Introducing Higher Ed Wedesdays: A Giver-Centered Philanthropy

To help focus my blog and help readers decide what content may be of more interest to them, I’m adding a new feature to my blog beginning this week. My interests in societal issues are broad and varied, including politics, faith and religion, and higher education primarily and my blog reflects that breadth. My social identities as a Black queer masculine-of-center woman with ADHD who practices a progressive Christianity also get reflected in the many kinds of topics and issues that attract my attention and show up in my blog. At the same time, I know that many of you who have heard about my blog and are following me on Twitter and friends with me on Facebook know me through higher education and student affairs circles; I want to acknowledge that audience and develop a way for you to know when topics related to higher education and student affairs will be featured in my blog. So to do that, I’m dedicating the Wednesday post on my blog to higher education and student affairs issues. You can use the hashtag “#higheredWed” on Twitter to comment and pass the word on. Mondays and Fridays will be dedicated to a broader range of topics and issues with a social justice bent and especially dealing with issues of race, gender, sexuality, faith/belief, disability/ability, and social class.

So, let’s kick off this first #higheredWed with a reflection on philanthropy in higher education, particularly alumni giving. An article by Elise Young in Inside Higher Ed yesterday, reviewing the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education’s (CASE) annual meeting, spoke to the need for alumni giving officers to connect with alumni from the Millennial Generation in ways that reflect the trends on that group. In particular, using technology and social media to more effectively connect to alumni and tell the college’s story were more effective than traditional solicitation techniques like cold calls and postal mailings. However, the article also pointed out the need to help Millennials see where their money was going tangibly; comparisons were made to other fundraising campaigns that told donors that a certain amount of money made it possible for this activity to occur, while another amount enabled something else. Millennials want to see where their money is going and connect to a larger story, not just give into a generic annual fund campaign.

I’ve argued a similar point myself in a white paper I wrote in the spring for Kalamazoo College’s alumni and development staff and our Alumni Association Executive Board of which I am a member. Using a generational perspective, informed by the work of Strauss and Howe and others that have characterized trends in approaches to careers and family and views of authority, loyalty, and education, the crux of my argument was that a one-size-fits-all approach to engaging alumni as donors would likely be less effective than tailoring one’s approach to fit the needs and attitudes of smaller groups of alumni. These distinctions may be done according to generational characteristics as argued in Inside Higher Ed and my paper. However, other social identifiers may also be considered as alumni and development officers seek to more effectively engage different groups of alumni.

Marybeth Gasman, alone and in collaboration with including Nelson Bowman most recently, have focused on issues of race in college philanthropy, particularly for Black students at our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  From her research on the history of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to a blog post in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Gasman has noted that the dominant model of philanthropy that is focused on wealth and economic privilege is not relevant or suitable for developing philanthropy among Black college alumni. A review of the research by Pascarella and Terenzini (How College Impacts Students, 2nd ed.) on the conditional effects on quality of life after college demonstrates the lower earnings of Blacks with a college degree relative to Whites. These differences likely reflect the pervasive and intersecting structures of racism and economic inequality. Moreover, in Bowen and Bok’s study of Black and White graduates from highly selective colleges (published in their book The Shape of the River), they found that Black students were also more likely to pursue careers in sectors that didn’t typically have high earning potential (e.g., social work and education) or focus careers in law and medicine on lower-income clientele and economically depressed neighborhoods. Consequently, large amounts of excess disposable income are not available to give to their alma mater, regardless of their satisfaction with their college experience or loyalty to the institution. Gasman argues in her blog post linked above and in her recently published text with Nelson Bowman, Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An All Campus Approach (2011, Routledge) that a broader concept of philanthropy that incorporates “time, talent, and treasure” is necessary to effectively engage Black college alumni in institutional philanthropy. In addition to alumni financial contributions, alumni who devote time volunteering to assist with recruitment and retention efforts and who donate their professional expertise also make valuable philanthropic contributions to their alma maters. As Gasman notes, this is useful and relevant for all alumni, not just Black alumni, and for all institutions, not just Black colleges.

Student status, whether undergraduate or graduate, is also important to consider. Also covered in the Inside Higher Ed piece was the challenge of connecting with graduate alumni versus undergraduate alumni. Advanced degree holders have different needs and interests than undergraduate alumni and their experiences on campus as graduate students were very different from most traditional undergraduate students. These distinctions need to be accounted for as college advancement officers plan their institution’s annual fund drive.

The old marketing principle, know your audience, must be sensibly and intentionally applied to alumni and development activities in higher education. Traditional models of alumni engagement and philanthropy, although perhaps more financially efficient, won’t necessarily work to effectively engage a broad diversity of alumni across generations or social identity groups. After all, I would argue that the goal of alumni engagement is not just to increase financial giving to the institution, but to also build on and sustain the sense of community membership and sense of belonging that (hopefully) was developed during the student’s

Personally, as an alumna of a private high school and two higher education institutions, as well as a faculty member at a higher education institution, I get multiple appeals to give every year. Frankly they’re quite overwhelming. If all you want from me is money, you’re not likely to get a lot and you’re going to force me to make decisions about who’s going to get the little bit of money I have. If you expand my opportunities to give back to include more than just financial contributions, then I’m more likely to want to donate my time or talent in some way – and then also find a way to throw at least a few dollars your way. Just saying. Consider who I am as an alum and engage me appropriately. It’s a giver-centered approach to philanthropy, instead of the institution-centered focus that has seemed to dominate in higher education traditionally.

Thanks for joining me this #higheredWed – hope this helps you get over your hump day!

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