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Peter Dunn, 57

As his retirement approaches, CEO of CNY Community Foundation reflects on his tenure

By Mary Beth Roach

Q: Why are you stepping down?

A: I’m stepping down in June after 15 years as CEO for a mix of both personal and professional reasons. The Community Foundation is as strong as it has ever been and as we move toward our centennial with a new strategic plan in place, it’s a good time for a transition. My wife and I will be empty nesters this summer with both of our daughters in college. So, we’ll now have the ability to consider new opportunities in other communities.

Q: During your tenure, the organization’s assets have nearly quadrupled. You’ve gone from $110 million in 2008 to $399 million in 2022. How did you attain such growth?

A: When I came here from Los Angeles back in ’08, one of the visions that the board had at the time was that the Community Foundation did need to grow to meet the needs here in the region and the opportunity. We really have had the benefit of being able to look long-term, to be able to engage with our donors over time, to create mechanisms to build confidence so that folks who are charitably inclined knew that we’d be a continuing resource for the benefit of the community. We’ve seen significant growth across all of the different types of work that we do — the significant growth in donor-advised funds, which are charitable funds that enable individuals and families to be engaged in local philanthropy in partnership with the Community Foundation, instead of creating their own foundations. We also have had a significant increase in charitable bequests. That’s been a real signature emphasis for us.

Q: What do you see as your greatest achievement?

A: I’m really proud of a lot of things that we’ve done in the last 15 years. When I think back on, probably the thing that is most enduring for me would be our work with Say Yes To Education Syracuse.

Say Yes is a promise scholarship program for kids in the city schools and it’s also paired with surround supports that have been developed with Onondaga County and other partners to support kids and families in the city schools. We had the challenge, when this started back in ‘08-‘09, of figuring out how to sustain the promise. There are hundreds of kids every year who are engaged in this and who receive financial benefit in the form of last-dollar scholarships and other financial support to enable them to attend and stay in college. We were able to create a $30 million endowment. That was the combination of challenge gifts from local corporations, individual philanthropy from donors here and local foundations. One of the most remarkable things was a $20-million grant that we received from New York state as part of the Upstate Revitalization Initiative to match the $10 million that had been contributed locally. I think that’s really remarkable, in particular because I’m not aware of another situation of a foundation really anywhere in the United States that has been the recipient of an endowment gift from a state government to really help sustain a program for the benefit of kids like this in any similar way. (Last-dollar scholarships fund the rest of the cost of schooling after all other financial aid and scholarships are applied.)

Q: As a leader of the organization that has been involved in helping to tackle some of our community’s challenges, what would you say are some of those hardships that still remain?

A: There are a lot of challenges in front of us here and the data doesn’t lie. We have the worst rates for childhood poverty of any city in the country. We have the worst concentrations of poverty for Black and Latino populations in the country. We have significant wealth and poverty disparities between city and other parts of the county. We have some significant issues around race and coming together that we still need to grapple with. One of the things that I am positive about is that I believe we’ve had really good civic leadership. One of the great things about Syracuse is that, while it’s a big city, it’s not too big to be able to get things done right. There’s like a one-degree separation between people, and you can move things forward. And one of the things that was so attractive to me coming here from Los Angeles, even though I’m an Upstate guy who grew up in Buffalo, we know our challenges. The people have good will and have been willing to move forward.

Top image: Peter Dunn announced he is retiring from the Central New York Community Foundation in June, after 15 years. In a typical year, the foundation distributes around $20 million in grants.