Graduates of my alma mater must, be far more successful than I am. At least, I assume this is so from the 4 emails I got from my former college yesterday asking for money. These were not messages asking for $5, $10, or even $50 donation. These were bold requests. One message told me that two alumni (class of ’70 and ’88) pledged $7,500, inferring that perhaps I should follow their example. Of course, if that seemed too steep, another message told me that by making a gift of $2,000 or more I could get some exclusive swag. I suppose “gift” sounds better than “donation.” It seems to me that $2,000 I have today is better invested now, so that when my own kids head off to college, the money will (hopefully) pay for one semester’s worth of text books.
I have given money to my alma mater in the past, before I had kids, but they have to know what it costs to raise a family these days. A university’s development office probably has good metrics on what people give based on all kinds of criteria. This is what puzzles me about my alma mater‘s messages: are their graduates so successful that a $7,500 donation (or a $2,000 gift) is a drop in the hat? Then, too, with what a college education costs these days, it isn’t clear to me why a university needs funding above and beyond what they get from tuition. Of course, there is always a need for more money, but I haven’t seen this explained well by the universities. No one I know has put out a “giving guide” with the line, “With the high cost of tuitions, why are donations necessary?” and then gone on to give a reasonable explanation. I wonder how many people donating $2,000 are still saddled with student loan debt?
My alma mater was not the only institution requesting donations from me yesterday. It was “Giving Tuesday” so everyone had their hand out. I had requests from hospitals, museums, shelters, and my kids’ soccer league. It seems poor planning that “Giving Tuesday” comes right on the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. For one thing, everyone is asking for money all at once, so they are competing against one another. For another, who has the money to spend after those holiday weekend shopping sprees? Perhaps integrating the giving with the shopping deals would be a better approach: “Get 25% off all purchases, and we’ll donate 5% of the proceed to _____.” People would complain about this because the business, not the consumer, would get the tax write-off. Charity should not be about tax write-offs. Then, too, some families look closely at how much we can give and where we want to make those donations as part of our annual household budgeting. By the time Giving Tuesday comes around, all of those funds have already been earmarked or donated.
Many charitable organizations offer various incentives for donations. I wish they didn’t. Or at least, I wish they didn’t have to. I made a donation to one charity a few months back because they sent me some address labels. I felt bad that they had spent the money on the address labels, but it turned out that I needed new address labels since we moved into the new house. My donation put me on a list of people who responded with cash and now it seems that every other week I received more labels from them. I wish they’d spend the money I gave them on things other than labels.
One offer from my alma mater gave me the opportunity to have my name engraved on a brick on a new building they were constructing with the donated funds. I believe that charity should be mostly anonymous. People should donate out of a sense of charity, not to advertise their generosity. This phenomenon reaches the peak of absurdity at fund-raising events for my kids’ school, which seem to be arranged so that parents openly compete with one another one-upping their “generosity.” That’s not what charity is about. Whenever possible, I make my donations anonymously.
I’m always impressed when I read about multi-million dollar donations made by an anonymous donor, but always disappointed that the recipient doesn’t name the building constructed with the funds the “Anon Library and Study Hall.”
More and more, I’ve noticed that charitable institutions use tactics similar to what hackers use to get information from people–what is sometimes referred to as social engineering. They creation a false sense of urgency by limiting the time you have to make a contribution (“We want to meet our goal of raising $25,000 on Giving Tuesday”), and raising the stakes. Almost no one is better at this than local public television and radio. I’m not much of a television watcher, and I listen to the radio not at all, but I must get a dozen letters a year from our local public television and radio each of which is a desperate plea for funds, and each of which carries the dire warning that the television/radio cannot survive much longer without these funds. While I don’t make use of their services, I know of their value to the community. Still, I’m skeptical. I have been getting these letters for seventeen years now, each one a dire plea for survival, and yet, 17 years later, the broadcasts continue.
I’ve always found it a bit odd that a person forms such a strong bond to their alma mater that, decades later, they are still willing to donate money to them. I got a good education from my school, but it was four years of my life, and I paid for it already. In full. With some interest. Isn’t that enough?