• The late Robert B. Wegman, longtime chairman of Wegmans Food
Markets Inc. and a 1937 graduate of Rochester’s Aquinas Institute, gave
more than $25 million to the school.

Major gifts make major difference

By Mike Latona/Catholic Courier    |    08.04.2014
Category: Back to School

On May 13, Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women announced its receipt of a $5 million donation from Kathleen Bonsignore Walgreen, a 1961 Mercy graduate, and her husband, Charles "Cork" Walgreen III -- past CEO of Walgreens, the nation's largest drugstore chain. Their gift is the largest single contribution in Mercy's history.

The news came less than two months after Notre Dame High School in Elmira announced a $1.5 million gift from Richard Crossed, a 1958 alumnus and chairman of Conifer Development in Rochester. That gift, likewise, stands as the school's largest donation ever. And like the Walgreens, Crossed made his donation as part of the "quiet phase" of a school capital campaign.

Suzanne Johnston, president of Mercy, said gifts of all sizes are vital to her school's future -- but that those rare seven-figure checks have an exceptional impact on such areas as athletic, academic and performing-arts programs and facilities; building upgrades; and endowments.

"This campus will never be the same," Johnston said of the Walgreen donation. "It's a transformational gift."

Christina Mancini, director of alumni relations and development at Aquinas Institute, uses similar words of gratitude about the $25 million-plus given to the school over several years' time by the late Robert B. Wegman, longtime chairman of Wegmans Food Markets Inc. and a 1937 Aquinas graduate.

"It’s been game-changing, obviously," Mancini said.

The Wegman family's support of Catholic education is legendary. Beginning in 1995, Wegman and his wife, Peggy, donated nearly $43 million to the Wegman Inner City (WIN) Voucher Program, forestalling by several years the closings of six urban Catholic schools amid financial and enrollment challenges. In addition to the Aquinas donation, the Wegman family also has given substantial support to McQuaid Jesuit High School -- the grocery-store chain's current CEO, Danny Wegman, is a 1965 McQuaid graduate -- as well as Our Lady of Mercy High School, from which Peggy Wegman graduated in 1946. In addition, Robert Wegman has made multiple multi-million dollar donations to St. John Fisher College.

Another person who spreads his wealth among Catholic institutions is B. Thomas Golisano, founder of Paychex Inc. In the past decade Golisano has donated several million dollars each to both Mercy and Bishop Kearney high schools. Earlier this year Golisano also arranged financing that enabled Kearney to purchase its school building from its former owners for $3.4 million.

Mancini added that in addition to Robert Wegman's generosity, "We have had several seven- and eight-figure gifts since, like the Bell family, Bob and Mary Hastings, and Phil and Ann Wegman."

Even when gifts don't reach into the millions, their impact can be substantial when repeated over the years. For instance, "We do have a handful of donors who are unsung heroes," said Pamela White, director of development at McQuaid. "They’re giving us six figures annually and when you look at it over a course of 20 years, it’s a lot."

Courtesy of Notre Dame High School

Renovations to athletic facilities are among the improvements that will be funded in part by major gifts to Notre Dame High School in Elmira.

David Kelly, associate director of the diocesan Department of Stewardship and Communications, added that "we have a number of families who donate $25,000 to up to a half-million dollars" to support individual elementary schools or diocesan Catholic schools in general. And Mancini noted that estate giving is a growing priority in her school's fundraising efforts.

Other forms of giving -- generally from corporations and businesses -- come in the form of grants and/or donations of goods and services. Anthony Cook, diocesan director of Faith Development Ministry (which comprises the diocesan offices of Catholic Schools and Evangelization and Catechesis), noted that All Saints Academy in Corning recently made a major upgrade of its computer technology thanks to a grant from Corning Inc. The grant was arranged through the efforts of All Saints' principal, Joe Tobia.

Whatever the amount, sizable donations don't just show up on a school's doorstep, White pointed out, noting that they are the fruit of "years of work."

Stating that "it's all about relationships," Tim Nally, McQuaid's vice president for institutional advancement, stressed a school's need to keep in consistent touch with major donors. For instance, Nally said he would often chat with one of the school's key contributors, Ursula Burns -- chairman and CEO of Xerox Corp. -- during sporting events involving her son, Malcolm Bean, a 2007 McQuaid graduate. Johnston added that Golisano became better aware of Our Lady of Mercy's needs after taking a tour of the school, and that current Mercy students still pay visits to Peggy Wegman. Meanwhile, Mancini said she makes several trips each year to Florida and Washington, D.C., to meet face-to-face with donors.

Nally said that when the time comes to formally request a large donation, "most of the donors want to see a need, and for you to detail and define that need. These are businessmen. They’re going to ask questions."

He, along with Cook and Kelly, said major gifts are more likely to arise if the stated need addresses a school's long-term viability, as opposed to an immediate financial crisis.

"You can't be dependent on those funds to run school operations, to take care of the necessities," Cook said.

"Ultimately, you need enrollment. You need a lot of other things," Kelly agreed.

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