How Should Alumni Think About Giving Back?

(Photo: freshwater2006)

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. Esteban de la Sexface says:

    Since the US News & World Report uses alumni giving percentage as one of the criteria in ranking universities, Antonia’s gift to her alma mater helps make it more prestigious, so it certainly benefits her.

    Also the cost of educating a student (which includes recreational and extracurricular groups/teams) is far more than the cost of tuition, and much of the gap between tuition and actual cost is covered by alumni giving. Without alumni giving, tuition would be much higher.

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  2. Freddie Fundraiser says:

    Most people don’t realize this, but at a public University, tuition and funding from the state make up a VERY small percentage of the revenue it takes to fund the school. As a Development Officer at one of these schools, I spend countless hours thinking about Antonia’s questions. As a cost v. value comparison, you might compare your cost of tuition to your income potential for your years after college. Presumably, your education has allowed you to earn an income, and over time that income will greatly exceed the cost of your education.
    Large contributions to an organization’s endowment spin off revenue for faculty salaries, scholarships, and other very definable needs. Annual giving is typically what covers the remainder of an organization’s yearly operating expenses. At our school these operating expenses include maintaining our facility and keeping it up-to-date, ensuring our curriculum evolves with the times, and paying for resources that directly support our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Where would our students learn if we didn’t have a building? How would they be prepared for today’s job market if we were still teaching the same courses we taught in the 70s? Without the funding for career counselors, how would our students get the best opportunities for internships and jobs? All of these resources are of vital importance, and contributions to our Annual Fund go to work immediately to help support these crucial needs.
    Although gifts to the Annual Fund are unrestricted, I would make the case that participation in annual giving is perhaps the most tangible way to give back to your school. Your money is spent almost immediately after you give it to fund the school’s most pressing needs. And it does make an impact over multiple areas. It helps to pay for your favorite professor. It helps fund the student organization that you were involved in. It helps provide physical space for students to study and learn. It helps to strengthen the student experience.
    It’s easy to think your $20 doesn’t make a big impact, but what if every donor felt that way, and decided not to invest in the school? Annual giving allows each and every donor to be part of a larger initiative to ensure the success of their alma mater. It’s all about the power of numbers, and small gifts from multiple donors really do compound. The outcome is a series of causes-and-effects that do result in increasing the value of your degree: The school stays strong from year to year – it has the financial resources it needs to educate exceptional graduates – those graduates go out into the world and demonstrate the value and power of their educational experience – their companies are happy and continue to recruit at the school (while also reporting favorable information to ranking organizations) – future students have access to post-college opportunities – everyone is happy and the school’s reputation gets better and better – which means that as a graduate of that school, YOU are more desirable to hiring managers.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 18 Thumb down 17
    • Mike says:

      If you went to a for-profit school, should you also donate?

      If you went to a public elementary/middle/high school, should you donate? Even though they never ask for any money?

      If I received a good education at state university 1 but I would have done even better at state university 2, wouldn’t it be better to donate to state university 2?

      If you received a poor education and/or were advised poorly, should you demand a refund?

      If I buy some tools/computers that allow me to start/expand a business in a highly profitable way, should I “pay back” to Black&Decker or Dell.

      Stop with the guilt trip … IMHO, you should pay for education like you pay for a restaurant meal.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 6
      • Robbie says:

        Mike, I have three elementary school kids that attend public school and believe me, I’m asked to donate. Sometimes on a weekly basis. Bake-sales, jog-a-thon, wrapping paper, silent auctions; I give to them all. Why? Because I care about the education my kids and the kids in my neighborhood are getting. We should all be doing something to help.

        To equate an education to a restaurant meal saddens me.

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      • Bill G says:

        Your analogy of paying for an education like a “restaurant meal” kind of backfires on you, because after a meal at a restaurant, you leave a tip. So it’s almost like leaving a tip for the services you were provided at your school.

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  3. Chris says:

    Whenever I get phone calls from my university requesting money, I simply and politely tell them I will consider making a donation when my student loans have been paid off.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 2
  4. Stefanie says:

    I attended a private school from 6th – 12th grade. Although I am thankful for the education and mentoring I received there, I do not support them financially. My mom paid them and that is enough for me.

    I attended a private university fir 5 years at 14K per year. I paid my way though most of it, taking only 8K in FSL. I received many university scholarships (leadership, residence life, community service, etc) that made being a full-time student possible. I give as generously as I can and hope to increase my giving as I decrease my debt. I give so that future students can have the blessings that I once received. I dont care ifthat goes to a scholarship fund, new dorm furniture or a new building. I trust the stewardship and mission of my alma mater.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 2
  5. Airman Spry Shark says:

    At the very least, the prestige of your grade & high school credentials are negligible; once you have a college degree, employers & grad schools don’t care about prior formal education.

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  6. Kate B. says:

    You also forget the value of revenge if you cut them off!

    My beloved alma mater went Co-Ed, which I could have lived in (men need education, too), but then they changed the school’s name, sold off priceless artworks, and threw thousands of dollars at a new athletic complex (for the aforementioned boys)–leaving the library just as decrepit as ever, lowered admissions standards the first two years that males were admitted, and generally pissed me and my two sisters who are also alums off. I wish I had been giving regularly because withdrawing that admittedly small gift in the wake of all this would have been _sweet_. So, I give money to my grad school “in memory of” my alma mater.

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  7. Jobe says:

    Often, the marginal beenfit of a gift to a private universiy is bigger than to a normal charity. Typicaly, the number that garners prestige is the participation rate rather than ammount given. So that $20 you send to your alma mater might make a bigger difference to yourself and others than the same gift to an animal shelter.

    In other words, the shelter is indifferent to two givers each giving $10 and one giver giving $20. The school much prefers the second. As stated in another comment, the marginal benefit of the money itslef is probably very small.

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  8. Mike says:

    If the OP is just interested in personal benefit, as it sure sounds from the question framed as helping her in terms of prestige of the school and recognition of donors, give the money. I have to say I find it amusing to think that hiring managers thumb thru lists of those who donated to their college or HS.

    There is something valuable that the OP has to give even though I suspect helping others isn’t part of the calculus. What she has to give that is more valuable than a few dollars is her time. Assuming she is employed or in grad school, she can serve as a useful resource for current students pondering the same path. Many colleges, even the public ones that I’m sure the OP finds well beneath her status, have lists of alums that have volunteered to meet with current students who are interested in learning more about their career. As a recent grad her experience is much more relevant to current students than that of a well meaning alum her parents’ age that graduated in a different era.

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    • Nick says:

      I was going to say, if she wants improve the school’s reputation without giving them money, helping a graduating student find a job (or hiring one) is the best way to go.

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