DOYLESTOWN Pa. – In the high-pressure world of educational fundraising, tiny Delaware Valley College has seemingly hit the lottery: A local philanthropic group is giving the school an estimated $30 million in property and cash.
The generous gift from the Warwick Foundation of Bucks County is large by nearly any standard. But it’s considered transformational for the suburban Philadelphia college, which was founded more than a century ago as a farm school for immigrant youths and is now on track to become a full-fledged university.
The donation announced in September includes a 400-acre farm worth about $15 million; a $10 million endowment to care for the land; and $5 million to support the college’s long-term academic vision.
Especially in a struggling economy, the gift represents a “tremendous psychological asset” that should help attract talented leaders and educators, school President Joseph Brosnan said. It will also provide years of financial stability to the tuition-dependent school and help officials better publicize its many non-agricultural offerings, he said.
“We have been known as that little old farm school in Doylestown,” Brosnan said. “(People) haven’t been able to see the other programs.”
Warwick Foundation President Betsy Gemmill was already a fan of Delaware Valley when negotiations for the gift began about two years ago. Her father had once been chairman of the board at the school, which is about 10 miles from the family’s farm in Warwick Township.
Gemmill said Brosnan sealed the deal with an ambitious agenda to add graduate programs and attain university status while retaining the school’s agricultural heritage. The donation essentially doubles the institution’s $16 million endowment and its land holdings.
“The college really has put together a fairly comprehensive strategic plan,” Gemmill told The Associated Press. “To me, it was a plan of growth.”
Del Val, as it is known, was founded by American Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf at the suggestion of writer Leo Tolstoy, according to college archives. Krauskopf met the author of “War and Peace” on an 1894 trip to Russia, during which Tolstoy said U.S. immigrants would be better off tilling soil than living in cramped industrial cities.
In 1896, Krauskopf bought 118 acres of land about 25 miles north of Philadelphia. The National Farm School, open to all faiths, began the following year with 10 students.
The school has since broadened its offerings to include subjects like biology, business and criminal justice. Today, more than half its 1,700 undergraduates are non-farming students but the agrarian image persists.
“People think it’s just for ag. We’re trying to definitely move away from that,” said Del Val senior Dariyen Carter, 21, of Baltimore. “We really need to have a well-rounded institution.”
Brosnan’s strategic plan includes reorganizing the college’s 27 majors into three undergraduate schools; he also wants to add a doctoral and three more master’s programs to enable Del Val to seek university status from state and regional accreditation agencies.
Brosnan said officials are still deciding the best educational use for the Gemmill farmland.
“Money without a plan doesn’t do any good whatsoever,” Brosnan said.
Sound planning is crucial to avoid squandering the gift, philanthropy experts say. Brosnan is very aware of the cautionary tale of tiny Polytechnic University in New York, which, despite a $177 million bequest in 1998, ended up in dire financial straits due in part to poor planning. The school merged with New York University in 2008.
Gemmill’s donation will likely have a positive ripple effect on Del Val, said Rae Goldsmith of the Washington-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
“Major gifts usually demonstrate to others confidence in the institution, and that confidence is contagious,” Goldsmith said. “What we see here is that giving leads to giving.”
Some experts disagree, saying largesse can also discourage donations by creating the impression that a school no longer needs help. Indeed, Brosnan said people have now started asking the college for money.
Gemmill, meanwhile, plans to dissolve the private family foundation that her parents started in 1961.
Kenneth and Helen Gemmill were dedicated to the Bucks County community before their deaths in 1998, their daughter said. But it’s been hard to carry out the foundation’s mission of local philanthropy as family members have moved out of the area, Gemmill said.
The charity’s final bequests total about $7.3 million to a Bucks County hospital, a church and various cultural organizations.