Dear Nonprofiteer, Boola moolah?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I have a degree from an Ivy League school whose coffers are bulging. I share your view that wealthy nonprofits should dip into their endowment when the right occasions arise. This institution doesn’t, and continues to charge sky-high tuition. Its governance seems uninspired. Nevertheless, I remain very grateful to the silly bugger. It made my life better. Fellow graduates and I have been passing along the same stale kernels of advice with respect to our feelings that we should ‘give back’. (1) Recognize that our gratitude is misplaced; celebrate higher education more generally by finding another worthy college or university that is less flush and send money there. [How to choose?] (2) Higher education is too late; donate to support K-12. [Even more bewildering.] (3) Donate to Ivy U., but restrict the gift in a progressive direction. [But money in the Ivy U. bank account is fungible, say some.] (4) Irk Ivy U. with protest checks, in the sum of $1.01 and such, so it’ll get the message that alums are pissed off and change its ways. [You call that giving?] I believe most of us have been doing none of the above. What are we missing? Signed, Checkbook Poised

Dear Checkbook:

I think "I remain very grateful to the silly bugger" about summarizes your reason for giving to Ivy U, and that reason isn’t satisfied by giving to other schools, university or K through 12.  Your gratitude is for the special access your Ivy education gave you (to jobs, graduate schools, even mates)–and, presumably, you want others to enjoy the same access.  That seems like a fair "pay it forward" attitude, and suggests you should continue to give. 

(You may restrict the gifts to scholarship use, if you like, or to a favored program, but failing a huge coordinated flood of support restricted to that particular item, donations are indeed fungible: the university just takes its own money out of scholarships and moves it to, well, let’s say, endowment.)

But if you think Ivy U. is sitting on a pile of cash it could/should be using to give that exceptional access to others, then you have a few choices:

  • Become actively involved in Ivy’s alumni activities for the purpose of getting heard on the subject of its obscene-sized endowment.  The more time you spend raising your class gift (say), the more you’ll get listened to.  On the other hand, you may well feel it’s counterproductive to your goals to raise still more money for the University trustees to sit on. 
  • Give your donations into an escrow account, which Ivy U. can have if and when it does certain things you think are essential: increases its scholarship budget by 25%, waives tuition for all students from families with incomes of $70,000 or below, creates a public-service loan forgiveness program of a certain magnitude.  Donations into escrow were a favorite tactic of those who wanted their alma maters to divest from South Africa.  But this requires you to have a concrete goal, capable of being measured, to which Ivy U. can conform.
  • Do some rough calculation of what you "owe" Ivy, whether it’s the amount of aid you received from it, the increment of your income you can attribute to it, or some other computation.  Give this amount, and then consider your debt of gratitude discharged.  Stop supporting Ivy and give your money elsewhere.

I don’t see any value in sending nuisance checks: your message that "alumni are pissed" is useless (alumni are always pissed) and no other message is detectable in a donation of a peculiarly small amount.  Give or don’t give, and express an explicit desire for change or don’t, but don’t be pointlessly rude about it.


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3 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Boola moolah?”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Very rewarding post today as always. But I don’t understand your analysis of Checkbook Poised’s motives: to express gratitude, and to ensure that other students in the future can benefit from access, I think you say.

    I get the first motive, but not the second. Isn’t this some kind of fatcat school that’s resisting the Princeton tuition abatement idea? If it’s oozing more endowment income than it knows how to spend, why does it need more donations from alumni? I thought the writer was suggesting the opposite belief: i.e. that only some kind of concerted resistance by alumni would influence governance to make the school more accessible.

  2. R.J. O'Hara Says:

    Another excellent choice, rather than donating to an already-wealthy institution, would be to donate to those universities that are working hard to develop on their own campuses the specific features that make many Ivy League schools so good for undergraduates:

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I don’t see that “concerted resistance” from alumni will or would make a rich institution change its ways: money talks, lack of money is silent. But your point is well-taken that access (to the value of an Ivy education) is actually more in the hands of the school than the alumni, so that’s not much of a reason to give. Finally you’re left with naked gratitude–not the worst motive, but not necessarily the best, either. O’Hara’s suggestion of donating to other colleges has some merit, but it’s hard to imagine what non-Ivy school could provide the access that’s the sine qua non of an Ivy education. Note that I’m not claiming Ivy educations are superior–just that the perception of their superiority is so overwhelming that few schools are in the position to “develop on their own campuses the specific features” that make them valuable, because those features are to such a great extent reputational.
    See the comment to “Meditations of the Idle Rich” for some thoughts profounder than these about what to do with one’s charity. If as the commenter says nothing matters but to change the world, then it’s time to stop giving to Ivy altogether.

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