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Q&A: The art of giving through the eyes of Foundation donors Chris and Tom Neilsen
Photos and Story by James Hill
The PCC Foundation has reason to be excited.
A $280,000 gift from Tom and Chris Neilsen will provide hundreds of students with scholarships over the next 20 years. The gift, the first of its kind for PCC, will be invested as a limited term endowment to maximize the impact of the gift and provide between $10,000-$20,000 per year for PCC student scholarships.
Longtime PCC Foundation supporters, the couple owned Neilsen Manufacturing Inc., a Salem-based family business serving the high-tech industry. After retiring to Portland in 2007, Chris served on the PCC Foundation Board for five years and was appointed president for one of her terms. Today, she remains active with the philanthropic arm of the college and is a member of PCC Foundation’s new Emeritus Board.
The Portland couple sought a way to significantly increase the returns from their philanthropic investment. As opposed to a traditional endowment that provides an average four percent return forever, the Tom and Chris Neilsen Impact Fund will divest in 20 years, allowing the couple to see the benefit of larger awards over a shorter span of time.
“The Neilsen’s gift of education will change the lives of our students and their families for generations to come,” said Ann Prater, executive director of the PCC Foundation. “The impact will be enormous.”
The Neilsens count PCC among their top priorities and are strong proponents of the PCC Foundation’s Future Connect Program, which provides scholarships, in-depth advising and college success coaching to low-income and first-generation students. Scholars are guided through college, all the way to completion of a certificate or degree.
Why did you give this donation?
Neilsens: A very practical reason for making this gift at this time is that we have both reached the age at which you must take a required minimum distribution from your IRA. We have been supporters of the Future Connect and scholarship programs at PCC, and we decided that because that work is very important to us and to our community, we wanted to support it more deeply. We decided to make a longer term plan for use of our IRA distributions over the next several years to support PCC students.
Why is this generous donation so important to you?
Neilsens: We have been on the other side of the table and benefitted in our manufacturing business by being able to hire skilled employees. We know that local manufacturers continue to have more need than the workforce supplies in such areas as welding and advanced manufacturing. It’s good work that pays well. It’s a win for the student and a win for the business.
What makes you proud about donating to PCC Foundation?
Neilsens: Every student story is an inspiration. Both of us are humbled by the persistence and desire by PCC students to make their lives better. We are proud to support them in accomplishing their dreams. And we know that as they do that, they impact their own families and the community positively.
Why is Future Connect so important to invest in?
Neilsens: The Future Connect Program has obviously caught the attention of many because it provides a model for connecting with area high schools, providing support and encouragement to plan for college enrollment, and a bridge to accomplish that. Once enrolled, students have ongoing supportive relationships with Future Connect staff. Investing in Future Connect makes sense in providing opportunities to students who might not have those opportunities in four-year college settings, but beyond that, it ensures that a highly successful approach continues and grows.
How long have you given to the foundation?
Neilsens: To provide the greatest impact to the organizations closest to our heart, we focus our giving on supporting a very small number of organizations, and PCC is at the top of that short list.
For many years we have been donors to the community college in the area where we’ve lived – first in Salem, and now in Portland, because we believe community colleges are the absolute best investment. We believe Portland Community College is top-notch. Its mission of serving students who aim to transfer to four-year institutions and those looking to join the workforce, as well as partnering with area employers, is so compelling.
In this time of concern about student debt loads, being able to provide opportunities at a cost half that of the four-year institutions – and a fraction of the private institutions — makes attendance at a community college the best decision a student can make and scholarship support a great decision for a donor.
From a donor’s perspective, what would you tell young students about the benefit of receiving a scholarship?
Neilsens: Graduating with as little debt as possible allows you to make more choices about your future. Scholarships help you do that. In addition, a scholarship means someone believes in your possibilities and wants you to work hard to achieve them.
In this new political climate, how crucial is it for donors to give to foundations?
Neilsens: It is always crucial because funding priorities of the state are always under pressure. There is never a time when you can breathe easy about the future level of funding. So, Portland Community College joins the ranks of four-year universities and other community colleges in needing private philanthropy to help students.