Traverse City News and Events

People Are Giving -- In Record Numbers -- To NMC's Ambitious Campaign

By Luke Haase | Oct. 14, 2020

A year ago almost to the day, Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) publicly unveiled its most ambitious fundraising campaign in its history: With a goal of $35 million, the “Be What’s Possible” campaign is ten times the size of any effort before it. And, despite the global pandemic and economic uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), philanthropic giving to the college has been stunningly strong, as the college has now raised nearly $32 million from community members, alumni, faculty and staff -- and 12 donors who have given $1 million or more. 

Bruce Byl, co-chair of the campaign along with Susie Janis, says, “In April, in the very midst of the lockdown, NMC had the fifth largest month of giving ever [in terms of number of donors], which demonstrates that people in our region place a high value on NMC and its students. And the vast majority of those dollars were designated specifically on students.”

Indeed, the amount of giving despite recent hardships has been impressive. More than 700 donors made gifts in April alone and, during the second quarter, more than 1,300 did -- the second highest number in the history of the NMC Foundation. 

The news was good all-around. New NMC President Nick Nissley -- who could have changed course on a campaign started under predecessor Tim Nelson -- chose consistency, and has been “extremely involved and supportive,” according to NMC Foundation Executive Director Rebecca Teahen.

Donations have come from many of the predictable, high-profile local NMC alums, but also from newcomers to town, which Janis says “was a real eye-opener for me, seeing the sincerity people have about this college.” Even faculty has been supportive: Nearly 70 percent of NMC faculty are campaign donors. Some donors gave…and then decided to give more: Longtime NMC supporters Bill and Phyllis Donberg have steadily increased their donations to “Be What’s Possible.”

The campaign originated in its “quiet phase” among major donors in July 2016 with an overall goal of $35 million within five years. Though previous NMC fundraising efforts designated specific uses for the funds, the “Be What’s Possible” campaign leadership decided to make this a “comprehensive” effort, purposely opening the funds up to any part of the college where needs are the highest.

Many donors have earmarked their gifts for NMC causes close to home: The Milock and Smith families supported the expansion of the Dennos Museum Center. The Byl family prioritized student scholarships. Casey and Dana Cowell donated toward experiential learning on campus. 

What did change as a direct result of COVID-19? Emergency funding for student needs was prioritized, and Teahen reports she “has never seen money get into the hands of students so quickly.”

“It [the pandemic] really opened the tap in both directions,” agrees Campaign Coordinator Carly McCall. “We moved more of the unrestricted funds to the top of our priority list, so it turned the faucet on there, but also on the other side in terms of more communication going out to students, saying, ‘if you need help with food, or child care, or a place to live -- we are here to help.’”

One welding student who relied on financial aid to enroll and secured all the necessary tools for class found he just couldn’t meet that last hurdle -- the $150 for steel-toed boots, a course requirement. The program director realized that the relatively small amount was going to be the difference between the student staying enrolled or not, and worked with the Foundation to buy the boots. Seven homeless NMC students now have housing thanks to donated funds. 

Still, despite the impressive numbers so far, the campaign is not done yet: only eight months remain to raise $3 million, and the leadership committee is at least so far sticking to the goals.

“The committee asked, ‘should we stick to the $35 million goal,’” Janis says. “And everybody agreed we should, and we remain optimistic to conclude the campaign on schedule.”

In terms of specific major donors, those who have donated $2 million or more include:
The Byl Family: Bruce L. & Mary C. Byl and Jeffrey Byl 
Debra J. Edson and Daniel C. Edson
Diana & Richard Milock 

Those who have given $1 million or more include:
Ross A. & Brenda Biederman and The Les & Anne Biederman Foundation Inc. 
J. Kermit & Sallie Campbell
Casey & Dana Cowell
William G. & Susanne M. Janis 
Kenneth A. Pickering 
Charles E. & Barbara F. Benson, Paul M. Schmuckal, and The Art and Mary Schmuckal Family Foundation
Barbara & Dudley Smith

Photo courtesy of NMC and photographer Jacqueline Southby


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