Podcast: Story Behind PunsUnited Fund

Podcast producers and alumni Allen Murabayashi ’90 and Kim-Hee Wong ’14 tell the story about the formation of the PunsUnited Fund amid COVID-19

While in recent years, about 20% of Punahou’s student have received financial aid, the expected need is likely to increase for the 2020 – 21 academic year, due to coronavirus disruptions. Financial aid has long been one of the key fundraising initiatives at Punahou, but now, it’s the sole focus.

To learn more about how to support Punahou students in need, visit punahou.edu/give or email tolney@punahou.edu.

Related Story: Parents Launch ’21Together to Keep Students at Punahou

You can find Punahou’s Team Up podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast and Google Play.

Podcast Transcript

Allen Murabayashi: Although COVID-19 emerged as a health threat, lockdowns and state home orders have turned it into a huge economic threat as well. With an economy heavily reliant on tourism and the ecosystem that it supports, Hawai‘i went from one of the lowest unemployment rates, about 3% pre-pandemic, to one of the highest rates in the nation at 34%.

Kim-Hee Wong: In normal times, about 20% of Punahou students receive an average of $10,400 of financial aid. That’s over 750 students and on par with the national average. I talked to Holly Sereni, Senior Director of Development for Punahou, to learn more about how financial aid funds are raised.

Holly Sereni: Financial aid for a large school like Punahou is really critical. It’s long been one of Punahou’s top fundraising priorities. The School fundraises for financial aid all year long by asking alumni, parents, grandparents, corporations, foundations, pretty much everyone in our Punahou ‘ohana. In addition, importantly, all profits from the annual Punahou Carnival benefit financial aid.

Wong: What happens to donations once they’ve been received?

Sereni: Most donors’ gifts are earmarked for immediate use, but some of the larger gifts can be used at the donors’ discretion to establish an endowed financial aid fund, and these gifts become part of Punahou’s endowment.

Murabayashi: Let’s take a short time out to explain the endowment. Many institutions and nonprofits rely on donations to support their annual operational costs, but if you spend all your donations in a single year, you put yourself on shaky financial footing for the next year. So the solution is to create an endowment, which is just an investment vehicle, kind of like a retirement nest egg, which spins off a certain amount of cash each year to support the operations and, in Punahou’s case, supplement the revenue generated by tuition.

Punahou’s total endowment, a percentage of which supports those 750 students per year, was just under $300 million at the end of the 2019 school year. On an absolute basis, that’s a lot of money, but a school like Phillips Exeter has a $1.5 billion endowment with only 1,000 students compared to the 3,700 students at Punahou. Here’s Holly Sereni again.

Sereni: Before COVID hit, financial aid was one of the key initiatives we raised money for along with things like new facilities, academic programs, athletics, et cetera. But now in the post-COVID world, financial aid is pretty much our sole focus. The money flows exactly as it always has. A hundred percent of donors’ gifts go directly to support the tuition of students who qualify for financial aid.

Wong: If Punahou fundraises all year long and investments continue to grow, why should I donate support a Punahou student, especially now when so many people are economically affected by COVID?

Murabayashi: I thought the same thing, and I was happily surprised to find Punahou’s reasoning on their website, which reads, “Financial aid is a priority at Punahou because it helps to create a diverse student body representative of the Hawaii community, each member of which contributes to the learning experience of all Punahou students.”

Wong: The reason we’re talking about financial aid is because a lot of Punahou parents have lost their job, taken pay cuts or been furloughed. We spoke to Jennifer Hong, a member of the class of ’92, a math teacher in the Academy, and the current director of financial aid, to learn more about how the Punahou community has been affected.

Jennifer Hong: We are seeing an increase in families that are updating their applications and submitting brand new applications. The normal financial aid deadline for most schools in Hawai‘i is February. This gives us enough time to process the newly-admitted students, as well as our current Punahou students by May. However, most of the economic downturn and stay-at-home orders happened in March and April, so there have been a lot of changes in people’s financial situations in the last month or two.

So far, we’ve received about 75 application updates from our current Punahou students who usually receive aid. Then we’ve also had about 25 brand new applications for current Punahou students, so these are the people who usually pay a full tuition in the past but are now reaching out for some assistance. And then we’ve also received about 50 inquiries from our newly enrolled kindergarten through 12th graders who will be joining our community next year.

Murabayashi: Kim-Hee, in a normal year, the endowment supports financial aid for about 750 students, but this obviously is not a normal time.

Wong: This is definitely not a normal time. And I should point out that the numbers we heard from Jennifer Hong are only the requests that were made by early May. There will undoubtedly be more families coming forward in the next few months needing financial aid. With the financial crisis going on, people losing their jobs, getting furloughed, applying for unemployment, a lot of families are wondering how they’re going to be able to send their kids to Punahou in the fall.

Murabayashi: What did the School do in response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Wong: One thing they’ve done is started to PunsUnited Fund. Here’s Jen Hong with more of an explanation of that.

Hong: The PunsUnited Fund was established to help families affected by this COVID-19 pandemic and its related economic effects. We understand that the Punahou community is economically diverse, and they’re also very caring. So while some families were losing their jobs, other families were reaching out saying, “Look, we are in the position to make a gift. How we help?” The PunsUnited Fund will add more funds to our existing budget so that we can assist the families whose financial situations have changed. And anyone can apply for this, whether they’ve received aid in the past or are new applicants.

Murabayashi: So any donation to the PunsUnited Fund does not go to the endowment?

Wong: Any of the money that is donated for PunsUnited will not go towards the endowment. That money will be used in its entirety to support students who are coming back to Punahou next year.

Jennifer Akiyoshi: Donating to the fund to help support students whose parents may have lost their jobs due to coronavirus or the effects of it is very personal to me.

Wong: This is Jennifer Akiyoshi, a 2006 Punahou grad and one of the first donors to the PunsUnited Fund.

Akiyoshi: Going to Punahou, attending Punahou always taught me to be resourceful, and I always want to give back to that opportunity. Specifically for this year, I would be devastated to hear of a student not being able to have those same opportunities.

Murabayashi: The PunsUnited Fund was established to assist students from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Under this umbrella, a separate Class fund was established to provide assistance for the rising seniors in the class of 2021. Here’s Jen Hong again.

Hong: The ’21Together Fund is actually under the umbrella of the PunsUnited Fund. It’s being led by some families in the class of 2021 for the specific purpose of supporting our rising seniors.

Wong: We talked to Jon Whittington, a parent of the class of 2021, to learn more about the ’21Together Fund.

Jon Whittington: Essentially it’s the brain child of Terry Murphy and his daughter, Hana, who’s also class of ’21. Hana was saying that one of her good friends might not be able to come back to School for her senior year because of financial constraints, specifically tied to COVID-19. And so Terry reached out to me and mentioned the conversation, and it really struck a chord with me as well because we’ve got … These kids are in their senior year, and if one of them or several or however many can’t return to School because of the financial challenges, especially tied to COVID-19, they don’t have an opportunity to rejoin their classmates at a later year. And we reached out to the Punahou Development community, we talked about, okay, who in the community might really get behind this message? And then also, what can the kids do to help understand the need around them and their classmates?

Murabayashi: For the past five years, Madison Lee, a member of the class of 2021, has been designing, creating and selling her own jewelry.

Wong: When she learned about the ’21Together Fund, she decided to donate 100% of her profits to support her classmates.

Madison Lee: My parents got an email, and they forwarded it to me and then I read it, and I was really moved by it because even though I haven’t been at Punahou for a very long time, I have a really strong connection towards everybody. And I feel like I get to do what I love and I get to help people at the same time. And it’s like helping your family, I guess. And I would never hesitate or not do this. I think that I will do anything I can to help my Class.

Wong: The president of the class of 2021, Tom Nitao, sees this fund as an opportunity to learn and grow in the face of difficulties.

Tom Nitao: As students trying to help our peers, I think something that’s really important for us is to have that experience of seeing how we can react in a positive manner to these these, frankly, unprecedented times.

Whittington: So far, we’ve been able to raise about $300,000, which is about 36% of our goal. We’re really pleased with that initial traction considering we just launched this initiative a few weeks ago and especially considering the financial challenges around COVID-19 and the uncertainty around it.

Murabayashi: The ’21Together Fund and the PunsUnited Fund are just two examples of the Punahou community supporting students’ education. School archivist Kylee Mar shared more with us and the reason why she decided to donate to the PunsUnited Fund.

Kylee Mar: The School was started by some ideas about how important education was. And it was not only just the historical intention to start a school, but there had to be some finances behind that. And the School has a storied, long-time history of scholarships and having money and funds available to support students and their education. And with COVID-19 and this being such a unique time in history and a pandemic, to think that students might not be able to return to Punahou because of COVID-19 and these times, it was my turn to give, and it was my turn to step up and answer the call to action.

Wong: Financial aid benefits everyone, even the ones that don’t receive it directly because it supports our Punahou students who go forth and do amazing things for our State and our world.

Murabayashi: Kim-Hee, we’re hoping and crossing our fingers that this global pandemic doesn’t last for too long and that it’s over sooner rather than later.

Wong: Definitely. In spite of everything going on, it’s been amazing to see the Punahou community come together and support the PunsUnited Fund and all of our students, parents, alumni who are involved in one way or another here in Hawai‘i and around the world. And if you’re interested in donating, you can visit punahou.edu/give to learn more.

Murabayashi: This episode was produced by Kim-Hee Wong in the class of 2014. And me, Allen Murabayashi, from the class of ’90. You can subscribe to this podcast by searching for Punahou Team Up! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite provider. And don’t forget to leave us a rating. And for more information or links to resources contained in this podcast, visit bulletin.punahou.edu.

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