Make a 'Grandchildren Gift' in Support of Sustainability

The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future hopes to increase funding capacity by around 20 percent by the end of 2015...


By Emily Sanders Hopkins, via Ezra Magazine, Summer 2014

Pat and David Atkinson. Photo: University Communications Marketing
Pat and David Atkinson. Photo: University Communications Marketing

According to recent polling, 83 percent of American adults say protecting the world's ecosystems is important. Another poll shows a record-high 71 percent of American adults say they take the environment into consideration when making purchases. The David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future's (ACSF) vision statement mirrors that attitude: "To create a world in which people can meet their needs and pursue their dreams without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same."

The development of a loyal, generous group of supporters for ACSF is still nascent. It was established with a commitment from David and Pat Atkinson to provide an endowment ($50 million) that ensures the center's permanence and anchors its research program funding, enough to launch eight to 10 multidisciplinary projects annually. This past year, 38 researchers from 18 departments in six colleges participated in the center's projects.

But the Atkinsons, along with center director Frank DiSalvo and more than 350 ACSF Faculty Fellows, have a bigger end game in mind: reliable support from many, and growth. The center today is able to fund eight to 10 projects a year, only about a third or fewer of the 35 to 50 proposals it receives annually. They hope to increase funding capacity of these by around 20 percent by the end of 2015.

The Atkinson Center is a promising place to invest philanthropically, says DiSalvo, based on its track record of research and innovations, the emergence of sustainability as a major point of interest, and the fact that the center is one of the largest and most active interdisciplinary programs at Cornell, bringing together chemists with engineers, city planners with nutritionists and biologists, and more. It is also the largest and most comprehensive center of its kind in American academia.

Perhaps its most impressive statistic? For every dollar ACSF spends, about $7 in research funding comes to Cornell, mostly from government agencies. Making an impact is the goal of all ACSF programs. To speed delivery of research-based solutions, the center is building relationships with nonprofits that have on-the-ground capacity, including CARE, Oxfam and The Nature Conservancy, as well as with corporations and state and federal government agencies.

In late 2013, the Atkinsons made another major gift ($12 million) to the center to endow its directorship and provide challenge funds ($1 million each) for each of the three faculty directorships – one for energy, one for environment and one for economic development – the three areas around which ACSF organizes its work.

The positions, which will carry the names of donors' choosing, will have a faculty member appointed to them on a three-year rotation. They are currently held by eminent, midcareer professors: Todd Cowen, civil and environmental engineering, Alex Travis, reproductive biology, and Wendy Wolford, development sociology. Endowing the positions will boost their profile and the amount of time faculty directors can devote to ACSF, which will advance efforts to develop collaborations with outside organizations. Each gift of $2 million unlocks $1 million from David Atkinson to endow each of these positions at the $3 million level.

"Building a sustainable future is about enabling our grandchildren (yours and mine) to flourish in a world that we know will be quite different than the one in which we grew up," DiSalvo says. "A world that will be increasingly determined by human activities and value systems. Hopefully, our grandchildren will think us wise for helping to create the world they will inherit. A gift to the Atkinson center is a down payment on their future."

The center also has received gifts from Kathleen Marble '63, who this year provided $75,000 and has for several years supported the center's Academic Venture Fund. Other recent gifts included $27,000 from Pat '84 and Barbie Murphy '84 and an $8,000 gift from Kim Erle '87.

"Gifts of all sizes matter," says Chris Miller, director of development for ACSF. "There are so many people who care about creating a sustainable future and so many people who are recognizing how urgent these issues are. When they also realize the impact their contributions could have when directed to Cornell, both the Atkinson Center and partner programs in the colleges will soar. We only have a few dozen donors annually today, and we'd like to have a lot more."

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