More Than Money
Issue #34

The Art of Giving

Table of Contents

“Bang for the Buck: Tipping the Scales”

By Beverly Keel

Jim Ayers of Parsons, Tennessee, has his own tipping point project going on. Focusing on one small geographic area, Ayers has established the Ayers Foundation Scholars Program. The program provides up to $4,000 for four years to every Decatur County student who has been accepted into college. This is enough to cover tuition at every Tennessee state university. Unlike many scholarship programs, all students who graduate high school and are accepted into college may participate, and there are no grade-point average requirements. "He has promised that no student from Decatur County-one of the state's poorest areas-will be denied a post-secondary education because of a lack of funding," explains Ellen Lehman of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, which helped Ayers establish the program.

Launched in the fall of 1999, Ayers' program has already produced dramatic changes. In 1999, about 30% of the county's graduating seniors went on to higher education. Within one year, that figure had jumped to 65%. "We will start our fourth class this fall," Ayers says. "We cover two-year community colleges, as well as four-year colleges, universities, and state technical schools." The success of this program has convinced Ayers, the program's sole funder, to expand the scholarship program to other lowincome Tennessee counties.

One reason for the program's effectiveness is that it pays the salaries of two full-time counselors and one assistant, who work with students at the county's two high schools. The counselors not only help students figure out which courses they need to prepare for college, but also walk students and families through the application process and help them land additional scholarships (which are needed if students are accepted at private colleges). They also help solve other problems as they occur.

The potential impact on this tiny county will be felt for generations to come. The entire county is home to just 10,000 people, and in 1997 the per capita income was about $20,000. In the past, college was not an option for most Decatur County graduates because their families couldn't afford it. Ayers hopes that will change. "The best way I know to improve a large group's standard of living is by increasing their level of formal education," he says. "In general, the more formal education people have, the better living they are able to provide for their families."

Ayers, a Decatur County resident, believes in giving close to home where he can see the direct results of his gift. His advice to other potential philanthropists is this: "Find a cause that you are passionate about and, when you write a check, stay close to the money. Try to see with your own eyes where the benefit is being done. That will make you want to do that much more."

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