throughout the years. As a result of the brand study, the decision was made to rename Baptist Foundation of Texas to operate under a DBA: HighGround Advisors.

HighGround Advisors is a fitting name, one that maintains our faith-based legacy and speaks to what we do for our clients. A strong brand is what we stand for; it’s our purpose, our beliefs and our promise. And the HighGround brand takes us to the next level of providing asset management for nonprofit organizations that transform lives. It represents a commitment to be a resource and help to further the work of charitable organizations that are bettering the lives of those they serve.

The HighGround brand reflects our loyalty to our clients and speaks to our extensive expertise in the industry. What we are doing is creating a path forward. We are providing our institutions and prospective institutions with an expanded mix of financial products, services and tools. And we are making a promise. A promise to continue protecting, strengthening and growing endowment and split-interest assets.

Today, our vision is clear. With the implementation of the HighGround brand, we aim to continue to be an innovative and vigilant caretaker of the funds and assets entrusted to us by the institutions we serve and by the generous individuals who donate to those institutions. To this end, we will continually strive to develop strategies for enriching client and donor relationships, enhancing service offerings and fortifying funds to further causes of the nonprofits we serve.

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