Tom Kolassa, a 1969 graduate of The University of Olivet, views philanthropy differently than most. “So many think of philanthropy as the process of giving money,” explains Tom, “but that viewpoint is limited. Philanthropy is saying hello to someone who’s having a bad day, it’s giving an opportunity to someone, it’s standing up for someone who’s being bullied or ignored. Philanthropy has many meanings to me, but they’re all giving.”
While the common view of philanthropy is related to monetary giving, the official definition is more expansive. Merriam-Webster defines philanthropy as, ‘good will to fellow members of the human race,’ which aligns with Tom’s compelling, yet straightforward, vision. He envisions a society that is improved when people use their skills to help others, providing opportunities, sharing a kind word, rejecting discrimination, and the basics – being courteous, respecting others, keeping an open mind, and viewing everyone as valuable and worthwhile.
And yes, philanthropy is also about giving. But Tom points out that looking at philanthropy as limited to financial donations excludes about 90 percent of those who are able to give back. “I was fortunate that I was able to make a difference financially later in life, but I’ve been giving my whole life. And others are able to give, as well. We’re all capable of philanthropy in our own way.”
Tom has given his time and talent to many worthy causes over the years, including The University of Olivet, Starr Commonwealth, and Binder Park Zoo, investing himself in helping and educating youth. “I’m trying to help people,” Tom says. “As you progress in life, you’re able to look back and see where others have helped you. And you see opportunities to make a difference yourself. It’s important that you mentor and help other people come up, so that others will be ready when you step aside. I was a philanthropist before I was a financial philanthropist.”
When Tom was asked about his unique view of philanthropy, he pointed to his education at The University of Olivet and his personal experience with philanthropists who showed him what it meant to give. As an example, Tom shared, “I met a gentleman in Battle Creek who was successful, and he took an interest in me. He took me on fishing and hunting trips, and as we spent time together, I became aware of so many nice things he did that he didn’t have to do. He spent time mentoring youth, and he invested his financial resources in young people. There were times when this gentleman was paying for a college education for three, four or five students at a time. I saw that and I thought, ‘if things go well for me, maybe I can help someone that way.’”
Tom is conscious of, and thankful for, the opportunities he was given. He took those opportunities and worked diligently, and by making the most of the opportunities he was given, Tom built a successful career and a meaningful life. He believes strongly in the power of opportunity, which is one of the reasons why he believes so strongly in The University of Olivet. “I’m proud of the college’s history and the progress it’s made in many areas over the last six to eight years,” Tom explains. “As a young person, you want to see people, to interact with people, to know that your professors are interested in you as a person and willing to spend time helping you broaden your knowledge and experience. Olivet provides a relationship-based educational experience, and they always have. Professors are invested personally in their students.” Tom saw his The University of Olivet professors every day, had dinner in their homes and spent time with them. “I think it provides a sense of security, a sense of being connected, being wanted, that young people need. The University of Olivet is special in that way.” It’s one of the reasons Tom cited when asked about his own philanthropy – financial and otherwise – at The University of Olivet. “The University of Olivet provides a well-rounded education. You’re learning and experiencing a broad, broad approach to education, and you can narrow it down as much as you want in your particular field. Students are therefore more prepared for their careers and more ready for life after college. The curriculum, the co-curricular experiences, the personal attention and mentoring – it all fits.”
Tom was one of the foundational donors in the current comprehensive campaign, Responsible Learners – Responsible Leaders: The University of Olivet 2020 and Beyond. Signing on early in the process as a leadership giver meant taking a leap of faith at a time when the benefits of the campaign were not yet visible. “I said yes because it’s an investment,” Tom said. “It’s an opportunity to build on our strong foundation and model of Education for Individual and Social Responsibility. The University of Olivet offers one of the best educations available, and makes it attainable for more young people. I believe in what they’re doing.”
Tom went on to describe the challenges he sees among youth who grow up without all the desired opportunities, and he sees a chance to make a difference. “Through philanthropy, we can help young people, teach them, share with them. Philanthropy can fill in the gaps around students who are struggling. Through philanthropy, we can get young people to the point where they can be self-sufficient, where they have a sense of well-being, and where they can eventually become philanthropists themselves.”
According to Tom, the bottom line is that everyone can give something. “Come back and give your time, share your talents, connect with a faculty member, encourage a student. You can make a difference. Olivet is family, and everyone has something to give.”
After graduating from Coldwater High School, Tom attended Kellogg Community College for a year and then transferred to The University of Olivet, where he studied political science, played tennis and was a member of Phi Alpha Pi. Tom went on to get a master’s degree from Western Michigan University, and built a successful career in the insurance industry, retiring as senior vice president of HUB International of Battle Creek in 2013. He has also served as owner of Infinisource of Coldwater, a company specializing in human resources and employee benefits. Tom served Battle Creek for two years as a city commissioner, two years as vice mayor and two years as mayor. He served on the board of Starr Commonwealth and is the former board chair of the Binder Park Zoo. He currently serves on the Board of Southern Michigan Bank and Trust and is the chair of the The University of Olivet Board of Trustees.