Donation Manipulation

By Hannah Bristol

I was eating breakfast outside Proctor on Sunday when I got a phone call from one of my friends.

“I’m making calls for the Senior Fund, and you’re on my list of people who haven’t donated. The money goes to a scholarship fund, and if 68 percent of the class doesn’t donate, we won’t have much money for Senior Week.”

Putting aside the fact that I’m not even graduating until next February, a couple things here rub me the wrong way:

1. The fixation on percentages. I know there’s evidence that shows that if people start giving money right when they graduate, they are more likely to give money when they are older and have real sums of money to give. And I know more kids give money to their college at Amherst and Williams. And I know a high percentage of students giving back reflects where we stand in the U.S. News and World Report rankings (which merits its own oped about what goes into that formula). But if you don’t care about how much we give, just the percentage, and you’re raising money for a scholarship fund, this seems misguided. Middlebury costs almost $60k a year. Percentages alone just aren’t going to get us there. Say we all give $5 and say our class has 700 kids, then we’ve raised $3,500. We can pay for 5 percent of one student’s tuition for one year. The other goal is far less publicized: raising $10,000 for this scholarship fund. That number starts to actually put a dent in the Middlebury price tag, though still not a huge one. The percentage strategy is they are employing is all so that we can say “more than two-thirds of our senior class gave money this year” and so maybe our alumni giving will give us that extra boost from number four to duking it out at the top with Amherst and Williams.

2. The scholarships ask. Now I definitely want all money I would theoretically give to go to financial aid, and I’m glad that’s what we voted on supporting, but our ask does not reflect what we’re trying to do. See the math breakdown in point one. While we’re on it, in March, all the seniors received an email that said if 1,800 seniors and alumni donated, a board member would donate $100,000 to financial aid. Subject line: “It’s all or nothing.” That means that almost two years of Middlebury for a student who couldn’t otherwise come here is contingent on other alumni giving money. Why are we hedging bets on someone’s ability to afford college? If you have that much money and you plan on giving it to Middlebury, don’t hold it hostage until 1,800 others pay. Just give the money you want and have to give.

3. The Senior Week thing. So we spent more of our budget than planned on 100 days because we had to hire more security because so many people were hurt at 200 days. All good. I don’t need a cruise on Dumore to feel like I’m graduating from college. What bugs me here is using senior week as a pawn to get people to give to that magic “more than two-thirds.” It’s sensationalizing, especially since donating doesn’t even mean we have access to more money for Senior Week. It just means we can begin fundraising other money. The money being raised, thankfully, goes to a better cause than our pre-grad drinking, but incorporating this ask is pretty ridiculous. And the pint glasses we received for donating $20.14 before April 1? Also ridiculous. Those glasses probably cost almost as much to custom order as the amount we donate to get one.  And what’s even more sad is that this works. I’ve heard that donations have jumped since Senior Week was worked into the ask. If we hit 68 percent, it does not reflect the “school spirit” the U.S. News and World Reports thinks alumni giving shows. It just shows how easy we are to bribe.

4. But what bothers me most is that giving to Middlebury is a personal choice. Maybe I don’t want to give because we haven’t divested. Maybe I’m directing my money to a nonprofit or institution that doesn’t have nearly the resources we have. Maybe money is tight because I’m about to graduate and the job market is tough. Maybe I do plan to give money to Middlebury and just haven’t gotten around to it. But these fundraising tactics lose sight of the complexity and personal decision that is philanthropy. Instead, this strategy of fundraising is manipulative and distorts the reasons we should be giving money. While it still goes to a good cause, the intentions are off. If I give money to Middlebury, it’s not for a pint glass that will soon break or an open bar that we’ll all promptly forget. It’s because of the things I’ve loved here and the opportunities I’ve had. It’s because I want others to have the same experiences. It’s because of everything I think Middlebury has to offer. And as we get ready to graduate, we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Artwork by AMR THAMEEN

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Donation Manipulation