Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Long Look at Philanthropy (Part I)

I read recently about a successful Swedish bank that, unlike many of its competitors, had not gotten caught up in the mortgage mania and extended too much credit to too many unqualified borrowers. The article attributed the Swedish bank’s rare success to the fact that it was family-run and, therefore, able to avoid share-holder pressures to produce short-term profits by taking a much longer and more sanguine view of the business. Philanthropy-seeking organizations could take a lesson from this example.

We have a tendency to emphasize short-term fund-raising results at the expense of long-term potential, if not the soul of philanthropy itself. Strong words, I know, but let’s take a look at some facts and ask ourselves if we all don’t stand to gain by taking a longer, broader view of the dynamics of philanthropy. Let’s use higher education as a case in point.

The making and shaping of a higher education alumni supporter is a 50-year process. It begins when student first steps foot on campus and culminates 50 years later when that former student makes an irrevocable decision about the disposition of his or her estate. The most crucial part of that span, in terms of making the future philanthropist, is the undergraduate years. The actions taken by colleges and universities during those years will either predispose students to give back for the rest of their lives, or not. Yes, providing a wonderful education is of enormous importance but not sufficient in and of itself. These institutions must create not just a caring culture but one that makes as many students as possible feel as if they “belong” and as if they are being thoughtfully “coached” to achieve their full potential. Good coaching involves good teaching but is much more. It is a way of analyzing individual strengths and weakness, of strengthening the former and mitigating the latter, of finding the best ways to test those talents, of giving students the chance to strive, fail, learn and strive anew with the right amounts of challenge and encouragement along the way. Such cultures are the result of careful design and the deep commitment of many faculty and staff members. They cannot arise out of the classroom experience alone but through a combination of curricular and extra-curricular offerings (student activities, internships, sports, service organizations, study abroad opportunities, etc.). Such a culture creates deep bonds that, with a modest amount of institutional reinforcement, persist over a lifetime. And, yet, all that may still not be enough. The example and power of philanthropy must be held up if it is to be emulated.

So, yes, I believe that colleges and university leaders must inculcate philanthropic responsibility during the undergraduate years. This can be initiated in a rite of passage such as a thoughtfully crafted freshman convocation in which students are told that the quality of their education and campus life has been immensely enriched by philanthropists who gave their time, talent and treasure so that successive generations of students might better realize their potential. Students should be told that they are the beneficiary of many gifts and to look for signs of them across the campus and throughout their undergraduate years. They should be told that none of us fully come of age if we believe that those gifts were only for us in our time. They should be challenged to think about how they can use those gifts for the betterment of others and then pass them on to future generations in such a way that they are of equal or greater value.

I also believe that letters and ceremonies that announce the awarding of scholarships should address the moral obligation that attends their receipt. Recipients should be told, in effect, “This scholarship has been made available to you through the generosity of a forward-looking benefactor who has given a portion of the fruits of his or her labor so that you might pursue your full potential. We know that you will do the same for the successive generations of students when you achieve the ability to do so.” This kind of inspiration and direction begins to point young people in the right direction, but even more can be done.

Some colleges and universities try to promote the spirit of philanthropy by asking students to give to a class project, annual fund or campus priority. The emphasis is usually on the students’ rate of participation rather than the size of the gifts. This can be wise if it is part of a larger plan but philanthropy is not taught by making the student the object of fund raising appeals. Indeed, repeated asking without a clear and compelling case for how the money is to be used, and with a tone of expectation or entitlement, can cause some to see philanthropy as a euphemism for clubby coercion.

The best of all ways to point students toward a philanthropic life, I believe, is to treat them as institutional stakeholders. Yes, rites of passage, the inculcation of moral obligation, and active participation in civic and philanthropic activities are of great importance but they do not necessarily invite full participation in the life of the institution. That is only achieved when students are treated like all other significant stakeholders and investors. Just as wise parents use the dinner table or family meetings to educate their children about managing the family budget or to talk about the realization of family plans, enlightened leaders of institutions of higher learning should keep students fully informed, and allow them to engage in substantive discussions about institution’s aspirations and struggles. For instance, the presidents of many colleges and universities have done an excellent job of keeping faculty, staff, alumni and parents informed about the impact of the current deepening recession. These presidents have conducted town hall meetings on campus and in strategic locations across the country to keep the confidence of their key constituents. Some have called emergency meetings of the governing board, faculty senate and other important deliberative bodies or issued a series of candid communiqu├ęs to their extended alumni community.

But, as laudable as all that is, how often have those same leaders reached out to their own students with the same sense of urgency and accountability? Is it not odd and ironic that town hall meetings would be held for every critical constituency except students? Is it not curious that a graduating senior might be seen by campus communicators as a secondary target while a recently graduated alumni would be seen as primary? Should we not do everything we can to deepen students’ understanding of the place, including its greatest struggles and most exciting opportunities, while they are still on campus and so readily within our reach? Failure to make the most of the students’ time on campus consigns us to employing more expensive strategies to make them feel like stakeholders after they are gone. Would not young alumni be more receptive to addresses and requests from the president, whether in person or in writing, had they been grounded in the critical issues facing the campus while they were still students? Would they not be more apt to personally empathize with the president’s challenges or respond to the president’s vision if they had become more familiar with the person while on campus?

Indeed, the institution that does the best job of treating the student as stakeholder lays the strongest foundation for future philanthropy and cost-efficient fund raising. In my next blog post, I will explore the next most important period in the development of future philanthropists – the first five years after graduation.

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