As with many of our society's institutions, charities have increased in their complexity and sophistication over the past few decades in response to better research and new approaches to donor engagement. One needs only to look at the most recent scandal of Kony2012 to understand the very different environment we live in for those who wish to do well (for an excellent take down of the Kony2012 campaign, see Stanford Alumnus Michael Wilkerson's piece at Foreign Policy). Indeed, there is now a whole cottage industry that has developed to bring some measure of transparency to charitable giving (for instance, my friend Alex works at one organization called GiveWell, but others exist like Charity Navigator).
This continual transformation of charities is the backdrop for my fears related to the most recent push to donate to Stanford. I have previously written at Fiat Lux about my concern that the Senior Gift campaign wasn't sustainable, since one-off funds are not all that useful in the context of higher education financing. Now, there is a new push to donate again to the Stanford Fund [purposeful lowercase of the "the" intended] in a battle of the classes format to see which class can get to 100 donors fastest.
Why am I fearful of donating? Because I am worried that by doing so, I am merely encouraging the sort of cynicism-producing activities that made me fearful in the first place.
Let me illustrate the different facets of my concern. When I was attending Stanford and participating in activities, we used to write thank you letters to donors. Makes sense. But these letters weren't allowed to just be custom written, or "from the heart." Instead, they had to match the Development Office's very specific guidelines on what the letter had to include (including a final line that encourages further donations). I wrote these letters because it secured the financing I needed, but it increased my cynicism about the underlying mission of my world-class education institution.
Now, I myself receive these letters. I have so far received two letters from Stanford students thanking me for my Senior Gift. I have also received three voice mail messages from other students who are obsequious in their praise of my financial sacrifice. I know they are not sincere - I was in their position once, and I know that they are required to sit there and make these calls for an agreed number of hours. And really, I donated $20.11 like most others in my senior class - how much impact did that money really have? We are talking about $4.022 per student here.
That's the cynical part. The sophisticated part is the constant barrage of phone calls I receive to donate more money. My home phone and my mother's cell phone generally get a call from Stanford every 48 hours. We also get postcards once or twice a month. All this attention for $20.11! I understand that research shows quite convincingly that getting me to donate regularly is important to increasing my level of donations. Yet, that doesn't exactly improve my level of cynicism.
I want the calls to stop, I want the postcards to stop, I want the fake letters to stop. Here is what I want: I want to donate to something specific on an on-going basis. Instead of just "Donate to The Stanford Fund," tell me a short story that might make me interested. Tell me that a student group needs money for traveling to a national tournament, or that there is a new scholarship fund for financial aid, or a new relaxation room in Old Union. *Inspire me to donate rather than making it a chore! *Connect me to some need that I am passionate about, and I will not only increase the frequency of my donations, but their significance as well.
I want to make my school better, and I want to promote things that I care deeply about. But the Development Office is turning me off with their maximum engagement approach. There are better ways to approach this problem that will increase my engagement (and my money). And don't call at 6:30pm - that's my mother's dinner time, and she is never, ever going to pick up that phone.
Posted on March 07, 2012