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Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation Of America

By • Jul 2000 • Category: Feature Story

A Cause For Learning

Photo by Kris Kathmann

Most children of the ’60s lost their idealism years ago, opting for the rutted path of materialism that many of their parents and grandparents chose. But tucked deep inside the conscience of many of them rests the fond memory of their own fight for their ’60s causes.

Occasionally yet you hear of a person or two who hasn’t given up the good fight, who hasn’t yielded to conformity, who has somehow kept the passion stoked all these years. Dr. Bill Nelsen, 58, president of St. Peter-based Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of America (CSFA), is one such person, coming full circle from his days serving in Alabama under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the fulfillment of a dream at CSFA where heand 150 others now help the youth of America who are looking for a way up – and for some, a way out.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t look at my dad and say, “I want to be the president of a national scholarship foundation,” Nelsen says from inside his office at the headquarters of one of America’s Top 100 nonprofits. “For one, a national scholarship foundation didn’t exist at the time.”

After graduating from college in Nebraska in the late ’50s, Nelsen studied in Germany for one year on a Fulbright Scholarship. Back home in the States, he attended Columbia University where he earned a graduate degree in religion and ethics in a joint program along with Union Theological Seminary. From his studies at Columbia he became intimately involved in the civil rights movement, eventually heading to the Deep South with his local church’s spiritual and financial blessings. As a civil rights worker he helped with all the logistics for the Selma to Montgomery march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I wasn’t exactly welcome in Alabama,” he says, remembering his days as the unwanted Yankee. “It was 1965 and the issue was the Voters Rights Act, which tried to open up voting for more and more people by ridding the South of the old Jim Crow laws. We were successful at it. I did it out of very strong reasons of faith and ethics. The Church gave real leadership in overturning the old laws.”
The 24th Amendment had outlawed poll taxes just the year before, in 1964, and in the same year an omnibus civil rights bill passed Congress that banned discrimination in job hiring, voting, and in public accommodations.

Later, in the late ’60s while working on his Ph.D. in political science (with an urban affairs emphasis) at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, he was a community lay minister in inner-city Philadelphia, in Mantua, where he and his wife were the only Whites living inside an enclave of 15,000 Blacks. There, he did various organizing and education tasks, usually helping kids in the process. “Through the Dollars for Scholars program and the new ScholarShop program,” he says in referring to two of CSFA’s three main thrusts, “I’m now doing exactly what I was doing in the ’60s and early ’70s: trying to motivate and challenge young people to see the value of an education. I’ve come full circle.”

His belief in education seems dwarfed only by a commitment to the “cause.” Young people must have a post-secondary education to realize their hopes and dreams, he believes. And CSFA, through the direction of Nelsen and a dedicated board, tries to do what it can to help all kids – rural, suburban and inner-city – move towards a post-secondary education. They take their cause so seriously that they have placed a copy of CSFA’s mission statement on nearly every desk at their headquarters building in an attempt to constantly remind the staff, board and volunteers of the important task at hand. Nelsen can recite the mission statement from memory, with conviction, and without any hesitation: “Our mission is to expand access to educational opportunities and improve educational achievement for students throughout America.”

From Philadelphia in the ’70s, Nelsen’s personal exodus before finding CSFA led him first to a stint with the St. Louis-based Danforth Foundation, then the largest foundation for higher education in the U.S. Three years later St. Olaf College hired him as an assistant dean and one year after that he became dean of the college. In 1980, Augustana College (S.D.) made him their president, a role he served through 1986. A CSFA search committee then found and hired him, and he has been with them ever since as president. Like Moses, perhaps, he had to wander through the desert before finding his personal Promised Land.

“It has been exciting [being here],” he says. “When I came here we were giving out about $10 million dollars and servicing about 8,000 students. This year we’ll give out close to $100 million to over 90,000 students.”

CSFA: National Focus, Nationally Recognized

Today, CSFA ranks as the nation’s largest private sector scholarship and educational support organization. Accolades cast their way recently include Smart Money magazine’s selection as the nation’s most efficient education nonprofit. It carries out its mission through three programs: Dollars for Scholars, Scholarship Management Services (SMS), and ScholarShop, a new venture.
Dollars for Scholars, the granddaddy of the three, began in 1958 when a Massachusetts optometrist, Dr. Irving Fradkin, saw a need in his community with children that couldn’t afford a post-secondary education. People had helped him through college and he felt obligated to return the favor. Fradkin rallied a group of 40 volunteers into what would become Dollars for Scholars, with the name tied to its sole mission: ask everyone to give one dollar toward the education of the town’s youth. The first campaign raised nearly $6,000, a tidy sum for 1958. Nearly twenty youth from Fall River went on to a post-secondary education that first year with the financial boost. Included in the first “graduating” class was Bill Reilly, who would later head the Environmental Protection Agency during the Bush Administration.

The idea spread rapidly to other towns. In the early ’60s, 11 communities in southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island formed “Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation of America” as a nonprofit organization. “Obviously they had a vision for the future or else they wouldn’t have used the words “of America,” says Nelsen. A big marketing boost came when Time magazine and later Reader’s Digest ran laudatory articles: several chapters were formed from that. CSFA grew faster yet when it received foundation grants that enabled it to hire a full-time staff and an executive director. In 1976, a grant from the Bush Foundation helped spread Dollars for Scholars into Minnesota, and the organization opened its regional office here in the hometown of the new state director, Stuart Johnson, of St. Peter. (Johnson still serves as a CSFA vice-president. He hired his wife, Marlys, who later served as executive vice-president.)

In 1976 as well, CSFA branched out beyond Dollars for Scholars with a new venture, Scholarship Management Services (SMS), which helps corporations administer scholarship programs, primarily for the sons and daughters of employees. CSFA simply took what they had learned with communities and applied it to corporations. The new venture would turn out to be the means to generate additional income for Dollars for Scholars.

By 1984, the CSFA board, still in New England, decided to move the national headquarters somewhere “into the middle of the country” to match their national chapter base. They debated moving to cities like Kansas City, Chicago, or Minneapolis, but settled on smaller St. Peter, Minnesota, the Johnsons’ hometown, when the local St. Peter economic development agency wooed them with a free plot of land next to Gustavus Adolphus College. Several corporations and individuals in Minnesota helped to encourage and support the move. The result of all this largesse led to the construction of CSFA’s first national headquarters building, 11,000 sq. ft., which opened in 1985. When the president of CSFA, based in New England, passed on relocating to St. Peter, a national search committee hired Bill Nelsen as president.

“In this day and age of electronics and telecommunications,” Nelsen says, his eyes smiling in tandem with his mouth, “St. Peter is an excellent place to have a national headquarters. We have wonderful people who work here.”

Today Dollars for Scholars, the heart and soul of CSFA, by itself is the largest grassroots, locally run, educational support organization in the U.S. Its 850 or so local chapters are managed by local volunteers trained out of CSFA’s national, state and regional offices; and each chapter has its own local, diverse board of directors – teachers, parents, retirees, business owners, service club representatives – all sharing the same passion in that they care about their communities’ kids.

“We train them how to raise money – everything from walk-a-thons and phone-a-thons to telethons to spaghetti dinners,” says Nelsen. “Last year our chapters, about 800 then, raised $30 million for their local youth.” Students apply for Dollars for Scholars scholarships in their local community, and the awards are based on locally derived criteria, usually on merit and need. The awards typically range from $300 to $3,000. “College costs are going up radically, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for many families to make the cut,” he says. “Even a scholarship of $500 can make a huge difference. I can remember times, as a college president, when a family was trying all they could to send their child to our school, the child was doing what he could, and the college everything it could – and it still wasn’t enough. Often the gap between their being able to afford or not afford college was as little as five hundred dollars. If we couldn’t fill the gap, that student couldn’t come. Dollars for Scholars provides the ‘gap’ money.”

CSFA charges each Dollars for Scholars chapter a mere $100 to belong, and with that entrance fee the chapter can access a wide range of services and advice, such as time-tested ideas on fund-raising. CSFA’s actual costs per chapter can run as high as several thousand dollars, depending on the matrix of services performed. To make up the difference, like any other nonprofit – and like the individual Dollars for Scholars chapters – CSFA must raise its own funds. Support comes mainly from a healthy mixture of national corporations and foundations, benefit galas, corporate sponsorships, and individual donors, including a $10,000 gift for the new CSFA building from the late Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. “Cause-related” marketing has been a recent innovation, such as encouraging people to buy a grocery store item where a portion of the purchase price goes to CSFA.

CSFA has a vision for expanding Dollars for Scholars into every community in the nation. Right now it services nearly 850 chapters, with one new chapter being created about every four days. Room for growth abounds: The U.S. has 16,000 school districts, and, when factoring in larger school districts that service multiple communities, the potential for Dollars for Scholars could be well over 20,000 chapters. “Clearly, we have a long ways to go,” says Nelsen. “We know this program works and impacts communities. It gives them a sense of pride and helps raise expectations for their youth. It gives hope.”

Dollars for Scholars was given a big boost three years ago when Gen. Colin Powell kicked off the first “National Scholarship Month” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and continued on as a CSFA spokesperson for two years. (National Scholarship Month is May.) In addition, through an agreement with the Miss America Organization, which is also a scholarship granting organization, the reigning Miss America also becomes a CSFA spokesperson.

Nelsen simply won’t let the fire of his ’60s cause die. “We’ve established over 100 chapters in inner-city areas,” he says, proudly, “with nearly 20 chapters in the Los Angeles school district alone. An inner-city community doesn’t have as much money as a suburban one – and it may not be able to find a person to give them $100,000, but they still can typically raise $10-20 thousand through such events as bake sales, roller derbies, and local business contributions.” In the inner-city more so than anywhere else, it’s not the money that means as much as the message sent to kids, he says. The message? “We care about you and your future, your hopes and dreams.”

Scholarship Management Services: Helping Corporations Help Their Employees

Scholarship Management Services (SMS) is the nation’s largest manager of scholarship programs for corporations and corporate foundations – in all, managing about 850 programs and $80 million annually. Most scholarship programs set up by corporations are for the sons and daughters of their employees. SMS provides services to many large companies, including Ford Motor Company, Target, Chrysler, USBank and Wells Fargo, as well as hundreds of smaller companies throughout the U.S.

Students mail their scholarship applications to SMS, who then decides, as an impartial third-party, whether a student qualifies under the guidelines developed by the corporation. All scholarship plans are administered through the St. Peter headquarters, and SMS workers make up the bulk of staff at that site. “We do all the work for them, and [the companies] get all the credit for it,” says Nelsen.
“Many corporations manage programs like ours internally until they realize that we can do it for them less expensively – and, more importantly, provide a neutral, third-party professional educational review,” he adds. Besides administering programs for the sons and daughters of employees, SMS also manages accounts of corporations trying to encourage students to enter specific fields of endeavor. One large engineering firm has offered scholarships for potential engineering students; a hospital system supports the education of future nurses and physical therapists. Other programs are aimed at increasing the number of minority students in certain fields. One New York bank even has a scholarship program for the sons and daughters of its depositors, and awards several hundred scholarships a year through it. Winners are chosen on a completely objective basis, of course, not on their deposit amount.

Without any doubt, Nelsen says, a scholarship program can benefit any employer. “We survey all our companies and the graduates from their programs, and from that we receive very positive feedback on the value of scholarships,” he says, adding that even though he can’t prove it quantitatively, a scholarship program does help employee retention.

SMS is vital to the long-term financial strength of CSFA, he adds. A fee is charged, but “a fairly modest fee for the services provided,” based on number of applications and number of awards. Any “profit” made from SMS is plowed back into Dollars for Scholars or ScholarShop.

Scholarshop: Preparing Teens For Post-Secondary Options

The ScholarShop program, begun just three years ago, arose out of the realization that many students weren’t doing enough to prepare for post-secondary education. Marlys Johnson, a CSFA executive vice-president then, designed ScholarShop to challenge, motivate and encourage students as young as junior high school age into preparing early for post-secondary education, whether at a vocational, two- or four-year college or university. Much of it is self-directed, but other parts of the seven-module system needs an adult coordinator. The program works closely with and has been accepted into other youth servicing agencies, such as the YWCA, and Boys and Girls Clubs. “We go where the kids are going to be found,” says Nelsen. “We train the coordinator and provide all the materials, including the software. We are in the process of placing this in an internet format, so that it will help reach more children.” Features of the modules include having the students discover and learn the requirements for entry into various vocational paths.

“ScholarShop has been accepted right now into about 75 communities in 23 states through the clubs or schools,” says Nelsen. “We have had great support from Cargill, which has helped us start ScholarShops in schools and clubs around the country where they have plants.” The initial cost of the program ranges from $5,000 to $15,000, depending on initial hardware requirements, and the material is updated every year.

A fully functioning ScholarShop will be included inside a new CSFA Visitor’s Center set to debut sometime in the near future on Main Street in St. Peter. Besides a ScholarShop, which students from around southern Minnesota can access, the center will also provide information about scholarship programs throughout the country – and, of course, information on how to begin a Dollars for Scholars chapter.

The 1998 Tornado: One Very Close Call

The March 1998 tornado that ripped through St. Peter destroyed several CSFA offices which were, at the time, located in different parts of town. Their building on Main Street survived, but the offices housed in the community center were completely wiped out. A week after the tornado, CSFA workers were given only two hours to comb that area for records. The records for all their chapters throughout the nation had been stored there, as well as all their records for ScholarShop.

A storage shed forty yards away from their national headquarters was totally levelled, its roof ending up in the arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College, and its papers strewn all over the hilltop. (The national headquarters missed being totally wiped out by maybe fifty yards.) Days later, calls came in from as far away as Apple Valley, Bloomington and Wisconsin from people saying they had found some of the records.

“We then accelerated the building project,” says Nelsen. “Under the leadership of Fred Vogel, our executive vice-president, we were preparing for a building project at the time in order to bring our staff into one building. We brought in five temporary trailers to house the staff displaced by the tornado. It was amazing. The tornado occurred on Sunday night and we had main operations back up and going by Wednesday. We had to in order to keep serving our students, clients and communities.”

©2000 Connect Business Magazine

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