July 18, 2022

Monica Medina photo

In 2021, TPT received the largest gift in the station’s history, a bequest from Dr. William Wells, establishing the William D. Wells Fund for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) Education. Melinda Hoke, TPT Vice President of Philanthropy, knew the gift would be significant, initially expecting the amount to be in the neighborhood of $4 million. “Astonished” was the word that came to mind when she learned the gift was actually over $9 million. 

The agreement for the William D. Wells Fund for STEM Education was signed in 2018. Other donors have since been inspired by TPT’s named endowment program. Though his was the first, currently there are 13 named funds valued at upwards of 13 million. They focus on TPT programming including history, arts and culture, civic engagement, technology and digital media. Wells’ passion was STEM education and over time his contributions to TPT have made a transformational difference.

Hoke’s cultivation of Wells began eight years ago. Her introduction to William, as she prefers to call him, began with a ringing telephone at the right place and time, just days before the end of the calendar year.

“I was the only one in the office,” Hoke remembers. “A phone call kept moving from one phone to the other so I answered. It was William and he wanted to make a stock transfer before December 31st.”

That first major gift with which Hoke helped Wells, a World War II veteran with a career as a leader in advertising and higher education, was for $27,000. On that day, a bond between the two began to form. 

“I presented a series of proposals and reports for annual and planned gifts each year.” Hoke explains. “He was interested in education over a lifetime and respected TPT. Not only the content, but because he thought public media was a place for differing values where lives could come together, bridging cultures and political opinions. He felt very comfortable discussing his point of view with me, which at times varied quite a bit from my own. He trusted that public media is a productive forum for many viewpoints.”

Soon, his interest in STEM education surfaced. It was something that genuinely sparked his curiosity. 

“STEM was really a passion of his,” emphasizes Hoke. “All his family were professionally involved in STEM fields. He resonated with TPT’s STEM programs, including children and family programs that aired nationally, such as SciGirls and Hero Elementary. He appreciated how we also applied STEM personally through schools and community centers, with teachers and caregivers. Over time, TPT’s programs had become more representative (featuring women, people of color and children with special needs), which appealed to him.”

“He was always a leader in his field (of advertising and higher education),” Hoke remarks, “He increased his giving to annual gifts of $100,000, so appealing to his leadership qualities, he agreed to help establish the Innovator’s level of the President’s Society for gifts of $100,000+. Creating the Innovator’s level inspired other donors too, which reinforced his own philanthropy.”

Hoke made sure to invite production staff to be on-hand to provide the Wells family with STEM education updates, including plans for the year ahead.

“As I was increasing his annual support, I’d bring the program staff to meet with us at his condo and for family visits at TPT,” she says. “We’d demonstrate the impact of his gifts, seeking feedback from family members including grandchildren. “William loved our arts and culture, but he also loved our science programming,” she says. “A program When Whales Walked: Journeys in Deep Time that TPT co-produced with the Smithsonian Channel appealed to the whole family because it was multigenerational and had national impact. We devised STEM engagement strategies during station visits and stewardship reports to keep the family moving forward with us.”

While building his annual support, Hoke also discussed a number of planned giving options to establish his legacy, thereby continuing his support in perpetuity. “He knew that establishing an endowed fund began at $50,000 but I knew he had the ability to give at a much higher level. I was very careful to ask, ‘Does your family know about your value of gifts to TPT and what we are discussing for the future? He responded, “Yes, they’re aware of what we are doing and are supportive. Their future needs are also provided for.’”

In addition to requests for $100,000 annual gifts, Hoke discussed estate planning. Each proposal for a will inclusion, trust inclusion, and IRA designations were accepted, along with documentation using Declarations of Intent. Hoke remembers the signing of the final gift agreement for the Wells named endowment. At the time, the value was approximately $4 million including investment assets and  documented planned gifts. 

William Wells passed away in September 2020. For Hoke, consulting his family became a major part of TPT’s stewardship strategy. As the largest gift ever made to TPT, the station wanted to showcase it with the goal of inspiring additional endowment gifts.

“When [Wells’ financial advisor] said our value was over $9 million, we were truly humbled.” Hoke says. “Because this was a very large gift, I wanted to make sure the family was involved in the stewardship, feeling just as grateful as we were. I asked his daughter and sons to provide a quote and photos for the public announcement tribute. They were very engaged and still are.” 

In her conversations with the family, Hoke shared the warm experiences she and William had together, including William’s love of public media programming.

“Sylvia Strobel, our President and CEO and I were invited to the private family memorial. There were hugs and remembrances, and an inclusion in the family lunch. In the end, they totally embraced William’s support of TPT and called him a philanthropist.”

Along the way, Hoke gained much from her time with William, particularly the value of stewardship. She reflects, “We were creating useful examples for public media. Of course he was a member of the Visionary Society honoring future gifts, but we also issued a public press release with print copies available for donor proposals. On-air messaging runs today and will for the foreseeable future. Here’s someone who knew public media could unify us, especially in today’s polarized society.”

“This is not just William’s legacy, but it also honors TPT’s legacy throughout all of our programming history. To invest in a fund that produces a continuous stream of income is a powerful statement of stability.” 

Hoke pauses for a moment then adds, “Our whole development team learned from the Wells gift. The named endowments were established using a variety of current and future assets. The endowment distributions are used for strategic investments and help us weather the ups and downs of the economy.”

Hoke fondly remembers Wells’ “wicked” sense of humor, among other things. “I feel like a family member,” she reflects. “It’s a combination of humanity and professional relationship and it’s very gratifying, with the best outcome a development relationship can attain.”

“The gift from Dr. Wells, the largest in TPT’s history, is truly transformative,” says Sylvia Strobel, TPT President & CEO and longtime veteran in the public media industry. “As a four-decade leader in STEM programs for public media and with a 65-year history of educational programming for Minnesotans, Dr. Wells’ planned gift allows us to grow and enhance our services now and far in the future.”

Monica Medina photo