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How Stuart Comstock-Gay became a nonprofit rock star


Published December 15, 2010 at 9:02 a.m.

Stuart Comstock-Gay
  • Stuart Comstock-Gay

When Stuart Comstock-Gay was hired to run the ACLU of Maryland in 1986, it was a sleepy organization with no staff, a suburban office and a single client: a white Baltimore cop who was fired for doing a blackface routine at a bar while off duty.

When Comstock-Gay departed a decade later, the civil rights group had 10 staffers, new offices, a bigger budget and a string of high-profile legal victories that have improved Baltimore’s schools and public housing projects. Susan Goering, who was Comstock-Gay’s legal director, boasts, “He rescued the ACLU.”

Not bad for a guy who never went to law school.

Comstock-Gay has spent the last 30 years putting his Midas touch on nonprofits and advocacy organizations at crucial times in their history. The ACLU of Maryland, where he landed his post at the age of 26, is just one of several organizations he’s left on surer footing than he found them.

Today, Comstock-Gay is president and CEO of the Middlebury-based Vermont Community Foundation, a public charity that helps philanthropists manage and donate their charitable funds. While the foundation wasn’t in crisis when Comstock-Gay joined in January 2009, it had just come through a rough patch. The Wall Street crash of 2008 took a $46 million bite out of VCF’s $163 million investment portfolio. As a result, the foundation had to lay off six employees — nearly a fifth of its staff — and those who remained had to pick up the slack.

Now, just in time for the December donation surge, when charities typically see a flurry of tax-deductible gifts, a new report from VCF sheds light on the challenges and opportunities facing leaders such as Comstock-Gay and Vermont’s nonprofit sector as a whole. Titled “Vermont’s Nonprofit Sector: A Vital Community in a Time of Change,” the study reveals that Vermonters overwhelmingly believe charities deliver quality services — but don’t always trust them to spend money wisely.

Perception matters to nonprofits, because studies show familiarity and confidence translate directly into giving. The VCF report surveyed 1200 Vermonters. It concludes that those who had confidence in the quality of the services delivered by nonprofits were 1.5 times more likely to have donated to one in the past year.

Whacked by the recession, the majority of Vermont’s nonprofits have frozen salaries, reduced employee benefits or otherwise reduced costs last year, to prevent program cuts that would hurt the people they serve, according to the report. But there’s only so much fat administrators can cut before they start hitting bone — the programs that provide needy Vermonters with food, clothing, shelter and other vital services.

Add to that situation a state budget deficit that promises more pain for nonprofits and a federal deficit commission proposal to limit tax breaks for charitable donations. It’s enough to give a guy like Comstock-Gay a serious case of indigestion.

So why is he so optimistic?

“We’ll find a way to make it happen,” he says. “It’s that basic American instinct: Let’s put our hands together. Let’s make this go.”

Comstock-Gay, 51, has been making things go for years. Whether he’s at the ACLU, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, the National Voting Rights Institute or VCF, colleagues say his communication skills and ego-free leadership style have combined to make him an effective leader.

“He can bring a lot of people to the table,” says Gretchen Morse, executive director of United Way of Chittenden County. “Communication in this business right now is incredibly important, and Stuart has a way of making numbers matter.”

With his midwestern accent and black-rimmed Ray-Ban glasses, Comstock-Gay is vaguely reminiscent of Michael Moore — though more sharply dressed and less controversial. In fact, Comstock-Gay eschews political ideology in favor of his personal credo: “fairness, equality and participation.”

“To me, it’s more important that you have fairness, opportunity and participation even when sometimes the results are not what you’d want,” he says.

At the ACLU, that meant defending some pretty unsavory characters such as KKK members and Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan. Comstock-Gay’s advocacy angered so many people that, for a time, police officers watched his house as a precaution.

That may seem a world apart from helming a philanthropic organization in small-town Vermont, but Comstock-Gay sees a common thread running through his career: He gets people engaged and active in their communities.

“I have a lot of Midwest in me,” he says, “which is about working together to get things done.”

Comstock-Gay was born Stuart Gay in Nebraska to schoolteacher parents, the fourth of six children. He hyphenated his last name after marrying his high school sweetheart, Lucy Comstock, who today is development director of Vermont Works for Women. The couple has three daughters, ages 23, 21 and 19.

When Comstock-Gay was 3, his family moved to a suburb of Cleveland, where his father worked as a music teacher at Baldwin-Wallace College. The Gays were a musical family, playing piano and singing together. As a kid, Comstock-Gay did “a lot of musical theater,” scoring the lead role in a production of The Boys From Syracuse. “I could sing better then than I can now,” he quips.

No single event propelled Comstock-Gay toward a career in community organizing. But growing up in a place of “relative privilege” and meeting people of “serious privilege” in college made him want to focus on the needy. His family’s volunteerism was also an influence. Today, his eighty something mother still gives the elderly rides to church and helps cook big dinners for 200-person parish events.

Comstock-Gay graduated cum laude from Bucknell University in 1982. He moved to Washington, D.C., to look for work. Thumbing through the Washington Post, he spied the job of assistant director at the ACLU of the National Capital Area, the local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. After landing the job, he recalls naively telling his coworkers he wanted nothing to do with the KKK, whose First Amendment rights the ACLU has defended.

Two years later, at the age of 26, Comstock-Gay was promoted to executive director of the ACLU of Maryland. His first phone call? The grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Frederick, Md., who wanted the ACLU’s help in defending the Klan’s right to march.

“I was like, Holy shit!” Comstock-Gay recalls. “I guess this is what I’m here to do.”

Under his leadership, the ACLU scored a series of major legal victories over the next decade. One landmark housing case resulted in 1200 families moving from public housing that was virtually segregated into what Goering, the current executive director, calls “neighborhoods of opportunity,” primarily white city sectors.

In another case, brought in 1995, the ACLU successfully argued that Baltimore city schools were violating the state constitution by failing to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to their students, 80 percent of whom were black. The settlement resulted in a shake-up of the school board and administration, and more than $350 million in new state money for underserved kids. Since then, Goering says, test scores have inched up, and the dropout rate has inched down.

Fighting those battles earned Comstock-Gay a raft of enemies. But the respectful, even-tempered way he engaged his critics also earned him respect.

“He didn’t just go on the friendly talk shows; he went on the tough ones,” Goering recalls. “It’s a mark of his deftness in relating to people in a friendly, nonaggressive way that he could go on these talk shows and then laugh. I think he probably changed minds. There’s no way he couldn’t have.”

From there, Comstock-Gay’s path took a different turn. After earning his master’s in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Comstock-Gay spent seven years with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, where he oversaw $20 million in yearly grant distributions. Next came five years fighting for voting rights and campaign-finance reform with the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute and New York-based Demos, a policy and research organization.

The common thread? “It’s all about people participating and being active in their communities, whether that’s about civil rights or philanthropy,” Comstock-Gay says. “How do we encourage, and lower barriers to, participation?”

In New Hampshire, that meant matching philanthropists with those nonprofits best positioned to further their chosen cause. With the National Voting Rights Institute, that meant intervening on behalf of organization including Vermont Public Interest Research Group in campaign-finance lawsuits, including Randall v. Sorrell, the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Vermont’s campaign-spending limits.

“It’s only gotten worse since then,” Comstock-Gay says of the role of money in politics. “We come to believe things, and we don’t know why we believe them. It’s because there are these ads running over and over again. Truth takes a beating.”

When Comstock-Gay came to NVRI in 2004, he found an organization at a crossroads. Campaign-finance groups were facing “funder fatigue,” and he saw three options: expand, close or merge with another group. He went for the third and in 2006, joined forces with Demos. That might sound easy enough, but combining the cultures and missions of two such organizations can be tricky business.

“Making sure everybody feels listened to and respected is a real strength of his, and that really served him well in dealing with an organizational merger,” says Brenda Wright, who worked under Comstock-Gay at NVRI and now holds his old job, director of the democracy program, at Demos.

In 2009, Comstock-Gay again felt the pull of community-based philanthropy and joined VCF as president and CEO. What drew him to Vermont was the feeling that it’s a place where “you can really grab hold of your community” and his belief in the power of philanthropy, he says.

Now, with state government increasingly leaning on overstretched Vermont charities to deliver social services, Comstock-Gay sees an opening for nonprofit leaders to play a bigger role in shaping policy and finding solutions.

“What can be done through the Community Foundation is unlike anywhere else,” he says. “We’re at the intersection of generous people, nonprofit organizations, community leaders and government institutions. We can be a safe and neutral place for all these parties to get together.”

To that end, Comstock-Gay has brought his policy and research chops to VCF, producing a series of eye-catching reports on early care in education, access to higher education and the state of charitable giving in Vermont. That last report tellingly found that Vermonters, particularly teenagers, give generously of their time but contribute 25 percent less to nonprofits than the national average.

“Nonprofits haven’t always figured out how to say that we’re doing a good job,” he says of the reports. “Part of what we’re working on is telling [the public] what it is we’re trying to do, how it is we know we’re succeeding.”

Comstock-Gay’s biggest contribution to VCF thus far may be taking the show on the road. For years, the foundation essentially “held court” at its offices, on Court Street in Middlebury, and let donors and nonprofit heads come to it, says Peter Espenshade, VCF’s vice president for community philanthropy.

“Stu’s mantra is we have an obligation to get out to the community,” says Espenshade, who was on the road last week visiting a donor in White River Junction.

VPR commentator and community leader Bill Schubart recently completed a yearlong stint on VCF’s board and departs a “great fan” of Comstock-Gay’s. “Stuart is extremely intuitive. I’m the kind of person who, if I didn’t feel good about something, I would say so,” says Schubart. “And I’m very impressed.”

Going forward, Schubart predicts the challenge facing Comstock-Gay, and indeed all nonprofit directors, will be measuring results. Donors increasingly want to see concrete change produced by their investment, and the best-supported nonprofits will be those that show donors bang for their buck.

At the very least, VCF’s new report assigns quantifiable values to the power of Vermont’s nonprofit sector: 4028 individual nonprofits with a combined $4.1 billion in annual revenue. All told, the sector accounts for 18.7 percent of the annual Vermont gross state product, the local equivalent of GDP, the report says.

When it comes to the current funding crisis, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe it has to do with the parties from the nonprofit sector, for-profit sector and government sector sitting down together,” Comstock-Gay says. “We believe we can help work on solutions with all those sectors, because we bring resources to the table.”