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The Great Collaborator

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As president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation, Fred Sears leads the largest philanthropical administration fund in the state.  Photograph by Terence RobertsFred Sears’ career started with a wrong turn.
 
“My dad had set me up with a job interview at the Bank of Delaware in downtown Wilmington,” says Sears. “The Bank of Delaware was across the street from Delaware Trust. Not realizing the difference, I walked into Delaware Trust instead.”
 
As it happened, Delaware Trust was looking to hire a management trainee. “They hired only one trainee per year. I turned out to be that one.”
 
That wrong turn in 1964 started a journey that would place Sears in the right place at the right time for philanthropy in Delaware. Sears is president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation, the largest philanthropical administration fund in the state. As its leader, Sears has developed innovative programs for the benefit of all and charted new directions for the future.
 
Of course, there were a few stops along the way. At Delaware Trust Sears befriended Thomas Maloney, who would become mayor of Wilmington. Sears served as Maloney’s finance director for two years, then switched to economic development for a year. Frustrated in his dealings with City Council, Sears ran for an at-large seat. He won. When Sears later ran for president of council, he was defeated by current mayor James Baker.
 
Sears returned to the business world. Banks were starting to establish business development divisions, and Sears was known from his work in economic development for the city. “A friend of mine at Beneficial Bank, Jim Gilliam, offered me a job as vice president of sales,” Sears says. “Jim was very community oriented, and that rubbed off on me.”
 
Sears made additional moves through the banking community when Gilliam called one day to say, “I have a job for you. Come over and head up the Delaware Community Foundation.”
 
Under Sears, changes in DCF’s structure and strategy were almost immediate. “The DCF was originally established as an investment tool for developing small, private gifts such as those deriving from individual wills,” Sears says. “But today, for instance, we’re additionally focused on funding student scholarships provided by families who may have suffered a tragic loss and have established a scholarship in that loved one’s name.”

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The other major focus is in the area of nonprofits. “Most have a rainy day fund set up for emergencies that lay idle in their bank accounts,” Sears says. “We take that money and invest in CDs that create legacy funds for endowments that can now be provided by those nonprofit organizations. We’re currently managing some $40 million in rainy day funds from about 200 nonprofits.”
 
One of Sears’ guiding principles is collaboration. The other, he says, is involvement. Those two principles became the cornerstones of another Sears-led DCF initiative to provide multi-year grants for various community activities. In 2004, for example, Sears met with a group of senior center directors to talk about the strategy. Sue Getman, executive director for the Wilmington Senior Center, responded by explaining the growing need for senior services beyond those provided by Medicare and Social Security. Hence the founding of the Delaware Aging Network.
 
“What we wound up creating was an integrated infrastructure designed to support a vision of our seniors continuing to live self-sustaining lives through appropriate care management programs operating through our statewide senior centers,” says Dory Zatuchni, executive director of Jewish Family Services, the lead agency for care management programs in New Castle County. (Two other agencies—Modern Maturity and CHEER—were selected as lead agencies for Kent and Sussex counties.) Says Getman, “We wrote a paper outlining our needs, and Fred led the charge in getting the program funded.”
 
This effort began with 20 agencies in 2006. DAN grew to include 52 agencies by the time DCF funding ended in 2008. With lead agencies running programs and fiduciary agencies managing the finances, DAN became a self-sustaining fundraising and advocacy group for local seniors. DAN has continued to secure funding beyond DCF’s three-year commitment. AstraZeneca and United Way stepped up for 2009 and 2010.
 
“Our infrastructure model has become a template for other advocacy groups in the state now,” says Zatuchni. “Fred has been a true visionary in this regard.”
 
Another example of Sears’ vision is the recently released report “Philanthropy in the First State,” which was commissioned by DCF to “see where we are,” Sears says, in terms of private and corporate giving. The report was an eye-opener in a couple of areas.
 
“Despite the large community of private foundations in the state, essentially only eight are sustaining the nonprofits in Delaware,” says Mary Kress Littlepage of KBT & Associates, which produced the report. “And virtually all eight have ties back to the du Pont family.”
 
The good news, according to Littlepage, is that the concentration of giving from private foundations means “there is an opportunity to broaden the scope of philanthropy in Delaware.”

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One of the surprises Sears found turned into an immediate criticism by some prominent local businesses. The report found that corporate giving “might be providing less support than imagined.” Giving by Delaware businesses comprised less than 2 percent of the state’s organized philanthropy in 2007 (the latest year in which data had been collected).
 
That may be a bit misleading. “The fact is that some prominent corporations provide financial support through their operating budgets rather than a foundation, so those dollars are not captured through public tax-related documents,” Sears says. “Still, the report confirmed that nonprofits are in trouble here, and changes have to be made in order for them to survive.”
 
The report found that “more than 35 percent of Delaware nonprofits operated in the red each year from 2002-2007.” (The report does not include nonprofit performance or philanthropic giving for 2008, arguably “the worst year ever for giving,” Sears says. He also notes the finding that Delawareans give less per person than those in all other states.)
 
So what can be done? “We need a recovery first and foremost,” he says. “But until that happens, we need a more collaborative effort among all providers who are looking for funding.”
 
Organizing networks of agencies providing related services, such as DAN, is a prime example of Sears’s belief that groups must share resources and combine services, where appropriate, to survive.
 
DCF is not waiting idly for recovery. Three recent initiatives seek to increase community fundraising and support.
 
“Our Next Generation Group is designed to attract business and civic leaders who want to become involved but don’t know how or where,” says Sears. “Essentially, these individuals become heads of mini-foundations, with 50-50 funding from DCF and their own individual efforts.”
 
The Youth Philanthropy Board seeks to give students experience in foundation work by having high school juniors and seniors serve on the board. The board is provided $15,000 a year to give to causes such as teen pregnancy and sports for children with disabilities, based on the board’s own study and focus. DCF’s new African American Empowerment Fund is designed to support African-American leaders by providing $50,000 per year for African-American causes.
 
In pointing to the creation of the African American Fund, Tony Allen, a communications executive with Bank of America, told a recent audience gathered in honor of Sears receiving State Farm Insurance’s Good Neighbor Ujima Non-Profit Leadership Award, “What I learn from Fred Sears nearly every time I am with him is that while patience is a virtue, impatience is a weapon. He does not demur to what others would call insurmountable tasks and taboo conversations.”
 
In other words, should you make a wrong turn while looking for a job, start talking. It may turn out to be just the place you were meant to be.

 

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