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Fred Sears Will Bid Farewell to the Delaware Community Foundation

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Ask Fred Sears to name a couple of the more memorable organizations he has worked with during his 13 years at the helm of the Delaware Community Foundation and prepare for a torrent.

He talks about the church in Seaford. Working with former Delaware coaching legend Tubby Raymond. Helping DuPont in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Being part of Helen Eliason’s attempts to improve literacy across the state.

There were the young people who wanted to get involved in the community and ended up starting the Next Generation Group. DCF helped create a fund to aid victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Miyagi, Japan. And there was Power Up Gambia, which has been providing solar energy to hospitals in the country for nearly 10 years. 

Sears, 73, could keep going, and he usually does. President and CEO of Delaware Community Foundation, he remains a dynamic force for the state. Under his guidance, the foundation has helped scores of charitable concerns find or improve their footing. His commitment to making Delaware a better place has driven him to create alliances that have had a positive impact on thousands of people.

As he prepares to step down at the end of the year, many are reflecting on his substantial legacy, while looking ahead to the bright future he has helped create.

“What Fred has done for the Delaware Community Foundation is enormous,” says Marilyn Hayward, DCF’s board chair. “During his time at the helm, the money we are managing has more than doubled, and our profile has been raised considerably. I think of Fred as Mr. Delaware.”

Begun in 1986, DCF provides a resource for those who wish to begin charitable foundations. It helps manage and grow money, provides administrative support and serves as a valuable resource for those who have altruistic aims, but not the expertise to turn those good intentions into reality. A search is underway for a new CEO, but that doesn’t mean DCF is hanging fire, waiting for the new chief to come aboard. As Hayward says, Sears’ leadership has allowed DCF to impact a greater portion of the state’s needy people. He has also charted a future that will make DCF a bigger player in the state, in part through a program that kicked off in October that will help to identify some of Delaware’s biggest needs.

“It’s hard to imagine someone who could have been a better colleague than Fred has been,” Hayward says. “When we have tried to figure out what we should do in certain situations, Fred’s approach has always been, ‘What is best for Delaware and for the Community Foundation?’ It has never been, ‘What is best for Fred?’”

Those who know Sears understand that the attention surrounding his departure makes him uncomfortable. From the time he began his career in banking more than 50 years ago, he has gained fulfillment from helping others. He describes the satisfaction he gained from helping customers turn their business plans into realities. He has done work in political circles. He has been a member of more than 40 boards of nonprofit organizations. “I derive energy and enthusiasm from working with people who are so committed,” he says.

Sears has the right outlook, and his dedication cannot be questioned. But there are plenty of people who have tremendous intentions but can’t get results. The fact that DCF now manages more than $285 million is a direct result of Sears’ ability to match his ardor with an ability to do the job. 

He has spent much of the past two years helping to chart a new course for DCF, one that will help make it a greater force in the community. The Indicator Project and the Community Engagement Council represent radical departures for the foundation. Instead of responding to the requests of others who are looking for a way to turn their charitable aspirations into realities, DCF will begin to identify some of the state’s largest needs and encourage others to address them. Beginning with the Indicator Project, which will measure the health of the community in a variety of areas—education, the arts, crime, health and others—DCF will produce a matrix of trends and measure them against those in Richmond, Va., and Rhode Island, areas deemed similar to Delaware. The findings will be distributed throughout the state, and some of the most deserving will be identified. From there, DCF will work with organizations to improve conditions in those areas.

“This will be invaluable for funders throughout the state,” Sears says. “When they need approval from their headquarters to get money, they can say that what they want to do has been identified as a need in the community.”

One of DCF’s great successes is the Fund for Women. The original goal of the fund was to get 1,000 “founders” to contribute $1,000 each. Twenty-two years later, there are 1,550 four-figure donors. The number is climbing, and the $1 million original funding goal has swollen to $3.2 million, thanks to the DCF management. Because the foundation pools all assets, it can invest in ways that produce bigger returns for its clients. In May, the Fund for Women gave $143,545 to a variety of causes in all three counties. 

“We saw that men had been philanthropists, and most of their money was going to men’s and boys’ clubs,” says Michele Whetzel, the fund’s chair. “We invest the money in girls’ and women’s programs.”

There is no doubt organizations like the Fund for Women will continue to be big parts of what DCF does. DCF offers complete service for philanthropists, no matter how small. By partnering with DCF, a group gets immediate 501(c)3 status, so it doesn’t have to worry about filing tax or other administrative forms. Thanks to Sears’ leadership, that type of service will continue. But a little over a year ago, the foundation decided to do more.

That is how the Indicator Project began. The foundation’s mission was strong, but it had been static. Being a vehicle for funds to be invested, grown and distributed was worthwhile, but it wasn’t enough at a time when societal problems continue to grow. So a new focus was developed, one which will help identify the problems and allow people to address them. 

“We will absolutely continue doing what we have done before, but now DCF will also provide information about the state as a whole and focus on the appropriate civic agenda,” says Doneene Damon, director at Richards, Layton & Finger in Wilmington.

DCF has accumulated data from 75 different sources and created a collection of indicators that will help philanthropy-minded people to decide which causes most need their support. The newly created Community Engagement Council unites leaders from a variety of sectors to discuss the information and to make recommendations about how best to address the problems. It’s an ambitious cause, but one that DCF believes will provide even more help to Delaware.

“This is an immediate and an ongoing process,” Damon says. “The website highlights the data on the indicators that philanthropic people and organizations tend to give money to. We can promote the statistics in these areas throughout the state. The second part is qualitative. We will discuss what residents in Delaware are concerned about and what do we need to focus on to drive change.”

The hope is that a few key areas will be identified, and people will respond by devoting their resources in those directions. It’s a bold step forward for DCF and one that wouldn’t have happened without Sears’ leadership. 

“He is so dedicated to the notion of using philanthropy as a way to make Delaware a better place to live and work,” Hayward says. 

Sears may be stepping down, but he is most definitely not retiring. He claims to have no real hobbies, though there are reports that he is pretty darned serious about his golf game. Sears enjoys books on tape, but he can most often be found peering at the financial report of a business or charitable concern. DCF will continue on with its new head and bold initiatives, and Sears will most definitely find a new challenge.

“I want to do something,” he says. “I’m clearly not going to sit around the house. I have not developed a lot of good ideas for relaxing.”

So Sears wants to keep moving forward, on a parallel path with DCF. It’s going to be hard to find anyone who has a problem with that.   

photo by joe del tufo 

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