Scholarships Survive on a Smile : Education: Times are tough, but a fund-raiser finds that charm and 'the best students' still attract donations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ivan A. Houston is smiling. His broad grin radiates pure charm, urging his listeners to be at ease, relax. He pumps hands, kisses cheeks. He signals speakers at his fund-raising dinner to start and stop, gesturing like an orchestra conductor but with more subtlety. He shares a chuckle with guests.

This is The Sell.

Asked to describe his job, Houston replies only half-jokingly, "I throw three big parties a year and give away money."

He is the executive director of the Golden State Minority Foundation, a small Los Angeles clearinghouse for scholarships and other educational benefit programs. He solicits money from the nation's major corporations to fund about 40 college scholarships a year for minority students. To do that, he must compete for a piece of the $6.1-billion pie of annual corporate donations, marketing his foundation and potential scholarship recipients like blue chip stocks.

At a time when corporate giving is sagging and college affirmative action admission programs are under heavy political fire, Houston's salesmanship skills are being put to their toughest test.

His message to the Fortune 500 will be the same, no matter the fund-raising climate: "We've got the best students out there, without regard to color or race," said Houston, 41, who has spent the last eight years running the foundation.

It is a sentence he repeats to anyone who will listen.

Paying for minority students' college educations, he tells corporate executives, leads to the development of a more diverse pool of potential employees, which companies need to do to expand globally, and to more educated consumers, which they need for survival.

"You can't serve your customers just with one ethnicity," he said during a break from the foundation's $300-a-plate scholarship awards banquet Wednesday night at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Downtown Los Angeles. "We're just telling people that our students are the best students out there. You can't beat that sell."

Apparently not. Houston will raise more than $100,000 on this night, through ticket sales ($300 for corporations, $100 for individuals) and a silent auction that nets $5,000 in about an hour and a half.

The board of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., a venerable African American-owned business that was established by Houston's grandfather and is one of the largest insurers of blacks in the nation, started the foundation in 1974. Since then, it has siphoned more than $2.5 million in scholarships and grants to some 2,000 students, including many business majors.

Under a program established after the 1992 riots, it also supports inner-city elementary and high schools. But the nonprofit organization, which drew in about $300,000 last year, does not expect to surpass that figure this year, given the tightening of corporate purse strings.

"We're aware of the economy," said Houston, who before heading the foundation made his living as a computer engineer and still runs a computer consulting business. "There are a lot of hands out there asking for a small piece of the pie."

About $2.5 billion of annual corporate grants and contributions is earmarked for education. A far smaller portion--about $210 million--goes to college scholarships and foundations such as Houston's, according to a 1993 survey of business donations by the New York-based Council for Aid to Education.

Amid the nation's myriad educational foundations, local companies such as Sumitomo Bank of California keep coming back to Golden State.

"We give money to a lot of organizations. You always try to find the ones with the best people," said Andre C. Ellis, a vice president at the bank. "This is one of our favorites."

Still, Houston's foundation has its limits. It does not play in the same league as national fund-raising groups such as the United Negro College Fund, which netted nearly $1 million in corporate donations in the Los Angeles area last year.

"Ivan is very new at the game," said Carliss McGhee, the United Negro College Fund's development director for Southern California.

Houston's foundation and similar local organizations are needed, however, to support students who wish to attend colleges not backed by the larger fund, McGhee said.

These days, rookies and seasoned fund-raisers alike are finding themselves on increasingly shaky ground as the very nature of the minority scholarship game changes. The backlash against college affirmative action programs, Houston says, threatens to make The Sell a little dicier.

To survive, Houston says he will continue to underscore that the college students he supports are the most qualified. They have the grades. They have the high-tech experience. Some even have business cards. The only thing they don't have is the money to finish their college educations.

Houston believes that corporate executives who have resisted entering the fray for fear of making political enemies must now act.

"They operate in this state and this country. They have to be involved," he said.

Yet Houston plans to avoid the partisan side of the fracas. The furthest he has gone is changing the name of his dinner to "Building Diversity Through Education" to promote affirmative action.

For now, there is only The Sell. At Wednesday's dinner, Houston wooed several potential contributors in the entertainment industry, and he has set his sights on soliciting money from the likes of Time Warner and Universal. As corporations consolidate and merge, he said, the foundation is forced to tap new donors.

"We don't take anything for granted," he said, still smiling. "You never know when the pie is going to dry up."

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