Born in Nebraska, raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, and working in Washington, Baltimore, Boston, New Hampshire and Vermont before landing in Wilmington, Stuart Comstock-Gay has had 57 years to observe the distinctions and diversity that characterize the nation.
In his work and travels, he has discovered a uniform desire. “No matter where you live, you’re looking for the same thing: fairness, opportunity, safety, security,” he says. “We approach it in different ways, but if you peel off all the junk, you get down to that.”
Comstock-Gay, who celebrates his first anniversary as president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation in February, brings to the position the Midwestern sensibility he learned from his parents. “We helped people out, believed the best in people. We worked together, pitching in, helping where people need help. We wanted to be positive and productive,” he says.
That attitude, coupled with his experience with two similar foundations in New England, helps explain why he was hired following the retirement of Fred Sears, an iconic figure in Delaware banking, government and community service who led the organization for 13 years.
“We want to move in an expanded direction, and we needed someone as CEO who knew how to do this,” says Marilyn Hayward, chair of the foundation’s board of directors when Comstock-Gay was hired.
“With his unique experience in community foundations, he possesses exactly what we needed,” adds Tom Sager, the current chairman of the board.
Sager cites Comstock-Gay’s success in seven years as CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation, where he “decided to take the show on the road and used data to make people aware of some of the challenges facing the state.”
Having run the foundation in Vermont and having held leadership posts at the New Hampshire Community Foundation before that, “Stuart knows the operation, and he knows what has to be done,” Sears says.
Sears excelled at building the foundation’s financial base—it now manages a pool of 1,300 charitable funds with assets totaling about $250 million. Comstock-Gay’s mission, while continuing to grow those assets, is to target the $16 million or so the foundation awards in grants and scholarships each year so that it makes the greatest possible impact.
Delawareans are generally familiar with the state’s largest foundations—Longwood, Welfare and the Crystal Trust, all created by members of the du Pont family—but they can be forgiven for not knowing much about the Delaware Community Foundation, a relative newcomer to the state’s philanthropic scene. Established in 1986 at the suggestion of Pierre S. du Pont III, the foundation received startup funding from The News Journal Co. and its corporate parent, Gannett Co. A $2 million grant from the state followed in 1989.
The foundation is based on a model that has more than a century of history. The first community foundation was established in Cleveland in 1914. Similar organizations were created in major cities and smaller states in the decades that followed.
Unlike the du Pont foundations, legacies created by individual members of Delaware’s most prominent family, the Delaware Community Foundation assembles its assets from thousands of sources.
“We work with businesses, individuals, families, nonprofits. Our goal is to help them achieve their charitable goals, whatever those goals might be,” Comstock-Gay says. While the du Pont foundations are best known for their support of big projects—supporting construction of hospitals and preserving cultural institutions, for example—the Delaware Community Foundation tends to make smaller grants to smaller organizations.
For example, when Wilmington businessman Frank Masley—best known for carrying the U.S. flag at the opening ceremonies in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo—died in September, his widow, Donna, and their children sought a way to honor his memory. After many friends posted on Facebook that people should “Be Like Frank,” the Masleys decided to create the Be Like Frank Fund at the Delaware Community Foundation.
By mid-November, about $10,000 had been contributed to the fund, Donna Masley says. The foundation will keep track of the contributions, thank the donors, invest the money and keep track of its balances—tasks that can be daunting and time-consuming for those who are unfamiliar with the laws and regulations governing charitable funds. “It’s a one-stop shop,” Masley says.
Because “we have a passion for scrappy nonprofits,” she says, Masley would like to see the contributions used to help organizations that serve low-income residents of Wilmington, especially those on the city’s Eastside, where Masley Enterprises makes high-performance gloves designed for use by the military and in the aviation industry.
The foundation has several ways of making sure the money gets put to good use. Not only will it help Masley and others like her identify nonprofit organizations whose objectives match their philanthropic interests, but if several donors have an interest in supporting similar types of organizations, “we can pool that money and have a larger impact,” Comstock-Gay says.
About 95 percent of the foundation’s grants are made at the direction of donors, according to its 2015 annual report, but that doesn’t mean they’re making decisions on their own. Both Sears and Comstock-Gay note that people who create funds at the foundation usually have a goal in mind, but they often don’t know which organizations need money the most or provide the best service.
“Someone will come in and say, ‘I want to do this,’ and we may say that’s not something we can do, but let’s talk about it, and we’ll figure out what we can do,” Comstock-Gay says.
The foundation’s unrestricted fund, now called the Delaware Forever Fund, is used to address systemic community needs and facilitate collaborative efforts that can involve government agencies as well as nonprofits. Previous initiatives underwritten through the fund include the Delaware Anti-Hunger Coalition and the Delaware Aging Network.
In addition, about a year ago, the foundation created a data-filled website, DelawareFocus.org, loaded with information about the state’s population, its youth, its economy, its schools, its health and several other indicators. Because the foundation taps into this database to help identify needs throughout the state, it is also encouraging applicants for the grants it awards to use the data to help justify their funding requests.
Those who have found the database helpful include officials of the Longwood Foundation. “We’ve been using their dashboard to identify needs and to help point resources toward them,” says Thère du Pont, the foundation’s president.
According to Hayward, a yearlong statewide “listening campaign” conducted shortly before Sears announced his retirement led to the conclusion that not only should the foundation continue “its valuable work as a do-good bank and a place for people to be philanthropic,” but it was also “important to take a stronger active leadership role in the community.”
That stronger leadership role, Hayward and Sager say, will include increased interactions with the state’s larger foundations, like Longwood, Welfare and the Crystal Trust.
To replace Sears, Hayward says, “we decided we needed someone as CEO with experience in the community engagement arena.”
“It’s all about leadership and energy,” says Sager. He notes that, compared to Delaware, “Vermont is a pretty large state.” (At 9,615 square miles, it’s nearly four times the size of Delaware.) Yet Comstock-Gay was frequently on the road, getting a better grasp of the state’s needs and showing prospective donors how their philanthropy could help.
After interviewing candidates from Delaware as well as out-of-staters, “Stuart stood out head and shoulders above the others,” Hayward says, adding that “if we hired someone from outside Delaware, it must be someone with the interpersonal skills and savvy to deal not only with the fancy law firms in Wilmington, but also the farmers in Kent County and the Rehoboth resort community.”
Comstock-Gay has proven to be a quick study.
“Kent and Sussex feel a lot more like Vermont than New Castle County,” he says.
Vermont doesn’t have large business institutions, like the DuPont Co. and the credit card banks, but it has “lots of tiny towns and tiny school districts,” he says.
While his experience in Vermont and New Hampshire has helped him feel comfortable downstate, his 14 years in Washington and Baltimore with the American Civil Liberties Union make him a good fit within the upstate legal and banking communities.
He has taken easily to Wilmington, a city whose demographics are far different from any community in Vermont. “The world is diverse,” he says. “Vermont is gorgeous, but it’s almost all white people.”
Comstock-Gay spent his first five months in the city as a bachelor, as his wife Lucy stayed behind in Vermont to plan the backyard wedding of the couple’s middle daughter. They’ve now settled into a house in the Highlands, where he spends much of his spare time reading—when he and Lucy aren’t on the road visiting their three daughters, the oldest and youngest in Minneapolis and the newlywed in Rochester, N.Y.
“I like Wilmington,” he says. “It’s got diversity. It has cityness, and the scale where we ought to be able to do something. And I’m encouraged by the number of people who want to.”
Then Comstock-Gay catches himself, pausing as if to acknowledge that he shouldn’t be focusing only on Wilmington.
“My concern is the whole state,” he adds quickly.