Blogmas Day 9: The Importance of University Philanthropy

Last night, I went and saw John Mulaney’s live stand-up comedy act. In his show, he tells a story that those of us who have graduated with a bachelor’s degree are all too familiar with – receiving letters from our alma mater to donate back to the university. While he told the story humorously, it did resonate with me, someone who currently works within university philanthropy, and struck a conversation among my group of friends on the car ride home. I understand the sour taste that comes with the conversation of donating to the university, and I’ve found that it mostly stems from being unaware of the reasons why philanthropy is so important. Having worked in this field for a little over two years now, I am here to explain the importance of it and highlight the facts that I’ve learned over the past couple of years.

A lot of hesitation with donating back to a university comes from not knowing exactly where the funds are going. Many people think that it’s a way to fund and increase faculty and staff salaries and erect unnecessary buildings around the college campus. While I do understand where these assumptions may be coming from, I can tell you that they are very far from the truth. At my own alma mater, as I am sure is relatively the same at other universities, one-third of the school’s budget comes from tuition and fees, and another third of the budget comes from state funding. At private universities, I imagine that the money that public universities receive from the state is made up in tuition costs, which explains the extremely high cost of a private education. It is the money that we pay in tuition and fees, as well as the funds we receive from the state, that go towards the function of the university – things like faculty and staff salaries, electricity, and all of the basic necessities any school needs to run. This leaves a significant fraction of the remaining budget to account for, and that is where fundraising comes in.

Working in the back end of fundraising, I can tell you that exactly none of the money that is fundraised via phonathon, direct solicitations, and mail campaigns are used to pay for any of the things that tuition fees and state funds are used for. Fundraised money is used solely for the purpose of enhancing the overall student experience at the university. This usually means lab and classroom upgrades, scholarships, and the promotion of student clubs. A lot of the donations given to the university are typically distributed to the various departments according to the discretion of the donor. Usually, when an alumnus, parent, or student is solicited to, they have a list of options to which fund they can choose to donate to, which is usually the department they belong to or major field of study. Given today’s political climate, funds have been started for DREAM scholarships, various minority groups, and our other cultural centers on campus. Again, all of this is to further enhance the overall student experience at our university so that they can be best equipped for the world outside of academia.

The usual response to phone solicitations from the university is “Well I’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars for my education, why would I keep funneling money into this institution?” Yes, the cost of an education is expensive. Being tens of thousands of dollars in student debt myself, believe me when I say that I understand where they are coming from. But I also understand that my tuition money helped, in some minute way, the university function for each year I attended the school. But it is because of the generosity of donors preceding me that I was afforded the opportunities I had outside of the classroom, such as traveling to Texas to attend a mathematical conference, and outreaching to local high schools to promote the “learn by doing” philosophy of Cal Poly. My tuition paid for my classroom experience, but the philanthropy practice of my school paid for my extra-curricular activities that enriched my college experience. It is because of fundraising that many students are even able to attend college by way of scholarships, and that many other students are able to do things like participate in national competitions with their student clubs, and travel the country for conferences.

Occasionally, we get the potential donor who has nothing but ill feelings towards the university. The typical attitude is, “Well my education offered me nothing and I got nothing with the education I received from the university.” While I cannot discredit these people and their experiences, I do disagree with their attitude towards the university. It is unfortunate that they believe that their education afforded them nothing in the real world, and that their time at the university was a waste of time. But to them, I urge to give a positive spin on their situation. Yes, it is unfortunate that they didn’t receive anything of substance from their education. But that doesn’t mean that other students in their succession should have the same experience. This is a chance for them to provide the next generation of students opportunities that they didn’t get to have. The very basis of philanthropy is to promote the welfare of others with generosity.

Why am I so passionate about university philanthropy? It all stems from the fact that I am a firm believer that everyone – everyone – deserves a chance at a higher education degree, whether that’s an associate’s degree or a Ph.D. I understand the fact that college may not be for everyone, let alone a post-baccalaureate degree, and I acknowledge the fact that making the decision to forgo continuing education is never an easy one to make. But I don’t think that financial circumstances or cultural backgrounds should get in the way of someone achieving their best potential. There is a direct correlation between university philanthropy and student success, and the journey to get to success begins with the selfless generosity of others.

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