Fund Raising

2 Ivy League Drives Shame Seniors Who Don't Give

Robert Barker, Cornell U.

David J. Skorton, Cornell U.'s president, gets the senior-class gift.
October 24, 2010

Positive recognition has long been a trusted way of raising money on college campuses, where buildings, benches, and even the insides of library books bear the names of donors.

But in an effort to spur gifts among young soon-to-be alumni, students at two Ivy League institutions are trying a different approach: publicizing the names of seniors who don't contribute to their class gift.

With lists supplied by college administrators, student volunteers at Dartmouth College and Cornell University circulated the names of students who had not donated to senior-gift drives. The programs relied on students to single out their peers to meet high participation goals.

Not everyone participated happily. The single student from Dartmouth's 1,123-student Class of 2010 who did not contribute this year was criticized in a column in the college newspaper and on a popular blog, which posted her name and photograph. The student e-mailed a testy response to fellow classmates describing her position.

At Cornell, the 42 seniors who volunteered to raise money were provided lists of classmates who had not given, and one volunteer shared some of the names with other students. In singling out delinquent classmates, volunteers were told to send multiple e-mails and to call students on their cellphones, telling them that they were among the few who had not yet given. At least one student didn't donate because she was turned off by the persistent contact.

Senior-class gift programs are part of a movement at many colleges to increase giving by young alumni at a time when giving rates among all alumni nationwide stand at a record low. Fund-raising staff members use students to solicit senior gifts within their tight social networks, creating a culture of giving that they hope will last beyond graduation. But once volunteers start soliciting, the colleges sometimes do little to monitor them.

Corey Earle, the Cornell official who oversees the senior-gift drive, knew that some of its peer-pressure tactics had backfired but said the university planned to keep the structure of the program in place. Sylvia Racca, the administrator responsible for Dartmouth's senior-gift drive, said via e-mail that it was necessary for student volunteers to know which of their peers had not yet donated. She did not mention making any changes in the solicitation process. She said that all volunteers were trained to respect the confidentiality of their peers and that Dartmouth officials "deeply regret that one person was subjected to inappropriate behavior, and we do not support in any way that behavior."

But since the purpose of such appeals is often to educate students and build donor loyalty, these approaches can actually undermine the gift program, says Rob Henry, executive director of emerging constituencies for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

"There are two likely outcomes. Either 'Oh, I feel bad, here's my $20,' or they don't give anything and feel bad," says Mr. Henry, who has worked with student-giving programs for more than a decade. Whichever happens, "It's going to be harder to get them to give as young alumni."

Costly Donations

Boosting young alumni giving was the reason Dartmouth remade its senior-gift campaign. Eight years ago, when Nariah Broadus was associate director of the Dartmouth College Fund, the fund-raising arm that oversees the senior gift, graduating seniors were being asked to make a pledge that they would pay off once they left the campus. But many of those pledges did not lead to donations. Ms. Broadus knew that most alumni who became big donors later in life had made gifts within a decade of graduating, and realized that if giving by young alumni stayed at the level it was at­, Dartmouth would become a college with far fewer resources.

"When they were all located in one central spot and were most receptive to the message, we weren't capitalizing on that," says Ms. Broadus, who has since taken a different job on campus.

Beginning with the Class of 2005, Dartmouth started a senior-gift drive that sought donations, not pledges. The drive tried to educate students about the effects of their charitable gifts and created scholarships for the next incoming class. It relied on students to collect cash and checks from their friends by saying things like, "I'm planning to stop by your room—how about I get the gift from you then?" More than 50 percent of seniors contributed that first year, a fivefold increase from the year before, according to a senior-class Web site.

This year's class-participation rate was 99.9 percent, surpassing the rate of all Dartmouth's recent classes. Four student interns, one of whom said they received stipends of about $1,500 each, began planning the campaign more than a year in advance. For the actual campaign, which lasted the month of May, they enlisted 71 campus leaders, twice as many as the previous class did. Each volunteer chose 10 to 15 friends and acquaintances to solicit donations from. They sent these friends messages about donating to the senior gift through BlitzMail, the internal messaging system used by Dartmouth. "Blitz is almost as personal as it gets," says Chelsea Kirk, a volunteer with the senior gift drive.

Olivia Stalcup, who was "blitzed" three times about the senior-class gift by a friend, felt that this peer-to-peer contact made her more comfortable donating money. Because it was someone she knew, "I never felt that I was solicited," she says.

Volunteers filmed a YouTube video where students throw cash and credit cards in the air and sing, in computer-modified voices, "Oh, tens, you know we've got it, show us your [expletive] wallet. It's the senior-class gift."

By the end of the month, only a handful of students hadn't given. That jeopardized a potential donation from the Class of 1960, which had promised to give $100,000 to the college if every graduating senior contributed. More students, like Ms. Kirk, joined the campaign as volunteers. "There was a huge push," she says, which included knocking on the doors of those who had not yet donated. The student interns who ran the drive encouraged volunteers to ask about a student's personal reasons for not giving but to accept no as a final answer.

With 24 hours left, there were, serendipitously, just 24 students who had not donated. One volunteer, an honors student in sociology, sent out a list of those students' names via BlitzMail that was passed along to many people.

Candais Crivello was on that list. A former fund raiser for Dartmouth's annual fund, she was surprised that some of the tactics her peers were using were different from those she had used to solicit alumni. Several of her acquaintances personally asked her to donate, with some even offering to give money in her name. One of the people who contacted her was not even in the senior class—she was on a sports team where a senior athlete had sent teammates a list of everyone who had not donated.

In the end, the lone holdout was Laura DeLorenzo, a physics and astronomy major. Her decision not to donate was criticized in The Dartmouth, the college newspaper, by Zachary Gottlieb, a former president of the Interfraternity Council. "You have symbolically shown the Class of 2014 that you do not consider their chance at happiness valuable," he wrote, not naming Ms. DeLorenzo. The day after his column ran, someone using the pseudonym Arnold Tungsten published Ms. DeLorenzo's name and photo on a popular Dartmouth student site, the Little Green Blog, along with his own sentiments about the matter: "You're not even worth the one measly dollar that you wouldn't give." Both writers were especially concerned that Dartmouth would lose the $100,000 gift from the Class of 1960.

Ms. DeLorenzo had been circulating a written explanation of her decision, which the Little Green Blog published. "My decision not to donate to Dartmouth reflects my personal conclusion that the negative aspects of Dartmouth outweigh the positive, and nothing more," she wrote, stressing that donating money was a personal choice. "I resent the pressure that was applied to me as an individual because the Class of 1960 promised an additional gift if the SCG reached 100-percent participation." (The Class of 1960 gave the $100,000 even though the senior class failed to meet its goal.)

Both posts drew lively comments, with many students and alumni supporting the gift drive. But some commenters anonymously questioned the sincerity of their own donations, saying things like, "Would I have given without the pressure? Probably not." Another comment said: "You have made it nearly the equivalent of a tax, so it no longer means very much."

A Panhellenic Push

Cornell's senior gift program unfolded in a similar way. In the final month of the yearlong campaign, the university's student volunteer in charge of sorority participation sent e-mails to at least one sorority whose participation percentage she felt was too low. "We ask that every senior join us," she wrote, and then she listed the names of students who had not yet given, which every member could see.

When only one person in the volunteer's own sorority, Erica Weitzner, did not give to the class campaign, she was repeatedly e-mailed and called. "It was approached as almost a necessary activity. It was kind of like somebody decided that all of the graduating seniors in the sorority needed to donate," Ms. Weitzner says.

Her sorority sisters who volunteered for the campaign twice called her cellphone from their cellphones to solicit donations, something all volunteers were encouraged to do with their friends who had not yet given. The four or five e-mails Ms. Weitzner says she received were at first generally addressed to her sorority, and then became aimed at her, saying that it was the volunteers' goal for everyone in the sorority to donate and that they knew that she had yet to do so. "I did not donate in the beginning," she says. "And the more I was approached by my sorority, the more I was turned off."

Student volunteers at Cornell said that both Mr. Earle, associate director of student programs who oversaw the class gift, and the drive's student directors encouraged them to solicit donations from students by telling them that they were among the only members of their Greek organization or sports team who had not yet given. Preferably, this e-mail would be sent by a volunteer who was also a member of the organization. University officials did little to watch over what those solicitations said.

Mr. Earle said in an interview that his office had trained volunteers to not make their peers feel uncomfortable, and that he had no knowledge of lists of students' names being sent beyond the circle of volunteers. The university had no plans to put any new restrictions on student fund-raising methods, he added.

Establishing a Habit of Giving

To inspire students to give, Cornell and Dartmouth officials told seniors that their class gifts were important philanthropic endeavors. Cornell even stated that senior gifts could help improve the college's ranking in U.S. News & World Report. But the giving programs bring in little money and actually have no effect on U.S. News rankings because the donors are not yet alumni.

Though matched by large alumni gifts, the $10,000 that seniors at Dartmouth donated to the class gift this spring would barely cover one year's housing and books for one student. The $80,000 donated by students at Cornell would cover two years' tuition for one student. The gift programs also have full-time staff members and a publicity budget.

Mr. Henry, the CASE expert on senior gifts, does not think it is important for a senior-class gift to make money. "The goal is not to raise money, but to begin a pattern of behavior," he says.

Dartmouth and Cornell declined to provide information on whether the recent increase in senior-class giving has led to a jump in donations once those students are young alumni. But Cornell and Dartmouth use their programs to cultivate the students who are most likely to be active as alumni.

To get students in the habit of giving, Mr. Henry recommends that colleges put together senior-gift programs that make students feel like they are making a serious donation to their institution. Colleges need to make sure students feel good about giving­—not pushed to make a "shoo gift," a donation given out of exasperation so the pestering stops.

The ideal senior appeal would be as professional as possible: Mr. Henry warned against letting student volunteers collect gifts in cash or take down credit-card numbers. This year, volunteers at Cornell collected credit-card information and cash; at Dartmouth they collected cash. Instead, he recommends that students make donations online only. As for fund-raising protocol, he suggests that volunteers and staff members be given a training manual that prohibits things like sending out lists of students who have not yet given. To ensure that students are not pressured to donate, 100-percent participation should never be the goal.

He suggests asking students to give $100, offering to pay a portion as seniors and paying off the rest over their first few years as graduates.

The best approach might be to focus on positive recognition in the biggest forum possible, he says: When a student walks across the stage in his or her cap and gown, the college could announce that the student had contributed to the senior-class gift. Says Mr. Henry: "That's serious recognition, not only for you, but for your parents sitting in the audience.

Tips on Attracting Donations From Soon-to-Be Alumni

Rob Henry, executive director of emerging constituencies at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, has worked with student gift programs for more than a decade. He ran fund-raising appeals at Michigan State University, the University of Connecticut, and the Yale School of Management, where he oversaw a tenfold increase in the amount donated by graduating students. Here are a few of his tips for administering a successful senior-class-gift program that will get students to keep giving as alumni:

  • Focus on education, not how much money you bring in: "Even if you go a little in the hole, it's a win-win," he says. The goal is to begin a pattern of behavior.
  • Take a professional approach, training volunteers with appropriate fund-raising techniques and requiring donors to make their gifts online.
  • Avoid 100-percent-participation goals to make sure that fund raisers don't put too much pressure on students to give.
  • Ask for larger, multiyear gifts—it's easier to ask young alumni for a donation that they've already pledged to make.
  • Positively recognize students who give, rather than publicizing the names of those who choose not to.

Editors' Note: The reporter, Rachel Louise Ensign, is a member of Cornell's Class of 2010. She was asked to donate and chose not to.