Coming Home Challenge

It’s fair to say that Donna Blackburn and her husband, Kirk, already “gave at the office”: Their son, Tim, is a newly minted Paul Smith’s alumnus, and they’ve contributed to his education for the past four years. When asked whether he was on track to graduate this spring, Donna joked: “He’d better!”

So when the call went out for the college community to rally around the Coming Home Challenge—a matching-gift campaign proposed by an anonymous donor who offered to give $5 million over a five-year span if certain milestones are reached—one might have expected them to take a pass.

But the Blackburns, including Tim, turned out to give even more.


“We donated because of the match,” says Donna, a retired chief financial officer of a public school system in Delaware. “I mean, what a wonderful opportunity. And why not take advantage of that? We have written checks for four years, but we just wanted to make the statement that this is important.”

It’s important for several reasons, she said—and not just because of what Paul Smith’s did for her son, a biology major. “Tim certainly benefited from that hands-on educational focus,” says Donna, who credits Paul Smith’s for imbuing within him “a respect for nature and for our environment that I think is beyond his years.” And there are other things about Paul Smith’s that shaped him in ways he wouldn’t have gotten from a larger institution. He was co-captain of the soccer team. He served as senior class president. “He has learned a tremendous amount about leadership,” she says.


There was a larger principle at stake, too, Donna says. “As parents, we want to support the efforts of the student body and the alumni to sustain the college,” she says.

Moving forward, that sustainability includes diversifying the institution’s revenue base so it is less dependent on tuition dollars. But building out those programs (such as training partnerships within industries, degree-completion programs aimed at non-traditional students, and other initiatives) takes significant investment—the kind supported by the Coming Home Challenge.

And while the college needs to grow to succeed, it also needs to retain the small-school feel that makes it what it is. Tim, who has been taking family trips to the Adirondacks since he was an infant, says the intimate campus atmosphere is a big part of what has made the college so special to him. As an example, he says, “I sat down with Dr. (Curt) Stager and Dr. Lee Ann Sporn today just to have a chat. I’m working with Dr. Stager for SAM Fest, and I’m doing a presentation, but we also talked about general stuff, like career advice. Those sort of small-college opportunities have been amazing.”

So to show his support, Tim sold off some of his childhood possessions in a yard sale—a bass guitar, some board games, Legos, clothes. In all, he said, he made about $160. And he gave it all to the college.

He saw the same kind of dig-deep mentality among his fellow students, as he joined with college staffers to set up a table in the Joan Weill Student Center where they solicited donations. “We sat out and all kinds of students gave—some small, some larger. People just brought in spare change. Some people just gave a dollar, which turned into $11.”

That’s because the donor agreed to match the first student gifts at a 10-to-1 ratio. Students gave $63,000 to the challenge last fall—meaning those donations turned into $630,000.

He’s hopeful that, by convincing students to give now, they’ll get in the habit of giving more later. “I’ve seen so much change over my four years in a lot of positive ways,” he says. And by giving back, that kind of change can keep happening.