Yes!! Say Yes endowment bolstered by $25M challenge gift

By  – Reporter, Buffalo Business First

Say Yes to Education Buffalo has switched its $100 million endowment campaign into high gear, seeded by a $25 million challenge gift.

The gift comes from an anonymous, longtime supporter of the group, said David Rust, executive director.

“It’s an extraordinary gift, and a powerful testament of belief in the students in the City of Buffalo and what he sees as the critical importance of Say Yes to our community at large,” he said.

The donor, a medical device manufacturing executive from the region, has supported educational causes for the past 15 years. In an interview with Business First, he stressed the importance of education in helping kids who grow up in economically challenged circumstances to reach self-sustainability and understand the importance of giving back to the community.

The challenge gift, he said, will work as a lever to inspire others to give.

“Financially, I’m not little but I’m not big but I have in my community bigger pockets and a number who are my size,” he said. “I’m asking these people to help us and help our board to help our kids so we keep this going in perpetuity.”

The challenge piece requires Say Yes to attract $25 million from government sources, $25 million from national foundations and another $25 million from individuals, businesses and other private foundations in Western New York.

Say Yes has long talked about establishing an endowment. The first 10 years of scholarships were funded with $33 million raised to support students graduating between 2013 and 2022. The plan calls for then pivoting to endowment interest income by 2023. The endowment has raised $35 million so far including $10 million from the state’s“Buffalo Billion 2” plan and $10.2 million in response to the challenge.

Emily Wyckoff, the organization’s senior development director, said the idea to make the donor gift a challenge grant was strategic.

“We were thrilled when he stepped up, but we’re not saying it’s going to be easy,” she said. “We need everyone locally to really see this as the most important cause you can fund in Western New York now.”

Unveiled in 2012 as a way to increase academic achievement and graduation rates, Say Yes offers a variety of services for students capped by the free tuition guarantee for graduates of Buffalo public and charter schools. To date, Say Yes has awarded $7.4 million in scholarships to more than 5,000 graduates.

As new children enter the schools every year, the donor said it’s vital that the scholarships continue in perpetuity, he said.

“It horrifies me to have to go to a prospective class of high school grads who are thinking this is going to be here and have to say that we ran out of money,” he said.

Alphonso O’Neill-White, board president for the Say Yes Scholarship Inc., said the challenge grant will help achieve the ultimate goal of establishing a college-going culture in the Buffalo Schools.

“It’s a tremendous step forward for us, no, not a step, it’s a leap forward,” O’Neill-White said. “It creates leverage for us to gain additional funds to support the endowment and it certainly gives us a boost in terms of incentive to get out there and raise additional funds.”

Though part of seeking anonymity is tied to protecting his family’s privacy, the donor said he also wants to stress the importance of the whole community coming together to make it work. That’s important too, Rust said.

“This is not about naming rights. He is always self-interest last,” he said. “I hope this inspires others to contribute to something we think is a meaningful cause in Western New York.”

The gift is the second major challenge gift in the region in recent years, following the $42.5 million challenge grant in 2016 by Jeffrey Gundlach in support of the Albright Knox Art Gallery’s expansion. O’Neill-White said both bode well for fundraising in the region.

“It’s always great to have a good example in hand as you go fundraising,” he said. “It’s great for Buffalo, like the Gundlach contribution at the Albright-Knox, which says there’s capacity out there in the community. It’s great for Say Yes and great for Buffalo.”

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