The Colgate Scene
The 54 percent solution
Alumni rise to Dan Benton's challenge
Dan Benton '80, who committed $1.5 million in a challenge to boost alumni giving, speaking to the Class of 2003 at the senior luncheon in May. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Last year, Dan Benton '80 decided it was time to make a statement about alumni support of Colgate -- with his own money.
A university trustee since 2001, Benton issued a direct challenge to his alma mater and fellow alumni to reverse a declining rate of alumni participation. If the percentage of alumni who give to the university increased to 52 percent, Benton would donate $1 million to Colgate. Colgate alumni rose to the challenge and as the end of the fiscal year approached, it became apparent that the 52 percent threshold would be reached. Consequently, Benton upped the ante, committing an additional $500,000 if the alumni participation rate reached 54 percent, which it did and a little more, reaching 55 percent.
The former mathematics major is the chairman and chief executive officer of Andor Capital Management, one of the largest hedge fund advisors in the world. Benton, who co-manages Andor's technology funds and provides strategic leadership to the firm, joined the Pequot Family of Funds in 1993 from Goldman, Sachs & Company, where he was a top-ranked securities analyst for nine years. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Colgate and earned his M.B.A. from Harvard University. In addition to Colgate, the father of three sons is a member of the board of trustees of Memorial Hospital Sloan Kettering Institute and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
While visiting campus during the May meetings of the Board of Trustees, Benton took time to discuss the challenge with the Scene.
Scene: Why did you decide to issue the challenge?
Benton: Whether it's building new academic buildings, dealing with residential life or the challenges of trying to field a Division I athletic program without awarding athletic scholarships, Colgate has many important challenges and opportunities ahead. Unfortunately, the university is also extremely constrained in its resources. We balance the budget each year based on generating $6 million in Annual Fund gifts. We have a $400 million endowment, which is substantially bigger than it was 10 years ago, but substantially smaller than the institutions that we compete against.
The challenge was intended at a basic level to try to help Colgate raise more money. I think tying the challenge to participation is really an indication of alumni support for the school, and if the alumni don't care, then maybe we should change our priorities a little bit. This school is substantially more competitive academically than it was when I attended, and its reputation is stronger as well. If you are donating to your alma mater as an alumnus or alumna, showing support for your school after you've graduated, to a degree you're making a further investment in your own education because the value of your Colgate degree and education is enhanced if the reputation of the school is improved.
Scene: What do you think of the response from Colgate alumni to the challenge?
Benton: It's been very encouraging. Hopefully, the challenge was a catalyst, a stimulus to get people to pay more attention to what's going on here and what we need, and help us invest in making this a better place.
Scene: What do you think of the efforts of someone such as Howard Jones '39, Colgate's first vice president of development, who made more than a thousand phone calls in helping the university meet the challenge?
Benton: He's 85 years old and he wrote me a letter about three months ago telling me how excited he was about the challenge. He really has a passion for what we're trying to do. Howard has obviously been connected to Colgate for a very long time, lives here in Hamilton, and his phone number even ends with 1819. I think its wonderful how he's reached out to classes from 1960 and earlier, alumni who listen to him and respond. I think Howard has called 1,300 people and gotten 1,200 donations. What he's done is truly extraordinary.
Scene: When you spoke to the Class of 2003 at their class luncheon, you focused on two themes. First, the notion that life is a journey, not a destination. Then you talked about heroes, specifically, one of your heroes, the late Wm. Brian Little '64, former chair of the Board of Trustees. Why did you choose those particular themes?
Benton: I've had a very successful business career, and I think there are probably a lot of people that would view my material achievements as something that they would aspire to. During the last few years I've begun to recognize that I may have missed out on something by being so focused on my business career. Now, being goal oriented is a wonderful thing. We need passionate, achievement-oriented people in this world. But while life may seem like a marathon, it's really made up of a lot of 100-yard dashes. You've got to enjoy the 100-yard dashes because otherwise you just wake up and you're older.
It's the classic cliché that youth is wasted on the young. I wanted to remind the class that it really is important that you do something that makes you happy, not something that your parents want you to do, or something that society wants you to do. From 1995 to 2000 we had an unbelievable economic boom in this country, and I think a lot of people graduating from college figured they would go out, get it all now and make a lot of money, and a lot of them did. I think our values have changed since then. First of all, our economy is not what it was and, second, after 9/11 we're taking stock of ourselves as Americans. It just resonated with me that taking time to enjoy every day is a good thing. I read a book couple of months ago by Po Bronson called What Should I Do With My Life? and there was one chapter in it that talked about people who have been very programmed, that have gone to college, and then business school and then gotten some job in investment banking or something like that. They've never taken a two-week vacation before. They'd be very well-served to go off and put a backpack on and go to Europe, or go any place. Just get on an airplane and go someplace without an agenda, without friends, without a support system and really learn independence.
Scene: Why is Brian Little a hero to you?
Benton: Brian was someone that I respected as a pioneer in the financial industry; he did some remarkable things in the 1980s. Thank God he retired when he was 50. Thank God he had the sense to do that because he only had eight more years, although we obviously didn't know that at the time. He found a balance in his life. He had great success early on, and he retired at an age when most people don't retire. But he didn't just retire and go fishing, he retired and devoted the same amount of energy he had for business to his kids, his grandkids, his love of photography and Colgate. He approached it all with the same passion, and that has influenced me greatly.
Brian Little changed my life. He showed me the importance of doing other things besides one's work. I think the real message from Brian Little is the importance of making an impact now. If you are talented enough, but also lucky enough, to have been in the right place at the right time and made a lot of money, maybe you've made enough and maybe it's time to devote your energies to other great causes where you can help. And it's not just about money, it's also about time.
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