How Should Alumni Think About Giving Back?

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Antonia writes in with a conundrum:

As a graduate of three private schools (K-8, high school, and college), around this time of year I receive a slew of letters, emails, and phone calls asking me to pledge to various annual funds. I’ve always been told by my parents that I should support my former schools financially because alumni giving rates directly correlate to the prestige of any private institution. In other words, by giving even the minimum of $20, I’m ensuring the value of my diploma. Is this true?

Like many other recent graduates, I have a large amount of debt and not a large amount of income, so my budget only allows for very small donations, typically adding up to less than $100. I would rather give my money to a charity that truly needs it than to a school with a multimillion dollar endowment, but, with the amount that I have invested in my education, I want to make sure that my diploma remains valuable. I’m hesitant to believe that my choice to contribute to an annual fund and bump up the alumni giving statistics by a fraction of a percentage point is really that significant, but there’s also the issue of social capital. Since these schools all publish annual reports detailing who gave money, and how much, alumni and parents may see my name if it appears on the list, and this might make them consider me more favorably if I’m networking or asking them for a job. I might also gain more esteem from my peers.

So, to sum up: will giving to my alma mater’s annual fund benefit me more than donating that same small amount of money to a cause which I personally care about, such as Planned Parenthood or a local animal shelter?

I think Antonia has already answered her own question — yes, giving to her alma maters will likely benefit her more than giving to an animal shelter. But she plainly has a number of points worth considering: whether a small gift indeed affects the reputation of her school; whether her being listed as a giver is truly a benefit to her (or if, instead, being listed as a very small giver might actually backfire); whether even a small gift ensures her future offspring a better chance to go to the school; etc., etc., etc.

So let’s open up the comments here and let Antonia know what you think, and how you approach this same dilemma.

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  1. mike says:

    Same dilemma here for a recent grad of a large public college. I actually laughed out loud when they sent me the first couple of letters asking me to give back. I won’t consider until I can afford to give plus go through an emergency or two and still be fine.

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  2. John Pula says:

    I, too, get calls from the (public) college from which I graduated. It infuriates me for the same reason that “school spirit” and college branded merchandise do. I paid them to attend their college. I should not have to further pay to advertise their college on my chest/bumper/whatever. They should pay me. They pay for those TV spots and billboards, do they not? If anything, the administration should walk around wearing shirts that say “John is awesome.”

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  3. Chris says:

    Instead of giving money back to a general fund, why not apply the money to a specific cause, perhaps one that had the greatest positive impact on your outcome now? So instead of $50 towards a general pool, it could go to say a recreation center or student organization that would normally have to go to the general pool to request money, which they may not get. You’ll have a greater impact on the current programs that developed you and you can directly say what your money was used for.

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  4. Dan says:

    How about some consideration for diminishing marginal utility?

    Giving Planned Parenthood their ten millionth dollar should do more good than giving Harvard their forty billionth.

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  5. SomeCallMeTim says:

    My alma mater has been looking for donations since the day I enrolled 30+ years ago. Parents of current students were called requesting donations – all while they were trying to finance $10k/year for their kids. How ridiculous was it? The father of a friend was called and asked to donate – starting at 5% of his income, dropping down to 2.5% then 1%, followed by asking for $1,000, $500, $250. Keep in mind this was the early 80′s when tuition and fees were $10k/yr – that was asking a LOT.

    Since graduating I have donated occasionally. Most letters from them are asking for $$$, but some *expect* it – those I respond to rather harshly demanding an explanation on why they think they have any expectations on MY money after I PAID THEM for their service decades ago. I was pleasantly surprised after the crash in 2008 when the university president sent a letter to all alumni explaining the university’s finances – and not including one single word asking for help.

    Anyways – I get letters and emails, and discard most of them. I would like to give, but feel my money can better help Planned Parenthood, Goodwill, political campaigns to help elect candidates that will help people, or NPR rather than a school that already has a $1.6 Billion endowment.

    One suggestion – pay off your individual debts before giving if your school already has a decent endowment. You will be better able to give later without that debt hanging over your head.

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  6. Kevin says:

    I look at giving to my alma mater as a one-stop shop to give to a bunch of causes all at once. By cutting a check to support my (private) university, I am supporting:

    1. Broadening educational opportunities for underprivileged youth (financial aid and scholarships)
    2. Research into cutting edge technologies and scientific discoveries (I’m sure the eventual cure for cancer or AIDS will come from people educated at or working closely with a college)
    3. Undergraduate teaching resources to help ensure that America’s workforce remains competitive over the next 50 years
    4. A robust library to support research and knowledge for many generations to come
    5. Cool new companies like Google and Facebook, both of which were founded at universities.
    And I’m sure I could think of several others…

    And on top of that – it’s knowing that I would not be where I am today if I did not go to my college, and giving them my money is an acknowledgement of that fact. If you believe (as I do) that our universities are one of the key assets of our nation, there are few BETTER places to put your money to work.

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  7. Brad says:

    My alma mater asks us to at least donate something, even if it’s $1, because the % of alumni that donate is one of the metrics used by the US News and World Report’s ranking system.

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  8. Iain says:

    As a student who will be graduating this spring, from a university which is prestigious in my country and field: I must confess that I am utterly bewildered by the concept of continuing to give money to my school.

    They have already extracted a great deal of money from me; I know that my tuition exceeds the cost of services rendered by a margin that should make most service providers drool with envy. Whyever would I give them more?

    Loyalty? What has this institution ever done to deserve my loyalty?

    Support of research? I’ve already ‘donated’ plenty to my school’s research programmes; If I wish to continue to support research, I would rather donate to an institution with more specific scope.

    Additional value? What additional value? I already have what I wanted out of our relationship (knowledge). As far as the prestige of the institution goes: first, I sincerely this will continue to provide me any value to me beyond my first job. Second, in principle, I have to question the wisdom of propping up a metric of prestige as flawed and frankly exploitative as alumni giving rates.

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    • Hunter says:

      Until I read these posts, I thought I was probably the only college graduate in the world who felt that, by God, I paid for every hour of education I got from my alma mater, so why do I owe them another dime? Those who go through trade schools to become plumbers, pilots, draftsmen, mechanics, electricians, computer techs, etc., are not ask to “give back” as far as I know. I assume they paid for what they got, which is a set of skills that are supposedly going to increase their earning power. In other words, they made an investment of time, talent, and mony in their futures, just like college students do.

      With tuition rates as they are these days, I don’t think higher education is subsidized by tax dollars. The concept of “giving back” implies that I, as a student, was given something beyond what I paid for. I don’t think so!

      All of this alumi and alma mater stuff is a bunch of crap that is the afterglow of team spirit, group identity, and all of that type of psycological brainwashing. I had my name removed from the mailing lists of both of the universities I got degrees from, but it took some serious convincing before they agreed to leave me alone.

      I dare say that making donations to a universilty doesn’t reduce studet’s tuition costs. I suspect that most donations go to new buildings, professor salary increases, etc. Students may benefit indirectly from these gifts, but only to a small degree.

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