Philanthropist of the Year

Cliff White uses business strategies to help people in our community—and he’s teaching young people how to do the same thing

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Philanthropist Cliff White visits Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg. He’s given the food pantry several grants, most recently to build and deploy a mobile kitchen that reaches people in the area who lack transportation. Photo by Skip Brown

In the spring of 2016, Cliff White invited a group of students he knew to lunch in Rockville. All of the students had received scholarships from White, and this was a celebration for the first three to graduate from Montgomery College with associate degrees. He told them how proud he was of their accomplishment, and gave each of the three a $500 check and a surprise gift of a new laptop—a gesture he hoped would serve as an incentive to the other dozen in attendance.

Sara Ruiz cried. Her computer had just broken and she didn’t want to ask her parents for help. “We were honestly in shock. Giving us a laptop made me feel like he really cares,” says the 22-year-old who was born in El Salvador and, like most of the scholars, is the first in her family to go to college. “He wants us to succeed.”

White and his wife, Debbie, who have been married nearly 25 years, created a class of 20 scholars through Growing Academic Potential (GAP) ACES Scholarship, a program funded by The Cliff and Deborah White Family Foundation that works with Montgomery College and The Universities at Shady Grove (USG). The White Family Foundation covers the balance of tuition after financial aid at Montgomery College and then through the acquisition of a bachelor’s degree from one of the nine University of Maryland System schools at the USG campus in Rockville. College administrators wanted to name the scholarship in White’s honor when he established the class three years ago, but the self-described “semiretired” businessman declined. “Cliff is a very private person. He didn’t want visible recognition,” says Stew Edelstein, executive director of USG. “He’s serving as a model—if not by name, by action—of what we should all be doing to support the future in our community.”

It’s White’s commitment to the community and local nonprofits serving Montgomery County that has earned him the 2017 Philanthropist of the Year award from The Community Foundation in Montgomery County (CFMC). White’s most recent giving through his donor-advised fund at CFMC includes $100,000 in separate multiyear grants to Montgomery Moving Forward (MMF), Crossroads Community Food Network, Interfaith Works, Identity Inc., and GAP Scholars at Montgomery College and The Universities at Shady Grove. His early efforts focused on helping people in the county who were struggling in emergency situations. “After a couple of years, I realized that we were just treating the symptoms and not curing the illness,” says White, who expanded his philanthropy to education and workforce development. 

When he meets with his college scholars, White offers words of encouragement and tries to inspire them to help others. “I make a point to them to remember how they felt about [the scholarship experience] and to be sure as they go through life they help spread the word of what an education can do,” he says.

Ruiz, now a student at the University of Maryland on the Shady Grove campus, wants to be an accountant, open her own business and follow White’s charitable example. “He didn’t even know us, but he was willing to do all these things for us,” she says.

Cliff and Debbie White take their scholarship students to Washington Nationals games. Photo courtesy of Aota Creative Group

Before the Whites met the students in their first class of scholars, they requested a booklet with the individuals’ photos and bios. They wanted to know them by name. Since then, the Whites have hosted the scholars at their Potomac home around the holidays, and have taken them to Washington Nationals games.

“The guys start out talking to Cliff about sports and then it segues into talking about starting a business,” says Debbie, who taught first and fourth grades in Montgomery County public schools for 10 years. At another gathering, a scholar asked to take a selfie with the couple, and a line soon formed of other attendees who also wanted photos. 

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