As president and CEO of the MSU Billings Foundation, Marilynn Miller has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for the college, nearly tripled the foundation's net assets and helped bring scores of new donors, supporters and partners on board over the last 14 years
Despite those accomplishments, it's the human side — specifically being a member of the platform party and watching graduates walk across the stage during commencement — that brings the biggest smile to her face.
"Every year, that's just been a gift," she said. "To see those students walk by, to see their faces, I know that a lot of them are the recipients of what we do. I just know that what we do makes a difference."
Miller plans to retire at the end of December after 14 years heading up the foundation.
During her time at the helm of the independent, nonprofit foundation — designed to support and raise money for Montana State University Billings, including endowments, scholarships and financial campaigns — Miller has helped usher in impressive gains and improvements, including a net asset growth from $7.9 million when she took over in February 2000 to more than $22 million as of this summer.
Endowed assets ballooned from $6 million to $19 million and scholarship dollars awarded to students grew from $432,000 annually to $1.3 million. Miller said she expects scholarships for the 2013-2014 year to surpass that number.
"Of course, the foundation exists to raise money and distribute the money and during the time that she’s been there, the assets of the foundation have grown a lot," said Tim Schruth, the foundation board's chairman. "They’ve more than doubled in the time that she’s been there. She's been very effective at doing that."
Campaign of a career
One of Miller's biggest accomplishments on the financial side was, under the vision of then-Chancellor Ron Sexton, helping to lead the People, Pride and Promise Campaign. As the university's first-ever comprehensive campaign, the goal was to raise $21 million, even though a consultant said they could reasonably expect to raise $14 million.
By the end of the five-year campaign, fundraisers had blasted past that goal and ended up bringing in more than $30 million, which went to scholarships, capital projects and university excellence projects.
"That campaign really changed a lot of things," Miller said. "It changed awareness in the community of what the university has to to offer."
The foundation also wrapped up last year a scholarship drive that brought in more than $7.2 million, exceeding the original goal of $6 million.
Miller described her approach to the job as a combination of several factors.
First, she said it's a must to have a strong university supporting a foundation and described MSUB as "a terrific resource" in that department.
Next, she said, the foundation staff — currently a mix of 11 full-time and part-time employees — and board, which includes about 30 people people from around the community, are vital in all of the efforts and must be passionate about what they do.
"We're providing access (to college) to people who wouldn't normally have that, and you have to recognize that," Miller said. "It's amazing and wonderful that we have this here. And you need people on board in the foundation that are 100 percent committed to changing people's lives."
Finally, a good relationship with the community is a must.
"You've got to have those wonderful, generous, open-hearted people out there," she said. "There are so many wonderful people out there in the community."
Miller said she views the job, and overall effort, at the foundation as more than raising money.
Instead, it's a way to connect people who want to make an impact with those who need a hand up.
"We help people make a difference where they want to make a difference," she said. "We're kind of matchmakers, in a way."
Chancellor Rolf Groseth said that Miller excels in bringing people together and matching their needs with the wants of others.
"It is amazing to think about Marilynn’s spheres of influence,” he said. “Whether it is a student who needs assistance, a faculty member who is looking for program support, a local business person searching for a way to make a lasting difference, or a legislator who needs guidance, Marilynn resonates with each of them."
Miller said the decision to retire didn't come easily, but made sense the more the thought about it.
As the foundation and the university look to move forward, she said she felt it was the right time leave and hand the reins over to somebody with a new vision.
"I realized that I'd gone as far as my knowledge and my capabilities were able to take us...and it's time to let somebody with a new vision, a new point of view, come in and forge their own reality here," she said. "We're doing great here but we can always do better."
The foundation is gearing up for a $5 million fundraising effort for MSUB's old sciences building as soon as this winter, but she said she's confident that the foundation is in a great position to ensure her successor succeeds.
Schruth, the foundation board president, is head of the search committee for Miller's replacement and plans to begin reviewing qualified applicants by the end of the month. He hopes to have a replacement hired before Miller's last day, Dec. 31.
Miller doesn't have any set plans after retirement, other than to "go someplace warm for vacation."
She plans to continue to support MSUB and plans to start an endowment scholarship for students in financial need, she said.
Down the road, she said she'll maybe take a part-time job, possibly as a consultant with a philanthropic focus, but that it can't be just any job. Like the feeling she got while watching students stride across the stage on graduation day, she wants to know she'll make a difference.
"It'll have to be something I'm passionate about," Miller said. "It will be about improving people's lives."