Coffee With Kitty Porterfield and Gene Steuerle
Two early advocates for the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria and ACT for Alexandria compare experiences in helping to establish and grow these important institutions.
Kitty Porterfield and Gene Steuerle were prime movers in the founding and early years of, respectively, the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria and ACT for Alexandria.
Each immediately cites the involvement of other Alexandrians in starting these important nonprofits. Steuerle said, “I always feel, yes, I know served as a catalyst at some level, but there were a heck of a lot of people who were part of the founding and I always feel badly that they are not usually given enough credit.” Porterfield added, “You can’t begin to name all of the people who had a hand in [the founding of the Scholarship Fund.]”
Porterfield and Steuerle offer important and similar insights on how ideas can evolve into institutions that, everyone hopes, will benefit the community for generations. They also provided a perspective on the future.
The Scholarship Fund provides scholarships and assistance to Alexandria City High School (ACHS) seniors navigating the college application process. In 1986, the Scholarship Fund made its first awards, totaling $7,000 to students. Last year (2021), the Scholarship Fund awarded over $525,000 to ACHS seniors and another $550,000 in renewal grants to former ACHS students in college.
ACT, a community foundation, makes direct grants to Alexandria nonprofit organizations and facilitates additional funding for nonprofits by hosting donor-advised funds. ACT has raised over $15 million for Alexandria nonprofits through Spring2ACTion, an annual giving day, worked with the city and local charities to distribute over $5 million in grants during the pandemic, and invested over $1 million in building the capacity of local nonprofits. It promotes individual philanthropy through donor-advised funds, convenes nonprofits on ways to work together, and has formed a close relationship with the city government to address community needs.
Porterfield described the Scholarship Fund’s origins. “There were two parents, Tim Elliott, who was on the School Board and me, and Jim McClure, the much beloved Director of Guidance [at the then T.C. Williams High School]” she said, “I was in Jim McClure’s office forever in those years (1981-1984) because we were trying to figure out college applications and scholarships. I had three kids so I spent a lot of time with Jim trying to sort this out. Tim was going through much the same thing for his kids—we kept encouraging each other and sharing information.”
Porterfield said that there was less information available then to help parents and students navigate the college admissions process than there is now. She said, “We kept saying to each other, ‘If we’re having trouble, how are the other kids managing?’ That was the question that got it all started.”
Porterfield and others identified just four independent community-based scholarship funds in the United States. Cleveland, Ohio had one of them and Elliott, and later Porterfield, traveled there to see how that scholarship fund worked. Porterfield, who was then working in the Arlington schools, said, “When I came back, I said, ‘I’d like to do that.’”
Porterfield was hired by ACPS in 1985 as the Director of the newly established Scholarship Fund of Alexandria which had been set up independently, but cooperatively, with the School Board. The Scholarship Fund had its own board of directors. The School Board, under the leadership of then Chair Lou Cook and board member Tim Elliott, agreed to fund the Director’s salary and to provide office space. Seven years later, in 1992, Porterfield was recruited by then Superintendent Paul Masem to head the school system’s Communications Department.
Steuerle said of ACT’s origins, “I think a lot of people know this—my first wife, Norma, died on the plane that went into the Pentagon [on 9/11] and all of a sudden we’re getting all this money which came from the taxpayers. Norma’s will provided that half of the estate went to the spouse and half went to the kids. It wasn’t just me--my two daughters contributed half the money.” Steuerle and his daughters, Kristin Steuerle and Lynne Steuerle Schofield, decided to make one charitable commitment to a broader international or national cause and one to a local cause. He said, “I’ve was raised to ask ‘What is your situation and what opportunities does it give you?’”
Steuerle said of the first effort, which focused on using the voices of victim’s families for good purposes, “we never really could get it to take off.” He and others still raise money for the education of women in Afghanistan.
Steuerle, a widely-published Urban Institute economist, has studied charitable giving although his main work is in budget and tax policy. His daughters attended what was then T.C. Williams High School. As a parent, he was on the Principal’s Advisory Committee and became friends with then Principal John Porter. Along with former ALIVE! President Cathy Thompson and Andrew Blair, “we used to meet in John’s office” and a discussion ensued about what to do with the remaining money to be used locally.
Steuerle learned that there was no community foundation in Alexandria. A colleague at the Urban Institute suggested that Steuerle visit the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region (CFNCR.) ACT initially became a CFNCR affiliate. “They were very helpful,” Steuerle said, “Alexandria had an advantage—we are really in some senses a community that works together. We’re smaller, it helps us.”
Terry Lee Freeman of CFNCR referred ACT to Alexandrian Lyles Carr, an executive recruiter for nonprofits. According to Steuerle, Carr said, “We’ve got to get in touch with ‘the girls’”—meaning Lori Morris and Lauren Stack, who became involved and became key contributors. Soon David Speck and Allison Cryor DeNardo became involved. Don Beyer agreed to be the first Chair and Jonelle Wallmyer became the first Executive Director. “So now our little group of four all of a sudden got in touch with these other people who had been having their own discussion about whether there was something more they could do for Alexandria,” Steuerle said, “We [ACT] were really quite small compared to most community foundations.”
Porterfield described a fortuitous milestone for the Scholarship Fund. “We were just underway and I was on Metro going into town and there was [City Councilor] Bob Calhoun.” That casual conversation resulted in Calhoun’s successful advocacy for a $25,000 matching challenge grant from the City Council. Porterfield said, “The ability to go public with the challenge grant” meant a lot to the Scholarship Fund in those early days.
Steuerle said that the donor-advised funds (DAFs) ACT hosts are a concept that, “takes at least two meetings with people to explain.” DAFs provide donors with the opportunity to contribute and take tax deductions currently and decide later how they want the donated funds to be allocated. This gives donors additional time to think about the causes they most want to support and it promotes family philanthropy by facilitating consultation among family members.
Steuerle identified a turning point for ACT when its board of directors determined to separate from CFNCR which resulted in ACT losing a subsidy as a CFNCR affiliate, but gaining the ability to act independently. Porterfield said that CFNR also originally handled the Scholarship Fund’s money as a donor-advised fund for five to six years. She pointed to a similar circumstance when the Scholarship Fund, with leadership from board members including City Councilor David Speck, decided to “bring the money home” and manage its assets.
Steuerle noted that ACT for Alexandria’s own operations “ran in the red” for a number of years and was threatened with going under as it spent down the original funds. A proactive board of directors saw ACT through its early struggles. “We had a really fantastic board,” he said, “People were really engaged.” He said, “We really tried to engage with the city as a partner,” pointing to former Mayor Bill Euille and Assistant City Manager Debra Collins who became board members. An early success for ACT was its involvement in helping to create the Center for Alexandria’s Children and not to be, in Steuerle’s words, “just a money organization.”
Porterfield said, “My background, and I never had a name for it until President Obama came into office, is community organizing. You identify an issue and you sit down with a group of people which is essentially what we did.”
Steuerle said, “I think one of the advantages we [the Scholarship Fund and ACT] had is that both are community-wide efforts. A lot of small charities did not have the advantages we had. We decided we really wanted to serve the charities of Alexandria. Early on, we [ACT] started having these annual get togethers to share resources and engage with charities.”
Steuerle believes the public is underinformed about charitable giving possibilities. He said, “My latest schtick” involves legacy giving—convincing people not to just contribute to charities from annual income, but rather to support the long-term capacity of charities by designating them as beneficiaries of financial and personal assets, for example, a portion of current wealth or later estate or life insurance assets, or working an extra year and devoting the earnings to a charity. He said the key question for legacy giving is, “How can we make it so that we can really engage everybody? We’re trying to get people to think beyond their wills.”
Porterfield observed that the road to today’s Scholarship Fund was not always smooth. A key development in the early years was the involvement of Cassandra and Ralph Bradley. Their daughter, Staci, was a student when she died, and they were seeking a way to memorialize her at the high school. Principal John Porter introduced them to the fund and they became enthusiastic supporters. Ultimately, they set up scholarships in Staci’s name, and Cassandra, with the help of a cadre of her friends, created and hosted the Scholarship Fund Gala which remains a chief fund-raising event.
Porterfield said, “It’s not only the process we [the Scholarship Fund and ACT] shared, it’s the community. What Gene did and what we did wouldn’t happen in many other communities. This community has a pretty solid core of people who know each other and who are interested in something beyond their own households. I think that’s why both of these groups were so successful.”
 Porterfield and Steuerle were concerned about inadvertently omitting other volunteers deserving of recognition in the founding and early years of the Scholarship Fund and ACT. Porterfield named, in addition to those described in this account, former ACPS Superintendent Robert Peebles and early Scholarship Fund board members. Steuerle named, in addition those described in this account, Brandi Yee, who has been with ACT almost from its beginning, and its later and current Presidents, John Porter and Heather Peeler, respectively.
I had the please of serving with Kitty's son, Mike, on the Scholarship Fund Board, and it appears Gene's daughters are paying it forward as well. The article is a who's who of wonderful, committed people trying to make Alexandria better. And fortunately, those folks are just the tip of the iceberg.
Always a pleasure to hear from these two exceptional people who have made a difference in the lives of so many ACPS grads!