Thursday, July 2, 2015

Listen to the Dreamers

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend who is very knowledgeable about nonprofits, especially fundraising. The  topic was a recent announcement that hedge fund mogul Stephen Schwarzman had just pledged $150 million to Yale University to create a center for campus life. The center would emphasize the arts and be grown out of the old freshman dining hall known as The Commons. My friend pointed out that when the donor and university began conversations they were just about renovating the dining  hall.  But Mr. Schwarzman had a grander vision in mind and that is what now will become reality .

Doubtless it helps when the espouser of the big picture has the pocket depth of Mr. Schwarzman, who, for instance,  gave $100 million to the New York Public Library in 2008 and more recently $100 million to China's Tsinghua University. The point is, however, that nonprofit leaders, often besieged by financial pressures, need to allow themselves to think big and funders to listen to those who do.

I offer several examples from my region, New York's Hudson Valley. The first is "Walkway Over The Hudson" in Poughkeepsie. Originally constructed as a railroad bridge for freight traffic spanning the Hudson River between Highland NY and Poughkeepsie, it had largely fell into disuse when it was severely damaged by a fire in 1974. It is a marvel of civil engineering - 6800 feet long and standing 212 feet above the river. The bridge likely would have been torn down if it were not for a local handyman  named Bill Sipe who became obsessed with the idea of it becoming a pedestrian walkway. In 1992 he formed an organization called Walkway Over The Hudson, which in 1998 took ownership of the bridge. A new board was formed in 2007 and it began to raise significant funds, primed by a large leadership gift from the local Dyson Foundation. The State of New York, local governments and private groups,  such as Scenic Hudson,  joined in to play major roles.

The Walkway opened to the public in 2009. Now called the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park, it took 16 months and $38.8 million to build. Presently some 700,000 people a year visit the 1.28 mile walkway - the longest footbridge in the world-  enjoying the unparalleled views up and down the river. They are the fit and the frail, the young and the old, running or walking, alone or with friends, including four-legged ones. There is no admission fee. A visit to the Walkway is a demonstration of what the realization of one man's quixotic dream can mean to a community and state.

Another vision that began with one man, Richard Anderson, has yet to be  fully accomplished but is on its way. Mr. Anderson, an art dealer raised in Nyack NY on the west bank of the Hudson, was a devotee of steamships and dreamed of reviving the Dayliner excursion experience on the Hudson. He discovered a steamship that lay deteriorating at a dock in Detroit - the S.S. Columbia. From 1902 to 1991, the Columbia had transported thousands from Detroit on an 18 mile excursion to Boblo Island, site of an amusement park. No simple ferry, it was a grand ship, 207 feet long and 60 feet wide. It could accommodate 3200 passengers and even featured a restaurant and ballroom.

Anderson, with persistent and persuasive determination, spun out his vision of the Columbia steaming up the Hudson from New York City as far north as Albany, to anyone who would listen. He found some prominent Hudson River aficionados who did listen, and some who also agreed to serve on the board of the nonprofit  S.S. Columbia Project. Sadly, Anderson died of cancer in 2013, but bequeathed the bulk of his estate to the Project. That gift, along with a substantial New York State grant, enabled the Columbia to be towed in 2014 to Toledo, Ohio where some repair work was begun. The next step planned for 2015 is for Columbia to be towed through Lake Erie to Buffalo where restoration of  its superstructure can begin. Ultimately it will be moved to Kingston NY for final fitting out. The goal is for service to begin in 2019. 

In the meantime,  the Project's staff and board will have to work hard raising funds (over $3 million so far- current estimate of additional need is $18 million) and designing the vessel's  program  There is intended to be much to do for passengers on board - educational and entertaining - while enjoying the river's scenery. When docked in NYC, the ship could be made available for catered events.  

These "impossible dreams" - one now a reality, one making progress towards it - are testimonies not only to the original dreamers, but also to those who decided to support them, often in the face of "what could they be thinking..." resistance. It doesn't make much difference how big the project is  - nonprofit leaders and supporters need to take the time to listen to the dreamers.

As always I welcome comments on this post, and any others.