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Interview

Get to Know: Cliff White

June 05, 2019

From left to right: August Taylor (student master of ceremony for VPP’s All Stars Night), Deborah White and Cliff White

 

Board member Cliff White’s interest in running a business was sparked through early experiences that helped shape his career – and later his philanthropy. Like many people at VPP, Cliff believes in the importance of investing in where you live and shares lessons on local philanthropy and how to grow it like a business. 

What were some of the early influences that guided your career?
Like most, my parents were a very big influence in my life. My father was probably a bit of a workaholic, but in him I saw the value of hard work and perseverance. He was a big believer that “no matter what you do, you always give it 100 percent.”

The other major influence in my life was my mother. Though she battled manic depression during much of her life, even with those resulting challenges that she faced, she always found a silver lining in just about any situation. Her acceptance of others had a profound impact on the way I came to look at the world and learned to embrace the inherent differences in people.

During my childhood we moved around often, which at first was hard. But I soon realized after the first couple of moves, when you’re the new kid in the classroom everybody wants to check you out. So if you make an extra effort at being a bit friendlier than you naturally are, it’s pretty easy to quickly make new friends and find your fit.

I really saw the benefit of this experience when I went off to college. There I met others who had grown up in one town their whole life and found the transition difficult, but for me it was just another move.

How did you get started in business?
I went to college at Lehigh University. In college the experiences that had the biggest impact on my career were being the treasurer of my fraternity and the business manager of the school newspaper. In both of those cases it was like managing a small business, especially my role as business manager. As you’d expect, the school newspaper was run out of the Journalism Department. The journalism professors didn’t have a lot of business-savvy, but they were dedicated to freedom of the press and wanted the newspaper to be as independent from the school administration as possible.

As a result, they were focused on the newspaper having as little reliance upon school financial support as possible. Therefore the majority of our money came from the ads run by local businesses, which created a great opportunity. To incentivize the acquisition of local advertising, the business staff earned a sales commission on the local ads. And though the commission structure was there ahead of me, it motivated me to drive up the ad sales quite a bit more than those before me – which in turn was a great business experience.

I moved to New York after college to work at the accounting firm Deloitte Haskins & Sells, which was back when they were one of “The Big 8.” (It’s now The Big 4.) I was a certified public accountant in their audit group, off doing audits with lots of big New York corporations: Bank of New York and Mitsubishi Corporation were two of my bigger clients.

Public accounting was a great learning experience, but after four years at Deloitte my college friend, Fred Schaufeld, approached me to be his CFO soon after starting NEW Corp (now NEW Asurion Corp.). I didn’t see it at the time, but I now realize that in being the CFO of NEW there was a certain amount of déjà vu to being business manager of the newspaper. Fred was always a person in school you’d label as “most likely to succeed.” So I knew that if I could help Fred attain his aspirations for NEW, we would definitely exceed mine.  In the end we wildly exceeded both of our lofty expectations many times over.

When did you start engaging in philanthropy?
One of the very first organizations I contributed to was World Vision, which helps provide food to the poor around the world. I also contributed to the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless and Habitat for Humanity. Organizations that were focused on safety net services just resonated with me. I guess I realized that I had been more fortunate than most people, having grown up in an environment with networks of support – financial as well as human support – around me. So, it just felt right to try and help out others who hadn’t been so fortunate.

How did you go from being a person who donates to organizations to becoming actively involved with them?
There’s a saying: “You can’t take it with you.” Having been fortunate enough to take care of my children and family, I realized that there was a lot more I could and should do. So I started trying to figure out the best ways to have an impact and help others. I was still relatively young when I was able to step out from the normal 9-to-5 work commitment, so I had the time to do it.

Getting involved with The Community Foundation was an integral part in the development of my giving. The Sharing Montgomery Fund (a strategic, donor-led funding effort of the Community Foundation of Greater Washington in Montgomery County) supports many worthy nonprofits in Montgomery County. By being a member of their grants committee, I was able to visit numerous nonprofits in Montgomery County. Those visits were very eye-opening as I saw their impact firsthand and learned about the great nonprofits in Montgomery County.

I had a sense to give where you live. One of the statistics about Montgomery County that has driven me is the fact that over 35 percent of the students in the county’s public schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The number of free and reduced meal students in the Montgomery County Public School System is actually higher than the total number of students in the entire DC school system.

Wow, not something most residents in Montgomery County probably realize.  Many of our friends in Bethesda and Potomac have no idea that there are significant pockets of need throughout the county. Those figures triggered something in me: I guess being an accountant by trade, sometimes the quantitative stuff triggers a deeper impact.

You said in your interview with Bethesda Magazine: “After a couple of years, I realized that we were just treating the symptoms and not curing the illness.” Can you talk more about what that means?
Early in the Spring of 2008, I went to the Manna Food Center (an organization working to eliminate hunger in Montgomery County) on a Sharing Montgomery visit and got a great tour of the facility, heard about what they were doing and the impact they were having.

I returned to the Manna Food Center in September of 2008, just four or five months later. They talked about how in that short amount of time they were now giving out 40 percent more food. And now people who used to bring them food were coming to them for food. Those two facts had a profound impact on me. I realized there were a lot of people in the county, fellow citizens, for whom the economic downturn was going to be traumatic.

In 2008 when the markets were starting to drop precipitously, particularly during the summer and into the fall, a lot of us saw our investment portfolios dropping. But I understood the financial markets enough to know that if you hang in there, it comes back. But for many of our fellow residents, it was going to bring a life-altering impact and the increase in unemployment was going to be significant.

So we started the Neighbors in Need fund in Montgomery County. We got several generous individuals to do a dollar-for-dollar match, because who doesn’t like their dollar of giving turning into two? Another strength of the campaign was the name itself. Those three words, “Neighbors in Need,” clearly explained what we needed to do.

Initially we focused on food, shelter, utility assistance – helping people with safety net services. Some of the initial funds were also used to create awareness of what services were available in the county. But after about two and a half years I came to realize that we were treating the symptoms but we not really curing the illness. It was at that point, as a result of some of my other philanthropic experiences, I realized that supporting an education was one of the best ways to help people help themselves.

Was your interest in education how you became aware of VPP?
My awareness of VPP was the result of my business partners, Fred Schaufeld and Tony Nader, while my curiosity about VPP was triggered by the fact that a lot of NEW’s success occurred after we got investment through venture capital firms. So the VPP model of raising a fund and investing in nonprofits to magnify the social benefit of what those organizations could do resonated with me. It sounded like a great way to structure philanthropy because I had seen first hand how it worked successfully in the entrepreneurial and for-profit world.

What about the approach resonated with you?
The structure was similar to venture capital, and like Jack Davies told us, it was investing in the infrastructure of organizations to magnify their good.

Here’s an example of how it resonated with me using the Manna Food Center: Often people want all of their contributions to go to the food that gets distributed. But if you don’t have more shelves or warehouses to store it in, then you can’t increase the benefit or the impact of what you do. Somebody has got to invest in the infrastructure of those organizations want to grow.

Jack talked as well about investing in people. That resonated with me as an entrepreneur as well, because the most successful organizations invest in their people. And you can’t be an organization where only one person is making all the decisions. You need a team of people with different strengths.

He talked about how VPP investments start with an organizational assessment and the creation of a multi-year strategic plan. A lot of that plan is focused on building out the leader’s management team. I’ve seen that successful organizations need a leader who’s smart enough to realize that one person can’t be the best at everything. Figure out what it is you’re good at and what it is you like to do, and then bring in people to do the stuff you’re not good at and you don’t like to do. That way all facets of the business get the proper attention and expertise they deserve.

It was seeing how the nonprofit world really isn’t different from the for-profit world when it comes to creating and growing successful organizations.

What have you learned being a part of VPP?
I’ve learned a lot through just listening to all the talented people who run and invest in VPP. Their experiences, knowledge and insights have greatly benefitted my philanthropy.

I’ve often talked with my children about what VPP does and how it drives my philanthropy. When my children were in middle school and high school, on days when I would spend my time involved in philanthropic efforts, we’d talk about what I’d done over the dinner table. I’m a believer that actions speak louder than words. I like for my children to see and understand the issues and causes I’m involved with, but want them to make their own decisions about what issues matter the most to them.

What’s the benefit of working with VPP as opposed to going directly to the nonprofits we support?
It’s about learning. You really learn to do philanthropy the best way and the right way. For folks that are thinking about devoting more of their time to philanthropy, it’s a great course on how to do it right.

What excites you about where VPP is now? And what are you looking forward to?
I like that VPP works across the Greater Washington area, not just DC. Like a balloon, need and poverty are going to push into different areas. It’s not going to all stay in one place.

Accordingly, VPP’s work has branched out within the DC metro region, and our work with the school system and governmental agencies has a demonstrated impact on vulnerable youth like our original work with traditional nonprofits.

It’s about the youth. I wish every child could have the same opportunities that my children have had growing up.

There’s a saying: “It takes income to lift someone out of poverty, but it takes assets to keep them out of poverty.” Those assets are either financial or a social network. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that because of the communities I grew up in, my parents and the schools I attended, I’ve had a tremendous network that has created most of the opportunities that I’ve had in my life. I’d like to continue to be a part of helping find ways to create those networks for people less fortunate.