Russel A. Kost III
Fred C. Albrecht Outstanding Alumnus of the Year
The message to Russel Kost III from his father was succinct, direct and unambiguous — as you’d expect coming from a military veteran: “I’ll pay for your college tuition, so long as you take your education seriously.”
No problem there. Not only was Kost a high-achieving high school student, but he arrived at his local university in the late 1970s, with a career plan already mapped out. He would follow the path of a friend who was on track to become a dentist.
“It sounded like fun,” Kost says. “So I enrolled at UNLV as a biology major.”
Turns out, Kost did have fun — just not the kind that helps a successful high school student become a successful college student.
“At that time, UNLV had a reputation as a party school,” Kost says. “And I quickly discovered that reputation was legit. I found things like Oktoberfest and Mardi Gras celebrations in the Student Union a lot more fun than going to class. I wasn’t a serious student.”
So after failing an organic chemistry class at the end of his sophomore year, Kost pulled the plug on college (and, by extension, a career in dentistry). He would spend the next two and a half years working various jobs. He served summons and subpoenas to child-support evaders for the Clark County District Attorney’s office and worked at McCarran (now Harry Reid) International Airport, both as a tour guide for the airport and as a ticket/gate agent and cargo/baggage handler for Continental Airlines.
Realizing his life wasn’t heading in the direction he desired, Kost re-enrolled at UNLV, this time choosing to spend more hours in class and in the library than around a beer keg.
Little did he know it at the time, but Kost would become a fixture on UNLV’s campus for the bulk of the next three decades. His first two years were spent completing a communications degree (which he earned while working two jobs). Then, after a brief return to the airline industry post-graduation, Kost was lured back to his alma mater to be part of a two-person team charged with launching a new fundraising arm, dubbed the UNLV Foundation.
In two stints with the Foundation spanning a total of 28 years, Kost worked in various capacities, including assistant for annual giving, director of annual giving, and director of gift planning and principal gifts. During his entire tenure, Kost was responsible for bringing in more than $43 million in outright gifts and $115 million in planned or deferred gifts.
Also, as part of the senior leadership team, Kost and his colleagues raised more than $537 million for the university’s first (and so far only) comprehensive fundraising campaign. That includes an endowment that Kost helped establish back in 1985 and that stood at more than $234 million when he left the UNLV Foundation in 2019.
These days, Kost continues to put his philanthropic skills to use as principal consultant for his own firm, The Rising Gift Tide, which helps nonprofits maximize the potential of giving and principal gift programs. He also remains connected to his alma mater as a member of the UNLV Alumni Association board.
“Looking back, I now realize that I was incredibly lucky to have worked at UNLV during the time I did,” Kost says. “I had the opportunity to learn development and create new fundraising programs, as well as the attendant plans and staff positions to support them.
“That said, fundraising is a team sport. My wonderful colleagues were the ones enabling and supporting any success I may have enjoyed. I truly hope they will always know that these were ‘our’ accomplishments.”
You’ve spent your professional life working as a fundraiser and philanthropic planner. How did you find your way into such a unique career?
I spent my final semester at UNLV in fall 1983 as an intern in the public relations office of the Summa Corporation (now The Howard Hughes Corp.). I was hired to work full time — 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday — for which I received a $1,000 scholarship and the final 12 credit hours I needed for graduation.
To support myself financially, I was simultaneously working at McCarran Airport from 8 p.m.-1 a.m. for Continental Airlines (now United) as a ticket and gate agent, having started there in 1980. Although Continental went into bankruptcy in the middle of my internship, I moved over to a new airline, America West, in October 1983.
At the end of my internship, Bob Gore — then the public relations manager at the Summa Corporation and my supervisor — told me I performed well and he wanted to hire me, but there weren’t any positions available. Although I received employment offers from local companies, I turned them down to stay with America West, eventually moving to Tucson, Arizona, to open our new station there. After six months, I was promoted to oversee ramp safety at America West’s hub in Phoenix.
Then six months later, in May 1985, Bob Gore called and told me he was now director of the UNLV Foundation and was permitted to hire one staff member. He said he was serious about hiring me back in fall 1983 and that I should come back to Las Vegas, interview with him, and meet new UNLV President Robert Maxson.
Bob Gore ended up hiring me as assistant to the director for the annual fund. I took the job for several reasons: My girlfriend (and now wife of 35 years) was living in Las Vegas; the community connections I was sure to make would enable me to move on to a higher paying job elsewhere in three to five years (or so I thought); and the airline industry was quite unstable at the time.
Oh, and in addition to my salary, UNLV offered me a car to drive — not a bad bonus!
What was the “Aha!” moment that led you to return to UNLV to finish your degree?
I grew up as an Air Force brat, and as a result I traveled to, lived in, and visited many places in the United States, Japan, and Germany. I loved travel and the energy exuded by people in airports. That’s why I initially went to work part time for Continental Airlines — well, that and the flight benefits. But when I saw — and felt — the impact of long-term physical labor on my colleagues (and myself) and realized there were no employment guarantees working for an airline, I decided to retry UNLV.
I took a mass media class taught by Dr. Barbara Cloud, and I was one of about 75 students. After speaking up in class a couple of times, Dr. Cloud approached me and asked if I was considering communications as a major. I credit her with my decision to return to school as a serious student.
Looking back on your time at UNLV, what were some of the most impactful moments that helped set you up for future success?
The short answer is virtually everything I had experienced to that point in my life:
Dropping out of school at the end of my sophomore year; coming back after 2½ years of serving summons and subpoenas to people who weren’t paying child support (not fun) and loading bags, moving planes, and getting people to their destinations (fun, but no guarantee of future employment); and working two jobs all through my junior and senior years at UNLV.
The latter taught me much-needed time management and prioritization skills that helped me successfully navigate college the second time around.
Two other important pivotal moments were serving as president of UNLV’s Public Relations Society Student Association during my senior year and working with fellow PR students on the promotional campaign for UNLV’s 25th anniversary in 1982.
Describe those early days of the UNLV Foundation. What was it like working for what was essentially a startup?
When I started at the UNLV Foundation in 1985, the team consisted of foundation director Bob Gore, an administrative assistant, and myself. At the time, we kept our donor records on index cards and in a little blue book, which served as a backup to the index cards.
There was no endowment in those days, so we were focused solely on annual gifts. I remember we’d give each other high-fives in the hallway on the seventh floor of the Flora Dungan Humanities building every time a $1,000 check came in — because in those days, that was a lot of money.
The number of staff grew with our financial success, and upon my departure in June 2019, the endowment exceeded $234 million. And the credit for that should go to our entire team and all those who supported the Foundation through the years.
Internally, that includes Fred Albrecht, Diane Fouret, John Gallagher, Brenda Griego, Betty Hanseen, Carol Harter, John Irsfeld, Theresa Jackson, Joann Jacobs, Lucy Klinkhammer, Lara Kolberg, Bob Maxson, Marta Meana, Tessie Poggione, Schyler Richards, Cynthia Rivelli, Lyle Rivera, Scott Roberts, and Fred Tredup — just to name a few.
Then there were all of the incredibly successful and charitable business and community leaders whom I got the opportunity to work with and learn from who served as trustees on and chairs of the UNLV Foundation board — individuals like Mark Fine, John Goolsby, Kenny Guinn, Tom Hartley, Greg McKinley, Don Snyder, Terry Wright, Elaine Wynn, and so many others.
It’s been said that there are no great cities without great universities. And thanks to the vision and unwavering dedication of the respected leaders of the UNLV Foundation, UNLV in general and the community at-large, my alma mater is now classified as a Top Tier, R1 institution. It’s an institution that’s changing and saving lives — both here in Nevada and around the world.