On shaky ground

In its 48 year history, the foundation has helped students and faculty alike financially, but now it struggles to keep its head above water.

Founded in 1968, the Foundation exists to provide individuals, families and companies with a way to give back to Pierce College’s students, faculty programs and capital improvements, according to the Foundation’s website. It aims to assist students, faculty and administrators with financial and material support for college facilities as well as the development of grants, scholarships, in-kind contributions, sponsorships and partnerships.

Non-profit organizations are typically run by a board of volunteers and a paid executive director, but for the past fifteen years Pierce’s Foundation hasn’t had a steady executive director. Denise Robb, an associate professor for political science at Pierce, has been the board’s chair for about two years, ever since she created a scholarship in memory of her parents and wanted to ensure its maintenance.

“I read that the Foundation was going out of business and selfishly, I got upset because I thought, well, what’s going to happen to my scholarship?” Robb said.

To figure out what was going on, Robb attended a board meeting and asked what she could do to help. She was asked to attend the next meeting as well. When she showed up to the next one, Robb was surprised to find that almost all of the former board members she’d sat with in the first meeting had quit.

“That’s literally how that happened,” Robb said. “I didn’t really want to be the chair, I just wanted to help. Up until now I’ve been growing the board.”

Robb explained that without a formal grant writer, executive director, and developmental director, the board had come to manage everything those positions would normally take care of. Working alongside Robb was Floriya Borzenkova who officially held the title of senior program director, though she acted as the paid executive director.

Borzenkova left her position at the Foundation on Aug. 2 this year after 16 years of working at Pierce.

According to Borzenkova, Pierce College used to run the Foundation and pay its executive directors, but the directors kept changing as did the presidents of the college, bringing with them different opinions about the Foundation and how it should be run.

“The worst thing that can happen to any non-profit organization is if they lose stock or if there’s a change in the leadership,” Borzenkova said. “It’s like a wheel spinning in the mud. Nobody can start raising money immediately; it takes time.”

Borzenkova said that although she loved working with the Foundation and learned to appreciate all that it stands for, she ultimately left because she felt powerless to do anything without support from the college administration.

“It was stress every day and nobody worked with us,” Borzenkova said. “The board was so obedient in trying to accomplish everything the college asked of them, but somehow there was nothing in return. To me that was unfair.”

A big question is why it seemed that the college administration was so hesitant to help the Foundation and its board, Robb said.

“I really don’t know why that is. It’s like a bunch of people who want to raise money for the school and I can’t imagine why [the college] wouldn’t be delighted by that,” Robb said. “I’d love it if someone said to me ‘I’d like to devote my life to raising money for you.’ Oh, please! Thank you!”

When Borzenkova stepped down in August, she was replaced for a brief five-week period by Judy Cantu. Since she had previously worked for ONEgeneration for 14 years and for the National Health Foundation for about two years, Cantu arrived at the Foundation with many years of nonprofit experience under her belt.

Cantu said she realized shortly after getting hired and starting her new job that the Foundation’s finances weren’t in good enough order to support a full-time, permanent executive director. They didn’t have the fiscal support needed to sustain that position.

“The agency has been operating for many years at five percent administrative costs and I think that might be the reason the general operating account is so low,” Cantu said. “Most nonprofits charge between 10 and 20 percent to oversee administration fees. The board is trying to create a plan going forward to gradually increase those fees so that they create financial stability.”

Cantu ultimately made her decision to leave on Sept. 8 because she felt a lack of job security. She said that though the board seemed optimistic, she didn’t want to be job hunting again just six months after she’d been hired.

“With any organization you want to have a three-to-six-month operating budget in the bank. You have to have a 12 to 36 month pipeline of revenue coming in,” Cantu said. “There are certain revenue streams that the foundation can count on and they need to increase that with other, different revenue streams.”

Cantu said that she didn’t feel that the college was unsupportive, and that she got the sense that they wanted the Foundation to be there, but the administration couldn’t just write a blank check to the organization.

Cantu was invited to join the Foundation’s board soon after she left her short-lived position as its acting executive director. She accepted, happy that she would still have a way to be involved in helping create the operational strategies to garner the funds for the hiring of a new executive director.

“When you look at the number of scholarships that they hand out every spring, and this is to the neediest students, that to me is what my heart is closest to,” Cantu said. “The entire community benefits from having the Foundation.”