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Pomona’s new vice president for
institutional advancement is no
stranger to Southern California...
Christopher Ponce, Pomona’s newly-appointed vice president for institutional advancement, attributes his life-long interest in education to the way he was raised. “My dad came from a family with nine children, and on every major holiday, we had a huge gathering,” says Ponce. “Each Sunday, we got together with lots of aunts, uncles and cousins and children were included in everything. If there were discussions of books and world events, the children took part. I learned to listen and to push forward my own ideas.”
For Ponce, who spent 19 years on the administrative staff of Stanford University, assuming a vice presidency at Pomona in August was a natural progression for his career, as well as a logical outcome of his upbringing. On his father’s side, he notes, “there was great support of higher education. The older siblings were born in Mexico and were blue-collar workers. The younger siblings were born here and went on to higher education. The older five helped the younger five through school.”
At Pomona, Ponce manages the institutional advancement division, which includes three components: alumni relations, fund-raising and public affairs. The three areas work together to communicate with and serve college alumni, parents and other constituencies; disseminate information about college events, activities and issues; and encourage annual, capital and endowment support of Pomona’s core academic mission.
Ponce showed an affinity for new challenges and adventures at an early age. Favorite memories of growing up in Southern California include “glorious, lazy summers and biking along the L.A. River from Monterey Park to Long Beach or Huntington Beach.” Ponce recalls making the trip two or three times a year with a childhood friend on a classic “one-gear Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat.” Later, he became the proud owner of a “beautiful gold French 10-speed with Campagnolo parts,” a hand-me-down from his father. In high school, he played soccer, making the All–CIF (California Interscholastic Conference) team.
In 1973, Ponce enrolled at Stanford University as a pre-med student, intending to become a physician like his father. First-year chemistry, however, convinced him that another path might be more fruitful. Majoring in human biology allowed him to combine his dual interests in the natural and social sciences. In the last quarter of his senior year, he met his future wife, Lisa, in a class in Socio-Biology of Aging. “We both knew shortly after we met that the question wasn’t whether we would be a couple but when would we marry, which we did a year and a half later."
After earning his bachelor of arts in human biology and working for a time in education for the disabled, Ponce accepted a position at Stanford in 1984 as associate director of admissions. Four years later, when Lisa’s education included a residency in Southern California, Chris’s development career began, when he joined Stanford’s Southern California Regional Office.
“Quite frankly, I was apprehensive about the position, because I had the common misconception that all I’d be doing was asking for money,” he says. “Instead, I learned that the heart of fundraising is the relationships that you build over time.”
His career in development took off, and his responsibilities grew. He advanced to senior development officer, overseeing all major giving in Southern California; associate dean for the School of Humanities and Sciences, the largest of Stanford’s seven schools; and director of the school’s annual fund, where he and his staff raised the alumni participation rate from 34 to 40 percent and increased discretionary annual giving from $7.4 to $16.6 million.
Most recently, he served as Stanford’s director of individual giving, working closely with the president, provost, faculty, trustees and senior regional volunteers to achieve the goal of $1 billion for the Campaign for Undergraduate Education and $400 million for the Hewlett Challenge, and managing a staff of 78 in the areas of annual giving, major gifts, planned giving, the parents program and research.
Delighted to be back in Southern California after a 10-year absence, Chris and Lisa Ponce are looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends in the area. Their 8-year-old daughter Avery, whom the proud father describes as “the world’s most wonderful daughter,” is in third grade and keeps busy with winter basketball, aikido, flute and her Brownie troop.
“Coming to Pomona is at once familiar, yet new,” says Ponce. “The fact that it’s in Southern California, where I was raised, makes it just about perfect. There seems to be great energy and excitement, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about liberal arts colleges and to apply my past experience as a vice president.”
One of the things he’s found most refreshing, when meeting with faculty, students, or alumni, is the affection people feel for Pomona. There’s a difference,” he says, “even from what I experienced at Stanford. There’s a palpable sense of good will. President Oxtoby and I find that alumni and the campus community are proud of Pomona but also excited about ways to help make it even better. That’s very compelling.”
What has motivated your career in higher education?
I’ve seen the transformative power of education at all levels, but especially college. Opportunity, access and equity matter to me. And independent colleges, in particular, have a unique role in educating the leaders of tomorrow.
What do you enjoy most about advancement work?
Advancement, as well as management and leadership in general, are relationship based. You are privileged to meet fascinating people with a variety of interests and to nurture good relationships over time. A history of interaction based on honesty, integrity and open communication must precede asking any donor or prospective donor to consider a major contribution to an institution. In the end, it all comes back to the nature of our job: helping people take the long-view, developing relationships by being there for people at various stages of their philanthropic activities. It is the personal nature of the work that I find so satisfying.
What should alumni and parents know about Pomona’s fund-raising efforts?
Prospective donors to Pomona are typically individuals already interested in supporting education. If they are alumni, they already have a relationship with Pomona College. Donors with an interest in Pomona who have the financial capacity to contribute appreciate opportunities to hear about the College’s most pressing needs. In turn, advancement professionals must find opportunities in which institutional needs and the interests of donors overlap. The more closely you can align a donor’s interests with Pomona’s institutional needs, the more likely a donor is to enjoy making a meaningful contribution. Creating those opportunities is part of our responsibility. At the same time, there is always a balancing act, holding in mind what is best for Pomona and for the donor. In the end, the process has to be donor-centered or it won’t be successful. It’s paramount to listen to donor interests and motivation.
What reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
I admit that saying one is a fund-raiser can be a real conversation stopper. Typically, people think we attend lots of fancy parties and ask people for money every day of the week. But that simply isn’t true. Ideally, people become interested in knowing why I am so dedicated to higher education and why I’ve chosen to serve Pomona in this way. More often than not, it turns out that we have a lot in common.
With Pomona’s endowment hovering around $1 billion, how do you explain to people that even modest donations are important?
This challenge is not unique to this institution. Pomona, like other colleges and universities I know, needs to do a better job of letting alumni, parents and students know why it needs continuing support. While it’s true that we have a $1 billion endowment that covers about a third of our annual operating budget, two-thirds of the budget must come from other revenue sources. Many moderate donations to the Annual Fund add up to a significant amount of money on which Pomona depends for several things. For example, Pomona’s commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid is an expensive proposition, but it’s one that is at the core of our educational mission. In the end, giving is an emotional exercise, and people give because they want to see Pomona continue to attract the very best students and faculty.