• September 19, 2014

A Hypocritical Oath

Are fund raisers also philanthropists and volunteers? Do we contribute money and time to our alma maters?

That was the topic of a recent online poll on the Web site of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a wonderful resource if you don't mind sites as slow as a toddler finishing a plate of Brussels sprouts. When I submitted my answers, only 350 people had participated, which hardly constitutes a significant sample. But the results shed light on a delicate issue.

The poll asked two questions: Do you give to your alma mater, and do you volunteer for your alma mater? Just over 76 percent of respondents said yes to the first question, while only 36 percent said yes to the second.

Now keep in mind that the council represents the broad spectrum of advancement departments, including communications and alumni relations along with development, so the poll wasn't limited to fund raisers. In fact it was impossible to determine what percentage of respondents worked in development. Yet the "optional comment" section, where survey participants were encouraged to elaborate (anonymously) on their answers, hinted that many did.

Let's first look at giving to your alma mater. About three quarters of those surveyed did. Any college would be giddy over such a participation rate. So as a group, we advancement folks are rather philanthropically inclined. The flip side, of course, is that a quarter of us don't give.

Several folks commented on the importance of leading by example. "I can't imagine asking others to give ... without being willing to do so myself," wrote one. Another responded that he poses similar questions during interviews to gauge potential employees' commitment. Yet another simply asked, "Don't we all?"

Evidently not. And that brings up a key question: As fund raisers, should we feel compelled to support our alma maters? Are we hypocritical if we don't?

Call me what you will, but I don't give to my two alma maters. I used to contribute to my undergraduate college, but that was many years ago, right after graduation, when I didn't have much money. I suppose I still had warm fuzzies for the place. But I soon realized I was still paying tuition in the form of student loans, and was racking up more debt in graduate school. I declared a moratorium on further giving until I made tons of money (that doesn't seem to have happened quite yet). What's more, I don't lie awake at night worrying about the financial solvency of these two universities; last year they raised $873-million between them. So my $50 hasn't been missed.

What about volunteering? Here the results of the poll were more sobering. Just over a third of the respondents admitted to assisting their alma maters. Some commented that distance prevented them from volunteering, though one can participate in many ways that don't require proximity. For instance, while living in Boston I helped my college, which is in Philadelphia, by sitting on a panel of recent graduates who had been asked to speak with prospective students and their parents.

Other comments should seem familiar to fund-raising professionals. "I want to volunteer for my alma mater," wrote one, "[but] they just won't take me up on the offer -- and I'm especially qualified!" Said another: "have volunteered in the past, but they were ungrateful!" And who hasn't heard this -- "I haven't been asked yet" -- a few hundred times?

I can sympathize. Following my stint on the admissions panel, I wasn't invited to participate again. (Maybe my diatribe against the language requirement had something to do with that.) A few years later I called my college's development office and offered my services as a volunteer fund raiser. The woman I spoke with sounded excited but I never heard from her again. So I quit trying.

The most intriguing poll comments, however, didn't deal with the questions per se. That is, many people took the debate a bit further afield by suggesting that instead of giving to their alma maters, people in advancement should support the institutions at which they work.

So let's consider that third unasked question: Are fund raisers expected to give to the colleges that employ them, even if they're not alums?

Here again I don't represent a shining example of propriety. That's right, I don't give to the college where I work.

It's not that I harbor ill feelings; I simply have never contributed to any employers. I've worked at four institutions and haven't given a penny. Sure, my job is to prod people for money all the time, to stress how important every gift is. Don't worry about the amount, I say (at least to most folks). Just give something. Participation rates matter -- just ask U.S. News & World Report. And when the plate lands in my lap, I pass it along to the next guy without adding my two bits.

Heresy? Not necessarily. That's because I believe I already give, already sacrifice. By working for higher education, fund raisers forgo the opportunity to make more money in other industries. Combine that lower pay with long hours, continual travel, and time away from family, and I'd say we contribute plenty. Also, fund raisers change jobs about as often as they change their socks, so many become mercenaries seeking a higher bidder. Affinity doesn't always come attached to a paycheck.

But why not give something just for the sake of appearances? If I take advantage of payroll deduction and ask human resources to lop off a few bucks every month, I won't even feel it. Then I could respond affirmatively when donors asks if I give. And I could even claim it on my tax returns.

Maybe someday. For now I'll continue giving modest amounts to other nonprofits, causes about which my wife and I feel strongly. If donors asks if I give to the institution where I work, I can tell them I'm not an alum. And if they ask if I support my alma mater, I'll suggest that's between my college and me.

But I will tell them that I support higher education, that I'm dedicating my career to it. I'll tell them I put in long hours raising money for their institution. And I'll remind them that we ask all alums and friends to participate in some capacity, to at least give of their time if they can't swing a financial contribution.

Perhaps some of those CASE visitors answering "no" to the giving question feel the same way. I bet there are plenty more. We stand together in stingy solidarity, proud of our hypocritical oath, refusing to bow to the philanthropic pressures we're so eager to apply to others.

Are we wrong?

Mark J. Drozdowski is a fund raiser at a New England liberal arts college. He writes a regular column about careers in university fund raising and development.

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