Their Story – Steven Seleznow
This is the eighth installment in a series of articles featuring the Board of Directors of College Success Arizona, this installment features Steven Seleznow, President and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation.
College Success Arizona is a 501(c)3 educational foundation founded in 2005, to increase the number of bachelor’s degree holders in the state of Arizona by providing scholarships and College Success Services to high potential, low-income students. The vision of College Success Arizona is to create an educated workforce ready to take Arizona into the future.
These articles are designed to give a more personal insight into each of our Board Members, to give them the opportunity to share why they care so deeply about Arizona, college attainment, and the mission of College Success Arizona.
1. Please tell us a little about your background.
“I’ve been in Arizona for five years. I spent the first 30 years of my career in public education—as a teacher, principal, and superintendent-level executive of two very large school districts in Montgomery County, Md. and Washington, D.C. I then began creating a second career in philanthropy, first serving as partner and chief investment officer at Venture Philanthropy Partners in Washington, D.C., and then taking an exciting opportunity across the country, in Seattle, to serve as Deputy Director of U.S. Programs and Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I led the organization’s five-year, $2.5 billion U.S. education strategy across states, cities, school districts and networks for five years before coming to Arizona to lead the Arizona Community Foundation.”
Seleznow earned a Doctorate and a Master’s degree in administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University, and holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Maryland. He earned his undergraduate degree from Boston University.
2. What does your organization do?
“The Arizona Community Foundation is the largest grant-making foundation in Arizona, serving essentially as Arizona’s community chest or philanthropic bank. We provide a mechanism for people, companies and nonprofits to engage in philanthropy by establishing funds and foundations within our organization. We provide management, support and back-office services for the fund to ensure compliance with legal and IRS requirements, while each fund’s founders make grants from their fund to areas of concern or need across the state. This past year, our organization distributed nearly $50 million, collectively, in grants and scholarship awards. In 2005, ACF was the beneficiary of a significant bequest to address education in Arizona, and also manages many other funds dedicated to education improvement and reform. With these resources, ACF is one of the larger funders of education and the largest private provider of college scholarships in Arizona. Additionally, ACF is a student tuition organization, allowing us to accept tax credit donations from individuals and businesses which then fund tuition scholarships for low-income, disabled and foster care students to attend private K-12 schools, if that’s what they choose.”
3. How did you come to be associated with College Success Arizona?
“I was asked to join the board back when it was the Arizona College Scholarship Foundation because through my work at the Gates Foundation, I facilitated major funding of the College Success Foundation of Washington State and Washington, D.C. where I had developed a working relationship with Bob Craves, who created the national College Success Foundation. Bob was also involved in College Success Arizona so when I arrived, the current chairman, Vince Roig, asked me to join the board. The organization shares many of ACF’s goals around improving access to higher education and ensuring Arizonans have the best chances for success in college, so it is a natural extension of my work to be involved.”
4. What is your vision for the Arizona of the future?
“In the future—and in the present—I would like to see Arizonans, from average residents to our elected leadership, truly valuing education from pre-kindergarten through higher education. I would like to see people setting aspirations for greatness rather than settling for mediocrity.”
5. Why do you feel increasing Arizona’s College Attainment Rates is so important?
“There’s an enormous amount of talent here in Arizona among children and students, which has been squandered because of a lack of investment in development. I think that as far as economic prosperity goes, without a well-educated population, we will not reach our potential and will suffer as a state across many measures of quality of life. Well-educated communities have better health outcomes, greater career opportunities, higher earning potential over time, lower rates of crime and incarceration, and the ability to expand the economy because their workforce is capable of addressing challenging problems of the future.”
6. What other projects, activities, groups, are you involved in?
“I serve on many boards, from business groups to nonprofits. The Arizona Community Foundation is engaged in every major issue that Arizona faces. Whether it’s education, healthcare, housing, arts and culture, or sustainability, we provide significant funding in all those areas, including making low- or no-interest loans to nonprofits and supporting innovative ideas to solve major challenges.
The Foundation is really a mechanism to mobilize and support enduring philanthropy by and for Arizona. Due to the size of the assets we manage and the grant investments we make annually throughout the state, the Foundation is naturally part of important community dialogue, collaborative partnerships and problem solving that takes place throughout our state across every significant issue area. We have developed a certain expertise as an organization because we’re engaged in so many of Arizona’s critical issues.”
7. What is your organization involved in?
“We’re involved in the causes that matter most to our donors because it is our job to help them achieve their philanthropic goals through their charitable funds managed within ACF. Not surprisingly, their priorities today—and over our 37-year history—have always tracked with the major issues facing our state. If you look at our donors’ patterns of grantmaking combined with polling data on what Arizonans care about most, five similar priorities emerge: quality education, health innovations, community improvement and development, arts and culture, and environment and sustainability. It is not difficult to choose our focus areas given the desires of our donors, past and present, and what Arizona needs to address in order to reach its full potential.”
8. If you had one message for a student just beginning their college career, what would that be?
“My core piece of advice would be to stay with it and complete it, and never be deterred by small struggles.”
Elizabeth Parra Valenzuela is working as a Communication and Engagement Intern, while attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.