I attended two colleges. My undergraduate degree was earned at a university that is considered both private and public; it has a private charter and obtains a good portion of its funding from the private sector, but it does receive some state assistance and was a land-grant university. Years after completing my bachelor’s degree, I received my master’s degree from a for-profit university, and I’ve discussed my experience there in great detail on Consumerism Commentary.
Once my net worth was on its path towards growth every month, and particularly when my income through business ownership was beyond my expectations, I began thinking more seriously about my approach to charity. Outside of Consumerism Commentary, I’ve always been involved with arts and education, and that’s where I initially decided to focus most of my charitable attention.
Over the course of the growth of Consumerism Commentary as a business, I turned some of the site’s profit into charity on behalf of the business itself and towards goals that were in line with the business’s own mission. When DonorsChoose.org, a site that helps people raise money for educational projects, was new, I promoted a financial literacy challenge.
In following years, I organized a charitable matching program to raise money for various causes. Readers could contribute to any charity they like, and if they sent a receipt to me, I would match their contribution with one from Consumerism Commentary to a charity I selected each year. One year it was the World Food Programme, another year the choice was Médecins Sans Frontières, both in response to timely world events.
I worked for a non-profit arts education organization after graduating college, as faithful Consumerism Commentary readers may know, so I designated that organization as the recipient of some of my personal charitable contributions. With the help of Fidelity, I created a charitable gift fund which allowed me to make it easy to donate money to organizations whose missions I felt passionate about, including that non-profit and my undergraduate alma mater.
Offering charity to a university is a strange concept. Most colleges are not hurting for money. And when I recently read a short article by Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, I considered changing my entire approach. Matthew attended an elite private high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Harvard University. In his experience, higher education does not need any help from people like me — those earning a healthy living and having the opportunity to make occasional gifts to their colleges.
In 2012, Harvard University’s endowment fund totaled $30 billion. My $1,000, $10,000, or even $100,000, won’t make that much of a difference to that particular university in the grand scheme of things, and it’s understandable that Matthew Yglesias wants to bring this to the attention of would-be donors. My own undergraduate university has an endowment fund valued at just above $1 billion, which is still a healthy value.
But the way I made my relatively small contributions matter was by designation the funds to be used for something specific. This ensured that my money was not necessarily contributing to the excesses in administration or cosmetic changes to campus. With every donation, I targeted the growth of programs within my academic interests. Unlike Harvard or another elite university, I knew that the funds, small as they were, would go beyond the students from financially comfortable families and help those with a variety of financial conditions.
Of course, I do recognize that I’m not helping the impoverished when I donate anything to my university. Although my classmates came from diverse backgrounds, it’s not as diverse as a community college. And if I wanted to help those who most needed financial assistance, I’d need to stay away from secondary education completely.
The idea Matthew Yglesias offered, suggesting charitable money would be better spent by giving it to a “homeless person on the street,” is out of the question — there’s no guarantee that any particular homeless person would be able to use random donations to improve his or her situation. At least with the donation to my university, I’m confident that the money I offered must be used towards my designation — that’s a legal requirement.
Tomorrow, I will be having lunch with a director of development from my undergraduate alma mater. We plan to discuss the options for a larger charitable contribution, although I’m still waiting to hear back from my tax accountant who will answer some questions about tax effectiveness. With the changes to my income situation over the past few years and moving forward, I want to make sure that I make the best choices from a tax perspective in terms of timing.
Through the meeting with the director of development, I hope to gain a better understanding of my choices for giving and how I can make an impact both on my areas of passion, as diverse as they are, and my desire to benefit students who might not have certain opportunities available to them because of financial need. Despite my disagreement with the article published in Slate, it raised a few concerns that I want to address with my charitable plan.
Do you donate money to your university?
Published or updated December 16, 2013.