Despite the increasingly exorbitant price tag required to attend higher education, tuition money for small private colleges like Knox does not completely cover operating expenses, such as paying salaries or the electricity bill. According to Vice President for Advancement Beverly Holmes, Knox is only capable of supporting itself by tuition until January or February after then Knox’s existence relies on alumni donors.
Holmes believes her job recruiting donors plays an essential role alongside the Dean of Admission Paul Steenis and the Vice President for Student Development Anne Ehrlich.
“Paul [Steenis] will say, ‘Hi I’m the one who recruited you here’, and then Anne [Ehrlich] will say, ‘Well I’m the one who helps take care of you while you’re here.’ And then I say, ‘I’m the one who will spend the rest of my life [with you]’ because we take you through the rest of your life as alumni,” Holmes said.
About one third of alumni donate to Knox on an annual basis, Holmes said, bringing in an estimated annual $4 million. This money is typically used immediately by the college to pay operating expenses. Through major gift donations, Knox reaps an estimated annual $10 million. Major gift donations are used to construct buildings or endow scholarships or chairs. Every gift over $10,000 requires documentation and once every year auditors will pull random files to guarantee Knox is spending donations for endowments or buildings according to donor agreements.
Knox created various ranked giving societies to recognize donors, such as the Ellen Browning Scripps Society which honors 36 different donors who have given $1 million or more in their lifetimes. The Lincoln-Douglas Society honors 268 donors who have given $100,00-$999,999 in their lifetimes, though many include corporations. The Walter Hobbs Society honors 29 donors who have left realized bequests of over $1,000,000 .
Holmes said it is unusual that 80 percent of people who donate to Knox are alumni, as most colleges receive about half of their donations from “friends of the college” local community members who want to see the college thrive. Knox Gift Officers like Mark Wilson travel all over the U.S., meeting with 144 to 160 alums during a typical year.
“$4 million that doesn’t mean anything to you, but is phenomenal for a small liberal arts college. Compare us to Grinnell or anybody else in our conference, we are right there at the top,” Wilson said. “It’s very impressive that we have a very loyal donor base that is willing to give back. And one third seems very low but that is higher than the national average.”
Gift officers meet with alumni in their homes, in restaurants, golf courses or on campus; there they listen closely during conversation to seek out three essential qualities: Do they have affinity? Are they philanthropic? And, do they have the capacity? If an alum believes Knox changed the course of their life, they possess what the advancement office calls affinity. If an alum would be interested in endowing a scholarship rather than take an extra vacation, they are philanthropic. And by researching alums on their job title, zip code, car, or past gifts to other institutions, gift officers screen whether an alum has a higher wealth capacity.
“There’s an objective to every meeting I have with alums. Whether it’s getting them to bump their annual fund to $5,000 or make a major ask for SMC, there’s always an objective. It’s a sale call, that’s really what it is, and you as an alum are the customer,” Wilson said.
Wilson primarily focuses on securing major gifts. Knox places endowed donations into a T. Rowe Price investment fund. There, the principal donation accrues interest and the Knox Board of Trustees sets a spending rate, typically 5 percent, of which the college can use to endow scholarships or chairs. As time passes the principal grows and thus so does the endowment.
Typically, alumni donate in accordance with their interests as a student or their ensuing careers. If an alum was a physics major, Wilson might propose opportunities to donate to the SMC renovations. Wilson said in some cases an alum may ask what is the minimum amount of money required to get their name on a building.
Richard Whitcomb ‘57 is unique in his immense wealth capacity and his willingness to support Knox where it has identified its needs, rather than exclusively donate after his specific interests. Whitcomb was open to donating for a new building on campus. Knox then expressed a need for a new art building, which Whitcomb agreed to fund.
Whitcomb met his wife, Joan Whitney Whitcomb ‘56, at Knox and in 1970 started Gypsum Management and Supply, a now prosperous company on the New York Stock Exchange. The Whitcombs donated to Knox annually, but it wasn’t until after their 50th college reunion that they endowed major scholarships. Then, after meeting with Wilson and President Teresa Amott, Whitcomb agreed to donate $500,000 to begin the Alumni Hall renovations, and later $750,000 to finish it.
“I wasn’t really hoping to accomplish anything. I was very fortunate in business, made an awful lot of money, and because I met Joan there and because we’ve been married 59 years, I’ve thought starting several years ago would be appropriate for me to support the college,” Whitcomb said.
Another factor in Whitcomb’s decision was knowing the financial situation of the school.
“I know that they don’t have a whole lot of big benefactors and that their endowment is not the [biggest]. It looked to me like they needed help, so I helped them,” Whitcomb said.
Since the Alumni Hall renovations, the Whitcombs have continued to donate major gifts. Whitcomb donated $5.5 million for the Whitcomb Art Center and, due to his professional relationship with President Amott, donated $4 million for phase one of the SMC renovations. The soon to be constructed Amott Commons in SMC was named by Whitcomb in honor of Amott.
Wilson has known Whitcomb for 11 years now, giving him time to develop a friendship with Whitcomb’s daughter Elizabeth Whitcomb who runs the Whitcomb Family Foundation with her siblings. Now 83, Whitcomb sold his business to a private equity firm in 2014. The Whitcomb Family Foundation is required by tax law to give away five percent of its funds annually.
“At this point I think we are very locked in that we will get a significant annual gift from there [the Whitcomb Family Foundation] because they know what Dick and Joan, what Knox meant to their parents, and they will continue to honor that,” Wilson said.
Holmes is now on the lookout for an alum passionate about the arts who may be interested in supporting a new common room space in CFA to replace the lounge displaced by the Borzello Gallery. This new commons would cost an estimate $1.5 million and be located in the CFA round room.
Wilson and Holmes acknowledged that not all alumni become as financially successful as Whitcomb, but that young alumni can still help the college by returning to give students career advice or donating small amounts.
“People who get in the habit of giving at least five times usually continue on giving. So if you can get people to start with Senior Challenge and give that year and then keep giving, they are much more likely to continue to give to Knox,” Holmes said.
Ninety-seven percent of Knox students receive some form of financial aid, Wilson said. Though he doesn’t hear it often, he hates hearing the comment: “I’m not going to give back, I’ve already given $100,000 in my four years.”
“Well, number one Mom and Dad probably gave that, and number two you’re kind of missing the point,” Wilson said.