Lack of student choice in class gift breeds controversy

By Matea Wasend

Graduating senior classes have long had opportunity to leave a mark on the school even after they leave campus through the tradition of the senior gift. Past classes have been given the chance to vote on what they would most like their money to fund-many well-known features of campus, like the swing set and the wind turbine, were installed with senior gift money. This year, however, the decision that the senior gift would go towards the Annual Fund was made without surveying students. This senior gift mimics last year’s, which was also a contribution to the Annual Fund. Last year’s seniors were surveyed and chose the Annual Fund as one of the campus causes they would most like to support. They raised $34,000 and set a participation record of 54 percent.

This year, the Advancement office mandated that the Senior Class Gift Committee direct senior contributions toward the same fund without collecting input from the entire senior class, citing the success of last year’s gift and the need for an “unrestricted budget” in the economic recession.

The decision to put senior contributions toward the Annual Fund without surveying seniors prompted some discontent among seniors, said member of the Senior Class Gift Committee Sarah Prentice-Mott ’10. A recent editoral in The Mac Weekly criticized the decision not to administer a survey, lamenting that the process of choosing the gift should be “transparent and accessible to all students.”

The Senior Class Gift Committee is open to anyone to apply to join in the fall of their senior year, although many students probably missed the invitations in the mass of recruitment emails and Daily Piper notifications they have accrued over four years. Seniors working in the Annual Fund office are specifically singled out to participate, as well as students who are nominated by administration, faculty and senior staff.

The committee is responsible for choosing the senior gift in the fall, and then serves as the main branch of outreach to encourage seniors to donate.

Helena Swanson-Nystrom ’10 joined the committee because of her work in the Annual Fund office, where her job is to call alumni and ask them to contribute.

“I’ve talked to a lot of alums who don’t understand why we are calling to give to the annual fund,” Swanson-Nystrom said. “I saw this as an opportunity to explain why philanthropy is so important.”

The recent editorial also criticized the decision to donate to the Annual Fund, saying it denies the senior class their “chance to make a distinct mark on the college.”

In the past few years, senior classes have moved from fundraising to install physical objects-like a condom dispenser, the class of 1989’s gift-to raising money to support departments and funds. Recent senior gifts have included contributions to the Sustainability Fund, the Lealtad-Suzuki Scholarship, and even the formation of the Class of 2006 Endowed Scholarship, which the seniors raised $52,000 to create. (The minimum amount necessary to endow a scholarship was recently increased to $100,000.)

A gift to the Annual Fund is certainly less visible, and perhaps less focused, than installing a wind turbine or even endowing a scholarship. Because the Annual Fund is used to pay for so many things, it is impossible to track exactly what effects individual donations have. Even the $32,000 donation that the class of 2008 made to the Sustainability Office was very visible, as the money was used to hire the current sustainability director.

“The main criticism we hear is that people would like to see some note of [the contribution to the Annual Fund],” Associate Director of the Annual Fund Paul Odegaard said. “We’re trying to figure out a more thoughtful donor recognition piece.”

Soham Banerji ’10, another member of the Senior Class Gift Committee, emphasized that the Annual Fund is crucial to Macalester’s ability to cover costs. The fund, which is comprised completely of donations, takes care of about 5 percent of the college’s operating budget every year-providing money for things like financial aid, faculty and staff support and facilities.

“Even if we had a majority agreement on a different gift, that still leaves 40 plus percent of the class with the prospect of giving to a gift that they feel doesn’t represent them,” Prentice-Mott said. “What if Economics and Political Science majors got together and voted to fund an improvement to Carnegie? All those seniors who never set foot in the building are left out because they’re a smaller group.”

Associate Director of the Annual Fund Odegaard openly described this year’s gift as a “philanthropic teaching tool,” a way to show seniors the benefits of contributing in the hope that they will donate in the future. While cynics might criticize this seemingly money-oriented motivation, Odegaard reminded students that an institution like Macalester is very expensive to maintain.

“Have you had a good experience at Macalester?” Odegaard asked. “Did Macalester deliver? If you tell me your most memorable experience at Mac, I can show you how Annual Fund dollars supported it directly.”

“It’s not like we can force anyone into becoming a future donor,” Prentice-Mott said. “What this is about is educating the senior class so that they know all the facts before they make their choice whether to donate to the college in the future or not.”

Odegaard emphasized that high participation, rather than dollars raised, is the most important goal of the senior gift. Participation has slowly risen in past years, climbing from 35 percent in 2005 to more than 50 percent in the last two years.

The committee hopes to set another participation record this year-a feat that would mean a donation of any size from at least 259 seniors. Meeting this goal means that the committee has to find a way to convince seniors to give even a little bit, a challenging task when the typical response to being asked to donate is, “I’ve already paid to go here for four years!”

Banerji explained his own motivation to give back to Macalester.

“It is an avenue for me to show my appreciation for the extraordinary faculty and staff and for all the wonderful experiences and opportunities that I’ve had at Macalester,” Banerji said. “My trips to Greece to study Hellenistic ruins on an archaeological dig, or to do my field research in Bangladesh to understand the complexities of economic development and microfinance would not have been possible without Macalester’s help.