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Is Your Alma Mater a Worthwhile Charity?

This article was written by in Charity. 5 comments.


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. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Juggler314

I donate money to my High School. I did go to a pretty well known one (Bronx Science) but it’s endowment is not anywhere near the size of university endowments. (Stuyvesant – another well known NYC public high school, has, apparently, much wealthier alumni – we do have Jon Favreau though:).

It does hit the same vein though, there are certainly *poorer* schools and charities I could give to as well. I always donate to a few different charities though. Most importantly I fondly recall my time at high school, while I don’t give much of a shit about my college (I mean most of my current friends are from my college days, but the school itself…not worthy of donations).

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avatar Babette

Putting aside hugely endowed Universities like Harvard, many smaller schools and other non profits, for that matter, need to show support from their alumni or the public when they apply for grants. i.e., a school that can show support from 90% of its graduates looks a lot better to foundations than one with small alumni support. The dollar amount is not as important as the number of individuals who care about the school.

My undergrad work was at the University of Chicago, which is pretty well endowed, but when I do make donations, I specify that I want the money to go to undergrad scholarships. The cost of college to individuals is horrific these days. I frankly give more of my donations to U/Cal Berkeley School of Public Health, where I got my graduate degree, because I had a full scholarship and like to give back in some way. I still allocate my gifts to student scholarships,.

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avatar Valerie Rind

I attended a ‘prestigious’ private university that is an absolute money-making juggernaut. My little donations are not even a drop in their ocean of endowment. Every year (many times a year, actually) they come back prospecting for more. But I don’t see it as a question of whether they NEED the money. The education gave me a start in life, a name that (I’m not ashamed to say) opens some doors, and the chance to meet the people who are my best friends to this day. It makes sense to me to give back.

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦90 (Newbie)

I send money to the scholarship fund at North Seattle Community College, which got me back into higher education (in fact, I received a $700 grant for my final quarter there and that helped a great deal).
I also send money to my department (Comparative History of Ideas) at the University of Washington. It’s designated for the discretionary fund, which is a pretty broad category but which I think has the best chance of helping students directly.
Both those places actually do need the money, I think. Once my financial situation improves a bit I need to start sending money to the private foundation that paid for my three-year scholarship to UW. That one definitely goes straight to students: A couple of hundred full-ride scholarships are given away every year.

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avatar Chuck @ Tortoise Banker

Most of our family’s charitable donations go to our church, but lately I’ve been getting lots of calls from Chapman University, our alma mater. I think I may have to send them some $ to reward their persistence!

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