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Success of Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara Follows Years of Painstaking Cultivation

On triumphant 50th anniversary, longtime leaders reflect on organization's deep roots — and the selling power of a fresh-faced kid

[Noozhawk’s note: In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, Noozhawk has partnered with the Scholarship Foundation on a series of stories chronicling the organization’s growth and development. The series is written by Noozhawk contributing writer Julia Rodgers and is based on a history of the foundation she is writing.]

1960s: The Beginning

Fifty years ago, a committed group of Santa Barbara citizens came together with a common vision: to help motivated and deserving students attend college or vocational school. Today, the group they founded, the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, is the largest community-based scholarship foundation in the country, giving away more than $7 million in scholarships each year.

Of course, when it started, the Scholarship Foundation did not have any money, and its founders had to work hard for every penny it gave away. In May 1962, a group of PTA officers, community volunteers and businessmen initiated a meeting to see what could be done about providing much-needed scholarship aid to students in their community. Six months after its first meeting, the foundation had 35 board members and held its first fundraising event, a New Year’s Eve party, which raised almost $350 for scholarships. At the end of the summer of 1963, the foundation made its first awards: nine $100 grants to students.

“Let’s see what we can dream,” was the attitude of the group back in 1962, said Ruth Nadel, the first president of the Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors. “We recognized the potential of students and we were all anxious to help them move ahead.”

Two key people who joined the board in the first year were developer Michael Towbes, a longtime supporter and current honorary board member, and Carolyn Ferguson, who went on to become the first executive director, a position she held for 13 years. By 1965, Towbes and Ferguson were personally interviewing more than 100 students as part of the selection process.

“It fulfilled a niche,” Towbes said about the foundation’s formation in the 1960s. “For many students, there was an apprehension about taking out a loan with no way of paying it back. The Scholarship Foundation really made the difference as to whether these students could go to school or not.”

By 1967, the success and growth of the foundation made it necessary to hire a part-time employee. The board hired Ferguson, and moved its tiny office to her garage.

“She was so dedicated to the Scholarship Foundation,” past president Richard Welch said of Ferguson. “She got paid just a pittance and she worked so hard.”

With the increase in applications, the board made an important decision that many now say is one of the key reasons for the success of the Scholarship Foundation today. Board member Bruce O’Neal suggested that every board member interview students, something he described as a “delightful part” of the process. Training sessions would be held to prepare the interviewers, a practice that continues today.

“It wouldn’t be nearly as successful if they had a paid staff interviewing the students,” Towbes said. “The joy that comes from meeting these students means so much to people. It’s not just giving money. We are impacting people’s lives.”

1970s: Growing Pains

In the spring of 1970, the foundation’s board was faced with the difficult dilemma of having to reduce student awards because not enough money had been raised.

“We were really struggling,” said Welch, who joined the Board of Directors in 1966 and served as president from 1972-1974. “We were just a very small, hand-to-mouth organization.”

But later in 1970, the board’s angel swooped in and saved the day. Annette Slavin, a founding member and second board president, used her connections to secure a preseason exhibition game in Santa Barbara between the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Francisco Warriors (as they were then called).

The game was thrilling by all accounts, with players such as Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West playing for an overflow crowd of 3,600 at UCSB’s Robertson Gymnasium. The event raised $7,000 for the Scholarship Foundation.

For three more years, Slavin served as game chairwoman, convincing the Lakers to keep playing exhibition games in Santa Barbara, while the foundation kept making a tidy profit on the event. But then tragedy struck: Slavin became seriously ill with cancer and died in October 1974, at the age of 55. The foundation collected nearly $3,000 for a memorial scholarship in her name, but her presence was clearly missed.

“She was the most dynamic driver of the Scholarship Foundation from Day One,” recalled Carl Lindros, who served as president in 1985. “She got things done. I give her a lot of credit for the early success of the foundation.”

The other person Lindros credits for the success of the Scholarship Foundation during that time was Ferguson, who despite working long hours, was still paid a very small salary as executive director — and still housed the foundation’s office in her garage, rent-free. The foundation finally moved its office to a variety of downtown locations.

By mid-decade, the foundation was at a crossroads. It was getting too challenging to stage the Lakers games, so they were discontinued after 1976.

During this time, two important board members joined the foundation: Art Gaudi and Gail Towbes. Both were instrumental in turning around the foundation’s fortunes. In November 1976, Gaudi announced that one of his clients had left a substantial bequest of an Iowa farm to the foundation. The foundation’s portion was nearly $500,000.

“It came just out of the blue,” said Lindros, a financial adviser who as its treasurer helped the foundation invest the proceeds wisely. “What a great surprise it was. We were barely making ends meet before, but this gift put us on the map.”

Meanwhile, Gail Towbes was hard at work recruiting new, younger members to the board.

“She was a great recruiter,” Michael Towbes said of his late wife, who died in 1996.

1980s: Establishing Traditions

The 1980s proved to be a turning point in the history of the Scholarship Foundation because a number of important traditions were established. For example, during the 1980s, the ritual of inviting a student award recipient to speak at each board meeting started.

When he became president in 1985, Lindros decided the best way to motivate the board to raise money was to introduce the award recipients and let them tell their stories.

“I’m in sales,” he said. “How do you sell something? You show off your product! I thought we should show off these kids.”

A new tradition took hold.

Before the foundation established other important traditions in the second half of the decade, it struggled a bit financially. For four years, the foundation held no fundraising events. To continue growing the foundation, the board realized it needed someone who could focus on raising money, so Gail Towbes volunteered to be the development director. But it also needed more fundraising events and activities to put it in the public eye.

In an attempt to garner attention, the foundation invited business people to an annual luncheon. Corporate guests listened to three student award recipients at the first luncheon in December 1985, and another Scholarship Foundation tradition was born.

“We started everything we could,” said Hugh Vos, who became foundation president in 1989. “We started the corporate luncheon hoping that corporations would donate. But then after awhile, about half the people attending were other people from the community, so we converted it into the Community Leaders Luncheon.”

The next year, another significant tradition began with the establishment of the Past Presidents’ Council. Lifetime memberships would be given to board presidents when their terms were up. Many board members view this as one of the most important reasons for the foundation’s success.

“It’s simple but brilliant,” said Joanne Rapp, who was president in 1993-1994, about the Past Presidents’ Council.

She estimates that about three-quarters of the past presidents participate on committees and attend the monthly board meetings.

“It’s a great way to keep your most active people active,” she said.

The economic turning point of the decade came in the beginning of 1987, when the foundation received the bequest of Vista Steel Co. After the sale of the company, the foundation had a budget surplus, and awards increased in size and number once again.

In 1989, the foundation held its first awards ceremony at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse Sunken Garden in an attempt to get recognition in the community and local media.

“We came up with an idea to get an article in the newspaper. ‘Let’s show them the kids’,” said Vos, who became president of the foundation that year. “Nothing is better than those fresh faces.”

The plan worked, garnering considerable local publicity.

As president of the foundation, Vos applied his corporate experience to the nonprofit world, making swift changes by shaking up the existing board committee structure.

“Hugh had high expectations,” said Rapp. “In our history, it always seems like the right person stepped forward into a leadership position at just the right time and took us in a new direction that was transformational.”

Click here for more information on the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, or call 805.687.6065. Click here to make an online donation. Connect with the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara on Facebook.

— Julia Rodgers is a Noozhawk contributing writer. Contact her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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