We need to talk about the relentless machine that is higher-education fundraising

[Image description: A bronze statue of a man sitting down with an open book on his right knee. The statue is on a pedestal with the inscription “John Harvard.” Image by pvdberg on Pixabay]

Every month or so, I get an appeal letter from my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis (Go Bears!), usually with a promise of some socks or a keychain if I contribute any amount. I love Wash U. It was some of the best and most formative years of my life. It was there that I discovered the power of activism. I was vegan, and the campus had little more than salads, so I started mobilizing the other plant-eaters. We marched on the administration. Many of us fainted on the way because we didn’t have much energy, and our fake-leather shoes disintegrated. It was the longest 50 yard of our lives. But at the end, we were triumphant, and we feasted upon soy nuggets and quinoa bowls with pride. I will always be grateful for what I learned at Wash U, the friends I made, the experiences I had, and the doors that being an alum has opened for me.

But I’m not donating. Wash U is one of the most well-endowed higher education institutions in the US, with over 15 billions in reserve.

In general, the sheer scope and scale of higher education fundraising departments would make the vast majority of nonprofits’ development work pale in comparison. At a large university, we could be talking about a team of hundreds of people raising hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Higher ed institutions, especially elite ones, are so effective at pulling in money that they’re like supermassive stars whose gravity saps resources that could be used for more pressing purposes, while simultaneously reinforcing terrible philosophies and exacerbating societal challenges. How fundraising is done at these institutions, just like how it’s done at hospitals and other large nonprofits, affects the entire sector.

Which is why it has been heartening to see some higher education development professionals having conversations about how to fundraise differently. As fundraising in our sector evolves, spurred on by movements like Community-Centric Fundraising, philosophies and practices long held by the biggest players need to adapt as well. If you are a fundraiser working within higher education, I hope you will consider these things:

1.Stop reinforcing money as the primary goal of fundraising: Higher ed institutions often have annual fundraising goals in the hundreds of millions, sums that are unfathomable for many of us. Large elite institutions like Harvard use their name and reputation to become massive fundraising machines. And yet many universities still struggle with lack of diversity among staff, gender wage and leadership disparities, horrific poverty wages for adjunct staff, worsening mental health of students, and other problems. What is the point of raising hundreds of millions of dollars if these funds don’t necessarily correlate with making things better and more equitable? How fundraising is being done, how the money is being invested and deployed, and whom it is affecting, is just as vital, if not more vital, than the total amount being raised.

2.Mitigate fundraising practices that are reinforcing white patriarchal norms: The fundraising practices you use have ripples and consequences. For instance, major donors often enjoy perks such as the gross practice of legacy enrollment, further perpetuating the cycle of wealth and power being concentrated within white families. Another practice, one that happens more frequently at higher education institutions than anywhere else, is the naming of buildings after major donors. But donors of the size that would warrant their name on a building are mostly white men. And given the history of racial, gender, and other forms of inequity in the US that is tied to wealth in this country, do we really want more veneration of wealthy white men?

3.Understand the impact you have on other orgs in the ecosystem: Wealthy alums will leave millions of dollars to their elite alma maters, and we fundraisers (and society in general) encourage and celebrate these donations without much thought or analysis about who else might be affected. Community colleges, for example, are absolutely vital, and yet do not receive nearly the same level of support in public funds or private donations. Donors would have so much more impact if they donated money to community colleges instead of to their already wealthy alma maters, but that is not how higher ed fundraisers (or any fundraisers) have been trained to fundraise. We must think beyond our own organization/institution’s individual well-being and start considering what is best for the community.

4.Get out of the idea that higher education institutions are neutral: There is the idea that colleges and universities are simply politically neutral places, and thus fundraising is also neutral. But some of the worst people on earth actually come from some of the most prestigious schools. Their pedigrees are used to gain power, which they then use to undermine democracy and roll back human rights. Fundraisers at these institutions must understand the role they play. Without thoughtful analysis, you may be unwittingly helping to strengthen inequity and injustice.  

5.Take a stand when it comes to important issues: After abortion rights were overturned, Wash U School of Medicine, one of the most prestigious and well-respected in the world, released the most ho-hum, white-moderate, let’s-all-avoid-politics-and-get-along statements ever written. It was disappointing to many of us in the wider Wash U community, and I bet many alums have reconsidered donating. We need to know that our schools are willing to speak up on important issues and willing to take risks when it helps to further justice. As with higher education institutions themselves, fundraisers at these places can also no longer be neutral.

6.Get your institution to be thoughtful where it invests its endowments: Many universities are divesting from fossil fuels. This means they won’t invest their endowments in oil and gas and similar assets. Here’s a list of institutions that have committed to divestment. This is great. But there is lots of work to be done, as there are way more schools that have not made this commitment. And there are other investments that are problematic though they don’t involve fossil fuels. In addition to raising money, equity in fundraising requires fundraisers to consider what is being done with the money raised, and whether it is worsening problems in society.

7.Be aware of and mitigate donors who use donations for horrible means. Right-wing donors have for decades weaponized donations to universities to spread their political ideologies. Here’s an example of that. Current fundraising practices help to enable these donors. After all, if your primary goal is to raise as much money as possible in order to reach your annual target, and your entire team is pressured to do this, it allows plenty of opportunities for shady donors to do nefarious things. Again, fundraisers need to consider not just how much money they’re raising, but whether the way they’re doing it enables the furthering of injustice.

8.Budget equitably when you partner with other nonprofits: It is infuriating when large organizations raise a ton of money but then ask much smaller nonprofits to educate their students for free through volunteer opportunities, practicums, “interview a community leader”-type assignments, etc. Ironically, it is always the more well-funded schools with large fundraising machines that are guilty of this, rather than smaller institutions like community colleges. The nonprofits you partner with use a lot of time and resources to help your students. Ensure you budget to compensate these organizations accordingly.

I’ll stop here. Fundraising is evolving in our sector, and some of the biggest fundraising machines, higher education institutions, especially “elite” ones, must be more aware and thoughtful of how they fundraise. The colleagues at these places who are wrestling with these questions, thank you. I see and appreciate you. Keep up the fight. I know how challenging it can be to push against the machine.

For folks who are considering giving to their alma maters, stop to think whether your institution really needs that money, whether it is aligned with values of equity and justice, and whether an amazing community college could use your donation more.

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