By Sandy Cyr
Well-intentioned funders often look for opportunities where their support can have the most impact. They believe in the work of the organizations they support, and they give organizations the benefit of the doubt that their gift will be stewarded to make the most impact. Many times, the most impact can be made by an organization by being better at what it is they already do. At Peddie School, a landmark gift from Ambassador Walter H. Annenberg ‘27 in 1993 has allowed them to do just that – to be better at being themselves.
Peddie School is a private boarding and day school in Central New Jersey for ninth through twelfth grade and postgraduate students. The school was founded by Baptists in 1864, and was renamed the Peddie School to honor philanthropist Thomas Peddie, whose generous gift in 1872 allowed the school to thrive. From its founding, the school has been modeled on the Latin phrase ‘Finimus Pariter Renovamusque Labores,’ which translates to ‘We Finish Our Labors to Begin Them Anew.’ The original school seal depicts a farmer who has just harvested wheat and, as the sun is setting, is already seeding the next crop. To Peddie, the seal represents the idea that once a cycle has finished, the next cycle is already beginning. And much like the work of a farmer is to have a better crop next year, Peddie is constantly working to continually improve themselves.
“That’s very clearly this message of ‘here’s what education is for – to help you do something of worth, and to do it better each time you do it,’” says Peddie Headmaster Peter Quinn. “And, do something of worth that serves your entire community.”
As Peddie reflects upon the 25th anniversary of the $100 million Annenberg gift, it is clear that Annenberg’s legacy still very much lives on through this gift. At the time the largest gift to a secondary school, 55% of the gift went towards an endowment for financial aid and 45% to an endowment for general use by the school. Annenberg saw that the tuition crunch was going to be important to address in order to maintain Peddie’s community-based values. The school was going to need the endowment to pay the tuition for families who couldn’t afford to pay. “The biggest benefit of this gift has been allowing the school to focus on looking for kids with excitement, curiosity and character,” according to Quinn, “and not having to be so attentive to family ability to pay.”
In addition to improving the financial aid budget, the Annenberg gift allowed Peddie to improve faculty salaries, faculty housing, and faculty load. Today, the faculty is less thinly stretched than it was in 1993. Faculty have more time to focus on the students, more time to focus on dorm life, and more time to focus on work/life balance.
Walter Annenberg’s life was greatly influenced by the time he spent at Peddie. Throughout his career, he would always credit Peddie with being the place that helped him understand that hard work and contributing to your community were the two most important things in life. Whenever the Ambassador would visit the school, he would say, “Strive for the highest quality of citizenship.” Quinn adds, “He’d get a little teary when he would say, ‘this is the place that I learned that.’“
To Annenberg, this was the highest calling – to become an entrepreneurial citizen and leader who is known to do good things the right way. The highest quality of citizenship didn’t rely solely on good grades and commercial success, though those can certainly factor into it. It was about being a publically-minded person; a person who understands and values their civic responsibility. This was the lesson he learned at Peddie, and this is what he saw this school could do better through his gift.
“Our lesson was that we didn’t want to be something different,” says Quinn. “We wanted to be better at being what we were. I think it is hard for many people to understand that, because when you receive large gifts, you’re told that you need to be cutting edge or first in class or whatever it is, and so much of this is competition. These things do cloud the issue.” Instead of using the gift as an opportunity to compete with other schools, Peddie has been able to keep on their trajectory, while making the angle a little steeper. Peddie doesn’t need to be another school. They are focused on being better at being Peddie.
The Annenberg gift has allowed Peddie to continually improve itself. From the perspective of a philanthropist, there may be a bit of a disconnect as to why a school may receive one of the largest gifts in secondary school history and still feel the need to continue to fundraise. “We have bigger dreams now,” according to Quinn. “We are better at doing this and to do it, to keep making progress – one of the points of progress is moving closer to need blind in some ways – it is going to cost more money. Peddie does not have a different mission, but it does have different dreams, and they are more expensive. If you love this thing, if you love what it has done for you, then giving it the tools to do more of that same thing, should be a fairly appealing option.”
Like the farmer resewing their fields and hoping to reap a better crop than before, Peddie’s mission tells them to always be better than they were at inspiring entrepreneurial citizenship. Says Quinn, “a lot of the hardest work that I think Peddie has done well is to take that motto at face value and be a better version of ourselves next year than we were last year, and to be ourselves. Not to be somebody else, not to go after schools with bigger names or different clientele. But to say, ‘no – this is the place we are supposed to be. This is our job. We now have much greater resources to do that job well.’”
The need for philanthropy doesn’t decrease over time. As philanthropy helps you achieve the dreams you had, it also opens the door for the next iteration of those dreams, the next generation of those dreams consistent with your community’s mission and philosophy. The Annenberg gift has allowed Peddie School to continue to become better at being what it is.