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Considering End-Of-Year Giving? Colleges Among Nonprofits Making Case For Dollars

Community College of Vermont's Rutland campus, view from across the street.
Nina Keck
VPR File
This building in Rutland is part of a dozen Community College of Vermont campuses across the state.

As 2019 comes to a close, lots of organizations ask people to consider them for end-of-year giving. Some Vermonters are also making the case to give to local institutions of higher education.The head of the Vermont Community Foundation puts it simply: higher education, specifically the community college system, remains broadly overlooked by philanthropy. Dan Smith laid out the case for supporting itin a recent op-ed published in papers around the state.

"Community College of Vermont is the second largest college in the state," Smith told VPR. "It enrolls, you know, 5,000 Vermonters a semester. And so, from the perspective of achieving impact with your philanthropy – making a difference in people's lives – it's a remarkable place."

Smith sits on the board of the McClure Foundation, a major donor over the last few years to the Community College of Vermont; he's also a past president of Vermont Technical College.  

In his op-ed, Smith pointed to the state's higher ed enrollment rate at 58% for most Vermonters, but just 36% for low-income students. Smith made the case that the way to narrow that gap is to support the Community College of Vermont.

"I hope that, as people come to the end of the year, they think about their giving relative to what’s going on in their communities and what their neighbors experience," Smith said.

A cadet at Norwich University
Credit John Billingsley / VPR
Norwich University held a highly successful fundraising campaign this year, as the school celebrated its bicentennial.

But community colleges haven't always benefited from outside donors — Smith said only about 1.5% of all private donations for higher education go to community colleges.

According to CCV's annual report, the school brought in more than $656,000 from donors and foundations in fiscal year 2019. The school has a $1.1 million "Endowment for Student Success" to support scholarships.

However, that pales in comparison with some other schools in the state. For example:

  • Middlebury College's endowment is nearly $1.2 billion.
  • Norwich University received $19,669,390 in gifts this past fiscal year and its endowment is more than $214 million.
  • Bennington College has launched a program called Art for Access through which the school asks for donations of artwork, to adorn the college and to sell when the time is right. Bennington is also is in the midst of a campaign to bolster its endowment up to $100 million.

Isabel Roche, Bennington's interim president, said healthy endowments are key to stability.
"Particularly when schools are reliant on tuition and annual fundraising, having some form of kick-off from the endowment that supports the budget is really important," Roche said. "If it's somewhere between 4% or 5% of the endowment, you know that every year a percentage of your budget is going to be funded in that stable, steady way."


"We're going to have to go beyond our alumni group, to prove to people and to foundations that what we are doing is absolutely critically important to them and to the communities in which they live." — Matthew Derr, Sterling College president

According to the news website Inside Higher Ed, an industry survey shows big dollar totals flow into higher education: $46.73 billion last year.

But philanthropic support from outside donors and foundations is becoming an increasingly bigger piece of the economic pie for some schools.

Sterling College, in the Northeast Kingdom, is a prime example. The school iscommitted to educating students as well as addressing climate change — and that's gotten the attention of some environmentally-focused donors.

President Matthew Derr said about 40% of the school's operating budget consistently comes from donors.

"Growth in annual giving is going to be a critical part of our business model going forward," Derr said. "And we won't simply be able to rely on our alumni. We're going to have to go beyond our alumni group, to prove to people and to foundations that what we are doing is absolutely critically important to them and to the communities in which they live."

Sterling College historic marker
Credit John Billingsley / VPR
Sterling College, a small ecologically-focused school based in Craftsbury, is able to accept some students tuition-free thanks to foundational support.

With less than 125 full-time students, Derr said Sterling has to prove that its impact has reach. He said tax-exempt colleges and universities are meant to perform a societal good, not just serve individual students.

"But we've been able to make the argument to philanthropists, to foundations, to donors, that they should invest in this educational model because of the common good that it performs," Derr said.

Colleges draw upon that idea of working for the common good. Dan Smith, with the Vermont Community Foundation, puts it this way:

"What is the institution doing to address the greatest challenges we face right now?" Smith asks. "Because I think philanthropy has an obligation and a responsibility to help us get at some of those great challenges."

Smith said those challenges can be local or global. It's up to individual donors to decide what’s important to them.

Disclosure: CCV President Joyce Judy sits on VPR's board of directors, and the Vermont Community Foundation is a VPR underwriter. 

Update 4:02 p.m. 23/31/19: A photo caption describing of Sterling College as an "agricultural" school was updated.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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