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Editorial: $25M Say Yes donation was a generous gift to education

Countless kids today and long into the future should have the opportunity to attend college without having to worry about how to pay the bill, thanks to an anonymous donor whose $25 million gift screams, “Say Yes to Education – Buffalo.”

The anonymous donor’s generous “challenge” gift is the first step. It is one of the single largest donations from an individual. As reported in The News, its purpose is to serve as a down payment to make sure that students in Buffalo have free college tuition for generations to come.

The anonymous Western New Yorker has always had a special place in his heart for education and for self-motivated kids, who achieve despite their own challenges. From the interview, which the donor gave on condition of anonymity, it is also clear that this person holds a deep conviction and sense of responsibility for humankind.

The challenge gift for the nonprofit organization is, as Say Yes Buffalo executive director David P. Rust said, inspiring.

The organization covers tuition at state colleges and universities for students who have graduated from either a Buffalo public school or a city charter school. The goal is to raise $100 million for an endowment for the Say Yes scholarship, which began here in 2012.

Money manager George A. Weiss founded Say Yes in Philadelphia 30 years ago with the aim of eliminating cost as a barrier to college. It is working well here. Say Yes Buffalo has already awarded more than $7.4 million in scholarships supporting more than 5,000 students. It is a “last dollar” scholarship, meaning it covers tuition not met by other scholarships and awards. Students remain eligible for the money up to a year after graduation. It has incentivized students and families here to raise their expectations and to look beyond high school.

Business owners often talk about how hard it can be to find qualified employees. The challenge mounts in this knowledge economy. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the RiverBend factory in South Buffalo where Tesla is making solar roofing tiles, both require an educated workforce.

As scholarship chairman Alphonso O’Neil-White explained, the fundraising focus of Say Yes has been on the short term, or 10-year goal of raising $29 million to secure scholarships through the high school graduating Class of 2022. The time has come to go further.

The endowment campaign will ensure future Buffalo students will have their college tuition covered. The interest earned on the $100 million endowment should take care of the annual cost of the Say Yes scholarship, along with other assistance.

As the article noted, the anonymous donor joins the ranks of single largest to the Buffalo area from an individual giver. Others include:

  • A physician who graduated from the University at Buffalo medical school and who, in 2011, bequested $40 million to his alma mater. He also wished to remain anonymous.
  • Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr., the billionaire chairman of Delaware North who donated $30 million to the medical school in 2015. The school renamed itself in his honor.
  • Jeffrey E. Gundlach, the billionaire bond trader and Western New York native who announced he is donating $52.5 million for the expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The Say Yes donor declared he is not a household name: “Financially, I’m not little – but I’m not big. I’m looking for big donors to step up with me.”

Judging by this area’s track record of generous benefactors, the request should be met.

The anonymous gift is just a start, but it’s a fine start. Meeting the challenge gift is up to the community. It should plan on beating it.

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