The issue of alumni giving (or alumni non-giving, or non-alumni giving–does that cover all the possibilities?) fails to fade away. First, from Professor Anita Bernstein:
I bought [the August 28, 2007 edition of the] Wall Street Journal** to read on the plane . . . and saw its story on my favorite blog topic, alumni donations to colleges. [Zachary Seward’s article] had a Chicago focus: some fellow with bachelor’s and law degrees from U of C, an Abbott Labs lawyer, decided to snub Chicago and favor Lake Forest College instead. He put his name on its library for $6 million, I think, chortling about how much kavod [Hebrew: "honor"] a dollar buys in a school with only a $75 million endowment.
Then Michael Anderson at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic passed along "Exacting
Donors Reshape College Giving," from the September 4 Washington Post:
Geri Cecil loved Randolph-Macon
Woman’s College . . . and every year after she graduated in 1968 she gave the school money.
. . .That’s all over now.
Cecil felt blindsided by a major change at the college: plans to admit men. She
said she didn’t hear of the proposal until shortly before it was approved and
saw alumnae such as herself stonewalled when they objected. So she stopped
donating — forever, she said. . . .
"I certainly have learned
one thing," Cecil said. "I will never make an unrestricted pledge to anyone,
[Here the Nonprofiteer admits to puzzlement: what difference would restricted giving–"Exclusively for a program in basket-weaving"–have made under these circumstances?]
Finally–though of course not really–there’s the cluster of articles detailing Dartmouth‘s recent decision to remove alumni from their prominent, not to say dominant, position of the Board of Trustees, apparently to liberate academic professionals and their tame business supporters–a/k/a trustees–from alumni demands: see the Boston Globe this week, the Washington Post this week, the New York Times this week (twice!), the Boston Globe in August and even the editorial in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal**.
Something (says the Nonprofiteer, with her firm grasp of the obvious) is going on. But it’s not obvious whether what’s going on is that:
- universities are leading the way for other nonprofits in declaring that they need general operating support and will no longer tolerate gifts purporting/intending/operating to dictate program; or
- universities have staffs managing one institution, trustees governing another and alumni envisioning or remembering a third (a situation bound to produce vertigo, if not out-and-out disaster); or
- universities are experiencing frequent and high-profile encounters with the "new donor" appearing sector-wide, that is, someone who expects to purchase lots of influence at relatively low cost (suggesting the prince who disdained his mother the queen: "That woman certainly expects rich payment for nine months’ lodging!"), or
- these noisy donors are not new but in fact the sickeningly familiar character who imagines him/herself better able to decide what’s best for an organization s/he’s supporting than the people who are running it (in which case, why support the organization at all?), or
- some, all or none of the above.
At the very least, the sentimentality of old school ties is being replaced by a desire for impact, which sometimes means a more profound aspiration to do good but often reflects merely a conflation of "doing good" with "having control."
A free subscription to this blog to any and all commenters who can explain what the hell is going on here, and what the hell we should do about it. Is the problem with alumni power that they don’t actually give enough money to deserve it; and if so, how much money would be enough? Or is the problem that alumni actually have pretty poor academic governance skills, on average; and if so, how does that distinguish them from the amateur governors of most nonprofits?
The Nonprofiteer admits to a more-than-sneaking sympathy for the professional staff, complemented by a preference for deference to those whose involvement in the institution is long-term, informed and expensive–that is, trustees. "Client representation" on agency boards is all the rage among institutional funders, and certainly the people being served should be heard from. But to what extent do clients from an agency’s past have experience relevant to current operations? And what are alumni but noisy ex-clients?
Alumni enraged by the University of Chicago’s decision to alter the size and organization of its undergraduate college apparently were incapable of noticing that the size and organization for which they were nostalgic was bankrupting the institution they purported to love. The Nonprofiteer’s own take on that teapot tempest appears somewhere in the archives of the University of Chicago Magazine.
Let’s hear from all the sons and daughters–faithful and faithless alike–of the nation’s alma maters. (Almas mater?) Today . . .*
*First line of University of Chicago alma mater. Really really no kidding.
**Reminder: the Wall Street Journal and most other restricted-access newspaper contents, including the New York Times’ so-called "Times Select" articles, are available full-text on the ProQuest Newspapers data-base, available through many public and university libraries for the price of a library card–that is to say, free. Wherever a direct link is available to an article, it’s provided here; otherwise, search ProQuest by keyword "alumni" or by article author.