The heartbeat goes on

 In News, Partners Magazine
Reflections on my five years at Clark College Foundation

By Joel B. Munson


Five years is a long time to remember anything clearly. But, I do remember that day, like it was yesterday.

I was interviewing for a leadership position at Clark College Foundation. It was a typical Vancouver, Wash., winter afternoon. The air was damp and what sunlight did exist behind the curtain of clouds was quickly receding. Still, the atmosphere was charged with excitement, for me at least, and I definitely had that so-far-so-good feeling after a full day of meetings and campus tours.

My last interview was with members of the foundation’s board of directors, and I was looking forward to it very much. After 25 years in higher education, I had come to understand that there’s a lot to learn about a nonprofit organization from its key volunteers. This interview would prove to be more revealing than I could have anticipated thanks to the insights of Nanette Walker, Clark College alumna and daughter of one of its most renowned professors, Dr. Antonio “Chick” Scarpelli.

A successful businesswoman and long-time donor to the institution, Nanette and her family had established a significant endowed scholarship in honor of their father. The fund will continue to generate financial assistance for generations of students to come.

When I asked why she and her family had decided to make this extraordinary legacy gift, Nanette replied with a statement that she had locked and loaded.

“If you get this job, Joel, you’ll soon learn that Clark College is the heartbeat of this community,” Nanette said with confidence and pride. “It’s up to Clark College Foundation to make sure that heartbeat goes on.”

In my years of working for five other universities and colleges, I had never heard community leaders describe their institution in such corporeal terms. Sure, I heard them referred to as a key cultural and educational center, an intellectual hub or even a lab for economic development, but never in such indispensable—even biological—terminology: the heartbeat of a community? I was experiencing something fundamentally unique between a community and its college. Each partner was profoundly and respectfully dependent upon the other, like a long-time romance that was destined to carry on. The more I heard, the more I wanted to be part of this relationship.

After I took the post, it didn’t take me long to see what Nanette and the others were saying to me during the interview. Now, after more than five years of helping to lead the largest fundraising campaign in the 88-year history of the college, I truly understand the relationship.

Equally important, I’ve come to recognize how critical Clark College Foundation is in strengthening the link between the people of our community and its notable college. And while it’s true that most community colleges have some kind of foundation or fundraising component supporting the main institution, it’s clear that few colleges have a volunteer-governed, self-funded foundation like Clark College Foundation.

Since its inception in 1973, Clark College Foundation has secured and distributed $76 million in donor funds and endowment interest income to support educational programs, building projects, faculty programs, as well as scholarships and awards. In fact, every year, the foundation provides more than $1 million in scholarship funds to Clark students in need of support—many of whom would likely drop out of school altogether without this funding.

Since 2015, community partners have contributed, on average, more than $5 million per year to support Clark College Foundation’s Promising Pathways fundraising campaign, transforming the foundation into one of the most efficient and effective community college fundraising operations in the United States.

The recipient of numerous accolades, Clark College Foundation has been recognized for its quality publications, podcasts, alumni relations programs and special events. In 2018, the foundation’s CEO Lisa Gibert, received the National CommonFund Award for Leadership, the industry’s equivalent of an Oscar. The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) provides this recognition. In short, Clark College Foundation is seen as an industry leader and is often called upon by other institutions and organizations to assist peer institutions to establish stronger fundraising footholds in their respective communities.

These are people who have played a part in our Promising Pathways campaign.

Clockwise from top, alumna Vita Blanco, former CEO Elson Strahan; board member Nanette Walker; and professors Carol Hsu and Tina Barsotti.

Indeed, when peers ask us how we have achieved this high level of respectability, the answer is easy. While I would love to chalk up our success to brilliant minds at work, the real reason is more simple and impressive: it is the people who make up our community.

When we talk about these individuals, we have to start with Elson Strahan, leader of Clark College Foundation for 18 years in the 1980s and 1990s. Among his many accomplishments and successful relationships, Elson worked with veteran board member and donor Vernon Peterson to secure the largest gift in the college’s history—$28 million from businessman Roy G. Andersen.

Keith Koplan, a local community leader and retired business owner, recognized early on that Vancouver needed a solid higher education institution. The best way to do that was to secure significant private investments. As a result, in the 1970s and 1980s, Koplan and others took a fledgling sum of donated funds and stewarded them into one of the largest community college asset pools in the country.

Today, Clark College Foundation’s investments, which include its endowment, property and other assets, total $112 million. The foundation has the fourth-largest endowment fund for community colleges in the nation.

Inspired by generosity

Then there are extraordinary people like Tom and Jen Cook of Pacific Bells. They are so committed to Clark College and its key role in the community that they generously contributed—as their first-ever gift to Clark—a quarter of a million dollars toward the Tod and Maxine McClaskey Culinary Institute.

Another determined individual is Vita Blanco—who decided to change her life by going to college. At the age of 37, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college with an associate degree in business. A grateful recipient of scholarships while at Clark, Vita learned the meaning of “paying it forward,” even as she continues to work on her bachelor’s degree at Washington State University Vancouver.

There are dedicated academics like STEM professors Tina Barsotti and Carol Hsu who not only contribute annually to faculty and staff fundraising campaigns, but also mentor a group of young, enterprising engineering students known as the NERD Girls (Not Even Remotely Dorky). Tina, Carol and their students are slowly changing the face of the college’s science, technology, engineering and math programs. And they are doing it with the help of community mentors and supporters who care about diversity and creating opportunities for all students.

Finally, people like New York Times best-selling author and Clark alumna Marie Bostwick are paving the way for new and exciting authors to emerge. Marie and her husband Brad Skinner, established the Bostwick Gallivan Writing Award to acknowledge and support Clark students in the field of creative writing. Marie is one of numerous noted and successful authors who found their start at Clark College.

There are far too many Clark supporters to acknowledge, but I am constantly inspired and emotionally moved by the hundreds, if not thousands, of people I have met over the last several years. To date, nearly 5,000 unique individuals and entities have offered their voices and financial resources in support of Clark College by donating nearly 20,000 gifts, totaling more than $27.5 million to the current campaign. Nearly 60% of these donors are first-time contributors or are giving at a higher level to Clark, an undeniable sign that more people are choosing to invest in Clark College’s amazing students, faculty and staff.

What is even more extraordinary is that many of these philanthropic partners have continued to give during a worldwide pandemic that has taken more than a half-million American lives. While there have been times over the last year when I’ve wondered how we will complete our ambitious $35 million campaign goal, I think back on those wise words of Nanette Walker. I realize Clark’s community will be there to see things through and support our deserving and needy students even during the most difficult times.

Just like it has always done.

Clark’s heartbeat goes on during poignant social and political unrest—through leadership transitions, strikes and protests, and difficult news headlines. With each student who graduates or completes his/her/their coursework, that heartbeat grows stronger and louder. It is resilient and it resonates across Southwest Washington in a way that makes us smile, helps us feel proud and demonstrates just how much we care for and about each other.

As for my friend and colleague, Nanette Walker, she’s as remarkable as ever: a constant reminder that I made one of the best decisions of my life when I said yes to her and Clark College Foundation all those years ago.

The heartbeat goes on.

Joel B. Munson is the chief advancement officer at Clark College Foundation.

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