On philanthropy: why must no good deed go unpunished?

cowgirlguitardoremiThis is a brief coda to the previous post, in which several commenters noted that they support selective special causes on their campuses.  I have in fact done this too–for example there’s a “school is cool”  program coordinated through Baa Ram U. I’ve supported in the past, which provides local needy schoolchildren with new backpacks loaded with the necessary supplies.  I’ve also donated to several memorial funds and fellowships coordinated through other universities, but have been frustrated by the ongoing begging that goes on for years and years, meaning that the University of Whatever Foundation ends up spending at least the amount of my donation on paper and postage.

For example:  In 2003, I made a one-time donation to the University of Colorado for a scholarship in honor of the late Jackson Turner Main, an emeritus professor there, and the University of Colorado Foundation still sends me invitations and solicitations.  Eleven years later!  It leads me to ask:  who did I kill to deserve this?

Why can’t I make a one-time donation in honor of a deceased colleague or to support a scholarship without being continually hounded until someone sets up a scholarship in my memory?  Jesus wept.  Can’t I just check a box on my contribution form saying “upon pain of forfeiting my donation, never contact me again?”  If not that, then you “development” people should get your act together the way that people deal with their Christmas card lists:  two or three years of no reciprocation, and we’re off your damn list?

I’d be much more inclined to open my wallet if I knew I’d be left the hell alone after the thank-you note and tax receipt.  And I’d probably stop writing all of these cranky blog posts, too!  Now stuff that in your guitar and play me a tune.

10 thoughts on “On philanthropy: why must no good deed go unpunished?

  1. There was something on this theme on the back page of the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ a few weeks ago. I’ve gotten thank you notes that morph directly into requests for more donations. In their defense–or not really in their defense, but just acknowledging what the state-of-the-art is in fundraising now (not that I’m not just making this up, as I’m only inferring)–I think it’s a cardinal rule among consultants that the only people out there who have a high likelihood of donating anything are those who have already done so. On the paper-and-postage part, yeah. I even walk some donations in because in because it’s painful to see the first $.42 of my tiny gifts melt off in the postage paid return envelope. So then to get quick follow-ups with requests for another round is even more painful.


  2. A well-run fundraising shop should do what you are suggesting – it ought not repeatedly solicit donors who have given to specific, probably one-time causes. Alas, they aren’t all well-run.


  3. Oh, I feel your pain. I gave to support a conference that used to be held at the University of Maryland, run by their Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies, which has since been closed. I still get their alumni magazine!


  4. When I was chair in the midwest, my department had a “foundation” account which was enormously useful. We could use it for food and drinks when we took job candidates out, etc. (Why is “hospitality” always the hardest thing to pay for?) Anyhow, I gave money to it every year, because it made my life easier. I was going to spend the green no matter what, and this way, I got a nice tax deduction.


    Because it was earmarked for my department, I was never approached for anything else. They must have me pegged as a single-issue donor.

    As opposed to my undergraduate institution, which has found me every year for mailings and emails and phone calls, despite multiple moves. My most popular correspondent! 15 years and counting.


  5. I used to run mail campaigns to alumni of my department in the states. What Indyanna writes is true, but it is also true that more contacts you make, the more replies you get. Solicitation was only half of our outreach though. We also sent an annual newsletter that did not include an appeal, invited alumni to special events in the department, shared “where they are now” information about graduates, told the stories of interesting professional events, and so on. We viewed it as very much a community activity. This approach was successful for fundraising, I think, because our alumni felt included, involved, and part of the network.

    We did our best to get people off the list who wanted to be off the list–but the official university alumni association (in the university foundation) would add them back in. We did not have a uniformly sympathetic relationship with those folks. We also hand-culled addresses in order to fix problems the foundation folks inserted. This saved us money on mailings (as Historiann suggests) and helped avoid annoying people but it was labor intensive and thus cost us wages.

    I don’t think large scale fundraisers care about wasting money on mailings or annoying the small fry. They make their numbers in the aggregate. All they need is one big catch to make your grievance irrelevant.


  6. Once retired, I’ll send a certain amount of money every month to my current employer (university). Donating now might change the attitudes of the higher ups towards me. Not interested.

    Already donating to the U of Cal where I did my work. They need it, I benefited from being there and I can afford it. Gets me free parking on campus.

    Other than that, I donate to social, environmental and human right organization in the US and my homeland. That’s the minimum I can do.

    Muslims donate about 10% of their income. It’s a good ball park figure.


  7. A huge issue. My partner’s mother, age 79 and generous, recently announced that she will not give one more bent penny to charity again until she dies. Her USPS mailbox averages about six solicitations a day. Donating money “only encourages them,” she said. I too am thinking of focusing my charity on bequests in a will, rather than the live kind. Are professional fundraisers listening? Don’t think so.


  8. I’m an academic married to a non-profit development person. The days of mass mailings to everyone who ever donated are coming to an end, it costs too much money and manpower to do so. Targeted marketing has come to fundraising and seems to be here to stay. Universities are usually the last ones on the bandwagon so it might take a while for all that junk mail to disappear.


  9. Oh, thank Dog. As usual, “Universities are . . . the last ones on the bandwagon.”

    No one believes me when I say that universities are quintessentially conservative institutions. This is sometimes a strength, but it’s also a weakness in institutional culture. This is just another data point proving me right.


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