By: Abigayle Morrison
Susan DeVenny is a wife, a mother of four (one son and three daughters), and the president and chief executive officer of the J. Marion Sims Foundation, one of the largest foundations in South Carolina.
The foundation has assets valued at about $70 million, which it uses to fund nonprofits, as well as education and health initiatives in Lancaster county and parts of Chester county. DeVenny starts each morning at 5 a.m. and goes to sleep around midnight. The other 19 hours of the day are spent speaking with her board of trustees, working on the budget, going to meetings with community leaders, reviewing grant requests and volunteering wherever help is needed in the community.
She grew up in Newtown, Connecticut with her parents and four younger sisters. After she graduated high school, DeVenny’s family moved to Savannah, Georgia. Wanting to put family first, DeVenny followed her parents to Georgia to help her sisters’ transition to their new surroundings. She began her freshman year of college at the University of Georgia. DeVenny then transferred to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina where she met her husband, Alston DeVenny.
If you met her fresh out of college, and told her what path her life would take, she wouldn’t have believed you. With a bachelor’s degree in education and a masters in counseling and student personnel higher education, DeVenny expected to become a teacher. As so often happens, life had other ideas.
After receiving her master’s degree, DeVenny moved to Columbia to join her husband, who was finishing law school. She hoped to find a job teaching in higher education, but did not. Searching for any way to help pay the bills, DeVenny found herself working for the American Red Cross as a volunteer coordinator. “I think those first jobs out of college really shape who you will become,” she says.
After leaving the Red Cross, DeVenny took a job with Colonial Life, where she stayed for nearly 15 years. After Alston DeVenny graduated from law school, the couple moved an hour away to Lancaster in search of a small-town atmosphere. When DeVenny began having children, she took a break to stay home. During this time, DeVenny spent her days with her family and volunteering in her community.
In 1999 DeVenny got a call from Jim Hodges, then governor of South Carolina. Hodges asked DeVenny to sit on the inaugural board for First Steps. That agency, with branches in each county, works to improve early childhood education. Sitting on the board for First Steps, DeVenny discovered a passion for early childhood development. When Gov. Mark Sanford was elected he asked DeVenny to head the First Steps.
Lancaster residents were proud to have one of their own in an influential position. “When Susan accepted the position with First Steps she became, without even knowing it, I think, a leader in our community and a champion for children,” says long-time friend, Donna Mobley.
Working at First Steps allowed DeVenny to make positive changes in the state, to grow professionally, and to learn important lessons. She says working with the state legislature to create a plan to provide preschool to children in impoverished districts was a major victory. Her greatest failure came when she had a new idea for funding but failed to get the support of First Step branches around the state before moving forward. “I learned it’s wonderful to have a great idea, but you have to get other people in on it or you’re left standing alone at the end,” she said.
After 12 years with First Steps, DeVenny accepted a position as the president and chief executive officer of the J. Marion Sims Foundation, a health and wellness foundation with an asset base of nearly $70 million. It devotes most of its funding to improving the lives of people in Lancaster county and part of Chester county. The foundation has a staff of three: DeVenny, program officer Holly Furr, and administrative assistant Karen Ormand. They call themselves “small but mighty.”
Since coming to the foundation, DeVenny has completely changed the way the it operates. In her first 11 months, the foundation has joined a major fundraising campaign for local nonprofits to raise money, brought in six college interns for the summer, started a community engagement effort and repositioned the foundation from quiet overseer to active participant in the programs it funds.
Currently serving as the foundation’s program officer, Holly Furr met DeVenny in 1999 when both were on a committee of the Children’s Council. Working with her now, 17 years later, Furr looks back on that time and can see how DeVenny has changed. “While Susan has always been a free spirit, there is now a clear intentionality about her that I didn’t always see, ” says Furr. “I sometimes think how funny it is that our lives have intercepted again.”
While DeVenny has had much professional success, her friends, family and colleagues speak even more highly of who she is outside of work. Mobley’s favorite memory of DeVenny comes from nearly 15 years ago, when she threw a tea party for mothers and daughters in their neighborhood. There were quite a few people in attendance, each in a dress with matching hat and gloves. The children helped make some of the food, and DeVenny was a gracious host, going out of her way to make everything fun. The house wasn’t perfectly clean and a few of the cookies were burnt, but everyone was happy and had a great time.
Sarah Katherine DeVenny is Susan DeVenny’s eldest daughter. Looking back, Sarah Katherine DeVenny’s favorite memories are the mornings spent getting ready, with her mother by her side.
“Me and my sisters would be doing our makeup and getting ready for the day, and our mom would be asking us if we want a cup of tea and what we want for lunch. There’s a confidence in always knowing that she’s there and that every day she’s going to give me a kiss when I leave and try to take care of me.”
When Susan DeVenny accepted her position at the foundation, she had them push office opening from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. so she could continue to see her children in the morning.
With a life this full, DeVenny admittedly struggles with time management. She tends to over commit and describes herself as a terrible housekeeper. “I can’t help it,” says DeVenny, “I know it sounds cliché but I wake up every morning thinking gosh the sun is up and I’m so lucky to be alive. We owe it to our maker not to waste time, and I think food and sleep and cleaning are overrated.”
Looking towards the future, DeVenny is looking forward to helping the foundation continue its work by promoting a healthy and robust community focused on resident engagement, youth empowerment and philanthropy. Next year the J. Marion Sims Foundation and the Orton Family Foundation of Vermont, a foundation which works to restore pride in small towns across the country, will become partners. “As for our family, Alston and I are incredibly proud to see our adult children continuing their educations and making their mark on the world,” said DeVenny.
Morrison is a public relations junior