Sunday, October 31, 2010

Encouraging Developments

In the past week, I had the great fortune to be in Gainesville, Florida and Alva, Oklahoma. In both places, I met with accomplished professionals working to strengthen the foundations of philanthropy.

At the University of Florida, a dedicated advancement team is promoting community through a campaign of words and deeds that lift up the joys of being a part of the “Gator nation.” If you get a chance, take a look at their halftime spot. It celebrates how the wearing of UF brand allows Gators of all generations to recognize one another, to exchange friendly words or share campus experiences when their paths cross in their day-to-day activities or their worldwide travels. It reminds them they are not only graduates of a prominent university but members of a cohesive, caring community -- for all their lives. It’s a very wise approach and stands apart from many university spots that say, in effect, “Look at us! Isn’t what we’re doing on campus great?” These spots typically speak to the exemplary research being done by faculty or the remarkable achievements of students. While the spotlighted feats are laudable, the spots come across as boasts designed to impress viewers with campus goings-on. The University of Florida campaign, in contrast doesn’t say, “Here’s why some of you should be impressed with what some of us are doing.” It says, “Here’s what we have in common; here are the joys and benefits of community that bring us together across time and space.” The latter is far more powerful than the former. And the understanding the distinction is important. At the heart of American philanthropy is a spirit of “we the people” working together to create more perfect unions.

In Oklahoma, I learned the citizens of Alva had voted for increase in the sales tax to provide scholarships for the students of Northwestern Oklahoma State University (NWOSU). There is a wonderful symbiosis between the campus and the citizens of Alva, a sense of shared interest and enterprise. The leaders of NWOSU, meanwhile, have worked hard to contain costs and deliver long-term value. As a result, the graduates of NWOSU enjoy the second lowest student debt burden in the country. The low debt loads allow their graduates to invest more in building families and careers, and when their alma mater calls on them for support, to be more receptive to the message and more generous in their response. I applaud the administration of NWOSU for understanding that the greatest form of financial aid for the largest number of students is low tuition. And, when cost are carefully managed, tuition can be kept to more affordable levels for more families, the vast majority of whom have not seen their earning power increase in recent years. Moreover, low tuition magnifies the impact of any and all financial aid and scholarships. What might not look like a large scholarship to a student at an Ivy League school can greatly alleviate the modest cost of going to school in Alva, Oklahoma.

Being “out there,” visiting various campuses, and meeting with leaders of “on-the-ground” non profits provides me with no end of encouragement. They are building communities of support and delivering real value. Their investors have and will see a great financial and emotional return on their philanthropic investment.

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