COVER STORY: Foundation Building
When it comes to raising private dollars for public causes, it pays to have friends in high places, and they don’t come much higher than former President Bill Clinton, activist, philanthropist and supporter of New York’s Westchester Community College.
For a ticket costing between $150 and $600, fellow WCC supporters next month can hear the 43rd president ruminate about world and national events and watch as he’s presented with an honorary doctoral degree from the State University of New York. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Westchester Community College Foundation, which in turn will fund student scholarships, mentoring programs, professional development for faculty development and other services at the college.
The event will mark the second time Clinton has appeared at a foundation fundraising event. In 2005, he helped raise nearly $100,000 for the foundation. He and wife Hillary live in Chappaqua, N.Y., which is not far from the college’s main campus in Valhalla.
“He’s been a big supporter of community colleges over the years, and we’re really his community college,” said Eve Larner, the college’s vice-president for external affairs and the foundation’s executive director.
Founded in 1969 as a not-for-profit organization to serve as the college’s fundraising arm, the WCC Foundation has evolved into one of the country’s top community college foundations In 2012, it had a fund balance of $33 million; its permanent endowment has jumped from $5.3 million in 2000 to $16.5 million in 2012.
Because of its fundraising prowess and endowment management strategies, the WCC Foundation has emerged as a model for the growing ranks of community colleges seeking to raise money for needs not covered by public funds, said Walter J. Dillingham Jr., managing director of endowments and foundations for Wilmington Trust, a New York-based investment advising firm. As public appropriations for higher education continues its retreat, more colleges are looking for more ways to raise money.
Dillingham recently conducted a study that found that many colleges could benefit from establishing fund-raising foundations or bolstering existing ones. Four-year colleges have long used foundations to raise money, but relatively few community colleges do so.
“Community colleges have not had to have a fundraising plan,” he said. “Their money was coming from government and from tuition so they didn’t need that. They haven’t had the basic infrastructure.”
But times have changed.
“Community colleges have to recognize the environment we’re in,” he said. “It’s a new normal. Colleges have to decide whether they want to step into that area.”
He added that college foundations are not a quick fix for the funding shortfalls afflicting community colleges.
“It’s not a one-year deal,” he said. “It’s a marathon. The schools that have a five- to ten-year plan are the ones that are succeeding.”
In his study, Dillingham cited the findings of Council for Aid to Education’s 2012 Voluntary Support for Education survey report. The survey found that while community colleges made up 14 percent of all respondents, they accounted for less than one percent of all higher education giving.
Just three community college foundations accounted for 13 percent of the total, and among them is the Northampton Community College Foundation. The foundation has a permanent endowment of nearly $30 million, college officials said. Since its founding in 1969, the foundation has donated more than $60 million to the college. This year, it offered more than $550,000 in scholarship money, more than any other community college in Pennsylvania.
The foundation also was instrumental in the development of the Fowler Family Southside Center. Located in the former offices of Bethlehem Steel Corp. in a part of Bethlehem, Pa. that had fallen on hard times after the steel plant went out of business, it has become a community hub where more than 30,000 people a year now come for education, workforce training, cultural programs and medical and dental care.
“It has given us a stake in the ground in a place where we really need to be,” said college President Mark Erickson. “It provides a clear example of what we can do.”
Erickson said the foundation owes its success to its long history and deep roots in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. That’s engendered strong support in the region’s corporate and business community, he said.
“Northampton was one of the first community colleges in the country to recognize the importance of private donations and establishing a foundation,” he said. “The foundation gave the college great credibility and allowed us to share a narrative of why the college is so important.”
Corporate giving is the foundation’s financial bedrock, but it also has made strides to tap its alumni network of 50,000 graduates, said Sherri Jones, the foundation’s executive director. Most alums still live nearby, creating a rich opportunity for fundraisers, she said.
Erickson agreed. “I think the narrative for giving to community colleges is strong,” he said. “We are the place where people can be launched into a new career path.”
The WCC Foundation, too, is working to burnish its alumni network, which numbers more than 50,000 grads. The college recently hired an alumni association director to nurture and grow relationships with alumni.
“It’s an area of tremendous growth,” Larner said. “A vast majority of our alumni remain in the area. It’s a little bit of a myth that that their loyalty is transferred to their four-year colleges. People tell us all the time that the college transformed their lives.”
The WCC Foundation also owes much of its success to its deep roots in the community. College President Joseph N. Hankin has held the job for more than 40 years and seems to know everybody there.
The foundation also benefits from geography. The college is located near New York City, and Westchester County is among the country’s richest areas. A lot of well-heeled movers and shakers live in Westchester, and 55 of them serve on the foundation’s Board of Directors.
Having such a large number of people on the board is no accident, Larner said. It’s a way of providing more giving opportunities for more people.
“Different colleges have different strengths, and our strength has always been our foundation board,” she said. “It’s allowed people from outside the college to get to know us. We can cater to individual interests of members, whether it’s planning events or awarding scholarships. It’s a real variety of people, and everyone knows everyone.”
“The board members become part of the conversation. The fact that we can involve them in the college’s strategic planning and goal-setting is important. They have a lot of offer, and involving them has allowed us to keep their loyalty.”
Tapping foundation board members is not the only way the foundation raises money. The college is well-known for its fundraising Celebrity Salons, where national figures from the fields of literature, media, politics, sports and music mingle with college supporters in informal settings. Among speakers at the salons this year are economist Glenn Hubbard, author James Wright and newsman Stone Phillips.
The college has benefited mightily from the foundation’s work. It has a scholarship endowment of more than $16 million and awarded $1.2 million in scholarships to 1,000 students in 2011-12; it has established 39 faculty chairs representing a total endowment of $2.9 million; since 1999, it has awarded 68 $1,000 faculty awards and 34 $500 adjunct faculty excellence awards.
In 2010, it completed a ten-year, $16 million campaign for the college’s Gateway Center, a 70,000-square-foot structure that houses business, language, volunteers and international student programs. It includes state-of-the-art labs, classrooms and an auditorium that accommodates 175 people.
Larner believes that colleges large and small can benefit from active foundations, but approaches will vary from school to school.
“Every college has to be aware of their local communities and what avenues are open to them,” she said.
Erickson said colleges need effective foundations more than ever. But colleges have to be willing to share their stories.
“I think our mission and impact is incredible,” he said. “It’s about telling our story. The rest will follow. It’s a challenging time, but also a time of great opportunity.”