Vermont philanthropy leader leaves to invest in new challenge
MIDDLEBURY — It’s safe to say that 2008 was a very challenging time for Stuart Comstock-Gay to take the helm of the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF), an organization that receives and distributes donated funds to a variety of charitable causes throughout the Green Mountain State.
“I came here just as the recession was hitting,” Comstock-Gay recalled in an interview last week. “Over the course of around nine months, we ended up having to lay off around 20 percent of the staff. The assets dropped by around 25 percent. We actually did better than most people with investments. It’s partly luck, partly the way we have managed the investments. It was still a huge hit to the VCF, as it was to everyone else.”
The organization during those turbulent times was managing a portfolio of $140 million in assets.
Fast-forward to 2016.
The VCF is now overseeing charitable assets of around $220 million, under the watchful eyes of around two dozen full- and part-time workers.
Now, after seven years of solid stewardship, Comstock-Gay is moving on to a new challenge. He has decided to accept a job that will allow him and his wife, Lucy, to live closer to their grown children. So next month, he will begin his new role as president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation in Wilmington, Del.
Vice President for Strategy and Communications Felipe Rivera will serve as interim president while the VCF board engages in a national search for a permanent replacement.
“It is a great professional opportunity in an interesting state,” Comstock-Gay said of his Delaware job, adding it will allow him to immerse himself in philanthropy in a more urban setting than he had grown accustomed to here in Vermont.
Comstock-Gay took some time to reflect on his time at the VCF and size up where it — and philanthropy in Vermont — is heading. And he believes the signs are pointing in the right direction for the VCF, established back in 1986 with deep roots in Addison County.
Books have not yet closed on the 2015 performance of VCF’s investment portfolio and grants awards. But here are some stats showing what the VCF did during 2014:
• Awarded a combined total of $15.8 million through 2,285 grants to various causes, all of them having a Vermont connection.
• Maintained a total of 687 separate philanthropic funds used for such purposes as supporting and improving health care for children; the arts; environmental issues; Tibetan refugees; disadvantaged Addison County youth; education; animal welfare; women’s economic and social equality; historic preservation; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens; and land conservation. Most of the funds are simply aimed, at the request of their donors, for “broad” charitable purposes.
“The point about all of (the funds) is that they are about Vermont in one way, shape or form, whether it’s a Vermont person who wants to make a difference … or someone who says, ‘I want to make this difference in the state of Vermont,’” said Comstock-Gay.
• Received gifts totaling $35.3 million to apply toward philanthropy.
When VCF’s 2015 numbers are officially tallied, Comstock-Gay believes they will show more than $30 million in assistance of all kinds from almost 750 separate philanthropic funds. Those funds range from around $10,000, to “tens of millions of dollars,” according to Comstock-Gay.
“That’s a huge accomplishment and, to my way of thinking, it’s not just about grants, but how we deploy resources to make a difference,” Comstock-Gay said. “I am very happy about that.”
And the VCF, Comstock-Gay explained, is not just concerned about the assets it manages. Of equal importance, he said, is the impact those funds are having within the community. He explained that in addition to giving outright grants, the VCF directly supports initiatives — such as anti-smoking programs.
“People will ask how many grants we put out,” he said. “But it’s about how much money is at work.”
Comstock-Gay is proud of the VCF’s strong ties to the state in which it is located.
“Everyone who is invested here has a Vermont connection,” Comstock-Gay said. Donors include part-time residents, out-of-staters who have an affinity for the Green Mountain State, businesses, lifelong Vermonters, families and just about every profile one can think of.
“Our goal is to increase philanthropy in the state of Vermont and to help philanthropists make Vermont a great place,” Comstock-Gay said.
BASED IN MIDDLEBURY
The Vermont Community Foundation, with headquarters on Middlebury’s Court Square, has become a thriving organization.
“We are in an interesting position; we are a statewide organization, but our home is here in Middlebury,” Comstock-Gay said. “It has been a good home for us. Middlebury is a place that people regard highly throughout the state. We do value our relationship with the town; we try to be a good neighbor and employer, and we think we are. This is an excellent place for us to be.”
The VCF has also built a strong relationship with Middlebury College, whose alums are among those who have given a lot of money to philanthropic causes
A national financial consultant helps the foundation maximize returns on the philanthropic dollars it oversees, and an investment committee also weighs in on specific investments.
“We are in it for the long haul,” Comstock-Gay said. “We have more of a 20-year horizon. If we were on a five-year horizon, this would be a very different game. But we’re not. Our goal is that in 50 years, this institution will still be here and our successors will continue to lead this place as a trust for the state of Vermont.”
He believes the VCF will continue to evolve with trends in philanthropy. Comstock-Gay noted there have been some major changes during the past few decades in the way people have donated to charity. They aren’t as likely to simply cut an annual check to a single nonprofit and step away, he said.
“Nationally, as businesses move to different places, you lose linchpin donors for a lot of things,” Comstock-Gay said. “Businesses give differently, and people attached to those businesses give differently. People have options; they can go online and find things; there is information in a way there wasn’t before.”
And increasingly, people want to see their donations at work.
“People want to know what is going to happen and they want to see outcomes,” Comstock-Gay said, referring to Vermont as an “incredibly engaged” state.
“It has made all of us in the social service/social profit center become much more intentional and thoughtful about the impact (donations) will make.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].