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Jerri DeVard: The Heart of a Philanthropist

Jerri DeVard: The Heart of a Philanthropist

Jerri DeVard (C'79) had climbed to the top of the ladder of corporate success when she elected to step down from her position as Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand Management of Verizon in January 2007. As the wife of Gregg Smith and the mother of 17 year-old Brooke and 14 year-old Alexander, she was fully engaged in juggling the demands of family with those of her high profile career when she chose to follow her heart—to do more for her family, herself and the other great love of her life—Spelman College.

For Jerri DeVard, life always has been more about who you are than about what you do. Even now, the instructive words of her mother and "life coach," Dr. Jean DeVard-Kamp, guide her steps as she "continues to demonstrate high levels of understanding, gratitude and respect to and for others—helping to "push and pull the wagon along the way," so that all of us might achieve.

Through it all, Ms. DeVard has never forgotten the greatest gift given to her by Spelman—the opportunity to share in a lifelong sisterhood of former roommates and classmates who have become "forever friends," "midnight-hour girlfriends," women to whom she is bonded for life. All of them are cherished confidantes who remain only a phone call away, her Spelman sisters with whom she still shares the "4-1-1," as well as life's triumphs, trials and tribulations.

Growing up in Manhattan, New York, Ms. DeVard claims that Spelman also gave her another valuable gift—exposure to the dynamics of teamwork, which stood her in good stead as she navigated the upward trajectory of her career path. During her years at Spelman, she gained the experience of living and working with students of different educational, social and financial backgrounds. She soon came to appreciate and celebrate the colorful mosaic of other cultural backgrounds, as well as the subtle nuances of regional and Diasporan customs.

Her academic career at Spelman, where she majored in economics, laid the foundation for her to later earn an M.B.A. at Atlanta University that, ultimately, set the stage for her to claim her rightful place on the fast-track in business and earned her national acclaim as one of the most successful women in an industry traditionally populated by her male colleagues.

"I often say that I love Spelman far more than I should love an inanimate object," she reveals, when asked about her deeply rooted feelings for Spelman. "The speakers and other notable persons who visited the College fed me emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. They opened my eyes and my heart to the world outside the gates of Spelman. I was surrounded by Black women who served as powerful role models for leadership. Spelman was where I learned about pride, empowerment, competition, discipline and confidence," says Ms. DeVard.

Her gratitude to Spelman was first expressed shortly after graduation. Having landed her first job in 1980, she contributed what at the time was a "whopping $100" to Spelman's Annual Fund. Crafting a formula of giving that was, and continues to be, in direct relationship to her financial circumstance, Ms. DeVard began her longstanding history of giving to Spelman. As the years passed and she began making more money as a successful professional, the more she gave.

Holding close her promise to always keep Spelman close to her heart, several years ago, Ms. DeVard made three significant planned gifts to Spelman, totaling well over $2 million dollars. The magnitude of these gifts reflects her philanthropic spirit and endearment to her alma mater. The first planned gift, an insurance policy, names Spelman as the sole beneficiary. The second gift is a bequest, or estate gift, in which Ms. DeVard has provided the College with a substantial gift of cash in her will to fund four-year scholarships. The third gift is a revocable trust in which she has made provisions to establish an endowed chair in marketing studies.

In addition to these gracious planned gifts that will provide tremendous support to the College in the future, Ms. DeVard recognizes the importance of contributing to the Annual Fund every year, and has done so since her graduation in 1979, often with matching dollars from her corporate affiliations. These gifts support the College's current operational costs.

When questioned about why she continues to demonstrate this level of loyalty and generosity to the College, Ms. DeVard responds in simple terms. "Because of my love of Spelman, and because I had reached a level of financial ability where I could afford to lead with my heart," she explains, in a manner that makes you wonder why you even asked such a question to which the answer was so patently obvious.

In many ways, Ms. DeVard has become an apostle for giving—a vocal proponent for the good works that philanthropy supports, especially for its impact on education... and on Spelman. "African American wealth is steadily on the rise among those who are at the highest reaches of business and the entertainment and sports industries," claims Ms. DeVard. "There are people like the Cosbys and Oprah who have done much to give back to our community, particularly to our educational institutions. But we all need to understand that you don't have to be rich to help out—that every penny counts!"

"Because Spelman is highly ranked academically and has a larger endowment than most other HBCUs, there is the perception that we [Spelman] may not need any money. But nothing could be further from the truth," she says. How and why this message is perpetuated remains a mystery to her; however, she does have a few theories that may very well solve the puzzle.

"It could be that we haven't articulated or telegraphed our need in a way that alumnae can understand the strength and desperation of the need. Just because we aren't bankrupt, doesn't mean we don't have a need that is very real—a pressing need to raise funds for new and existing programs, scholarships, deferred maintenance and the other things that make a good college great."

Although, she views financial contributions as the primary means by which alumnae can give to the College, she also champions the value of giving in other ways, such as the precious gifts of time and attention. Without a doubt, Jerri DeVard "walks the walk" in this regard. As a member of the Spelman College Board of Trustees since 2005, she currently sits on three committees: the Executive Committee, the Development Committee and the Student Affairs Committee, where she currently serves as its chair.

"Spelman needs you—your time and your financial support. We should ask ourselves the following questions and focus on determining where we can fit into the Spelman equation."

Have I generously given to Spelman every year? Is there more that I can do?
Can I be a mentor to a current student or recent graduate?
Do I have an internship opportunity or am I in the position to invite a Spelmanite to shadow me for a day to experience what it's like in the real world of work?
Can I recommend or host a group of prospective students at my home or place of business?
Does my company recruit at Spelman?
Do I have a prized collection wherein I can leave some of it, or all of it, to Spelman?
Am I conscientious about giving Spelman "props" whenever and wherever I can?
Do I continue to give Spelman attribution for my accomplishments and make others aware of what Spelman has done and is doing on behalf of women of color?
Do I continue to tell the story of how Spelman has contributed to changing the face of the world, nationally and internationally, in educating us as daughters, mothers and change agents in society, as well as in business and industry, law, medicine and education?
And, finally, does Spelman even know where I am and what I'm doing? Is my current alumna contact information current and up-to-date?

"The ways in which we can contribute to Spelman are endless," says Ms. DeVard, "Yet, only 16% of Spelman alumnae give—most likely because many of our alums lack awareness about the gravity of our need. Some alumnae have yet to find out about their organization's matching gift plans that contribute at rates of 1:1 or 2:1, making it an excellent way to leverage their financial contributions. All of us need to begin the process of evaluating what we can do and establish a plan for giving to which we can commit. As alumnae, our responsibility looms large. Every graduate needs to find a way to contribute on some level."

Beyond Spelman's need for better bricks, more mortar and enhanced curricular offerings, there remains a critical need for more scholarship funding. In sharing some data from the Office of Admissions, Ms. DeVard displays a deep concern about the fact that Spelman loses top students each year because the College cannot meet the financial need of these talented students.

The facts speak for themselves. According to Arlene Cash, Vice President of Enrollment Management, 92% of applicants to the College list Spelman among their top three college choices, yet 80% of those who indicate Spelman as their first choice don't or can't come, primarily due to financial reasons. And of the nearly 1,800 students admitted to Spelman annually, only 550 actually show up, which means of the 1,000 who are eligible to come, the vast majority don't.

How would Ms. DeVard like for Spelman to spend her financial contributions? She puts her trust entirely in the wisdom and knowledge of the Board of Trustees to determine the best ways in which her monies are to be used. When pressed, however, she resurrects her earlier assertion about the need for scholarships, since the College is currently meeting only 20-30% of students' financial need.

The magnitude of the financial gap as it relates to scholarship aid is both deep and wide, says Ms. DeVard. "For alumnae to give nothing ignores the value of the education they received at Spelman and the possibility of ensuring that other young women of color have a chance at the same opportunity."


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