On alumni donations and priorities

October 24th, 2005 by hjl

A little food for thought:

This year has seen many notable calls for donations — for the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the recent earthquake in Pakistan and India. This comes in addition to the ongoing needs of other worthy causes doing good works at home and abroad.

As an individual and as a class agent, I sometimes find myself wondering about the priority and impact of contributions to Exeter versus other philanthropic projects. This also comes up as a topic of conversation among classmates. I always encourage classmates to participate, but respect their interest and support for other causes as well.

In my case, I was able to go to Exeter because others before me had given their financial support, and I want to continue to make it possible for those that come after me. But I’ve spent enough time working with projects like these that I am acutely aware that the modest amounts I can contribute could be significant to other smaller organizations.

Along similar lines, Sunday’s New York Times has a column by Ben Stein reflecting on his donations to Yale.

The law school treated me like gold, and I have tried to treat the law school like gold since I left 35 years ago. I contribute fairly generously. I have been a class agent for more than 20 years, soliciting money from my classmates, and I have even spoken at Yale for no fee, which is a real rarity in my life.

But lately, something has been nagging at me when I ask my classmates for money and when the law school asks me for money.

Is it possible that giving to Yale right now is a bit like giving gifts to Goldman Sachs or Brown Brothers Harriman? I am sure that there are fine people in those places, and investment bankers are almost always intelligent, hard-working men and women. I enjoy their company. But they really don’t need my money, and other people do.

I love Yale, and I am deeply grateful to Yale. It is a star in my sky every day and night. But at this point, is it an investment bank or a school? I am really not sure, and this troubles me. I would love to be shown that I am wrong, but I am not certain that I am.

Seth Godin comments on this:

Michael Motta answered that question for me when he quoted Ben Franklin in an email today. “he that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than whom you yourself have obliged”.

In other words, Yale wants Ben Stein’s money so that Ben will be inclined to do the things that Yale really wants: send over great students, hire graduates, talk up the school and maintain its place in the pantheon of liberal arts colleges. And donors are far more likely to do that than disconnected alum.

It’s not always about giving. Yale wins by taking.

What do you think?