Donations to the college: Alumni, philanthropy funds and defense contractors

Michael Conlin-Elsen, Feature Reporter

There was great applause when the Board of Trustees voted in 2018 to divest the college from the fossil fuel industry following years of student activist pressure. This issue brought attention to Whitman’s investments and endowment more generally — topics which The Wire has also covered recently. However, two years later the school has not begun the process in any significant measure

Though the issue of where Whitman decides to invest has received significant attention, the question of who invests in Whitman (and why) has not. 

Generous alumni — for example John W. Stanton, for whom Stanton Hall is named — have helped Whitman retain a position of financial security through the years. In the 2018-2019 financial year, the majority of donations came from parents and alumni: about $9.2 million, 87% of the approximate $10.5 million given in total. Alumni generally donate because their positive experiences at Whitman have resonated so deeply, allowing them to form lifelong friendships and lasting memories. 

“I think Whitman is an incredibly great school and I had a wonderful time there, but it really is about the people and enduring friendships that I made with other students,” said Dick Fike ‘54 in an interview on pg. 33 of the 2018 Annual Report of Gifts.

Fike is a great example of someone who, through the years, has felt compelled on a personal level to volunteer both his funds and actual labor to help organize events and activities related to class reunions and fundraising. If Whitman is to continue to be financially and institutionally sound, it certainly needs the continued support of alumni like Fike who understand the genuine promise of a liberal arts campus as a space for developing friendship and meaning.

The remaining 13% of donations come from a combination of different sources: friends, foundations and corporations/consortia/organizations. 

Friends, as per pg. 55 of the 2019 Annual Report of Gifts, include “faculty, staff, spouses of alumni and other[s].” A list of those who donated a sum less than $1,000 can be seen on the same page — and this list includes many well-known and admired members of the Whitman community from the aforementioned categories. 

Now, on pg. 25 of the 2019 Gift Report is where you will find members of the President’s Gift Societies. These donors, according to the magazine, “make annual leadership gifts that sustain the college and its programs.” Gifts from donors in the President’s Gift Societies range from $1,000 to over $25,000.

Many of these donors are alumni and associated friends of the college, but the President’s Gift Societies also maintain the membership of various foundations, corporations, consortia, and organizations. 

Out of all the money donated to Whitman, only about 5% comes from these categories, totaling $587,639 in 2019. However, the organizations that contribute this small sum of money bear recognizable names: Microsoft, Boeing and Google.

Many President’s Gift Society donations also come from philanthropic funds associated with well-known corporations and people. Some examples from the 2019 Annual Report of Gifts: Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund, Hearst Foundations, National Philanthropic Trust, Schwab Charitable Fund, Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bank of America Foundation, Eli Lilly & Company Foundation, Morgan Stanley GIFT Inc. and the Wells Fargo Foundation. 

Several of these are “donor-advised funds” — a particular kind of philanthropic venture which accumulates funds from a variety of donors. These donors then advise the operators of the fund on where to direct the money. For those engaged in philanthropy, giving through a DAF has the primary advantage of being tax-deductible. Without DAFs, donors would have to pay a significant tax on their gifts. 

The Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund came into the media spotlight in 2018, when a Bloomberg article drew attention to a public records mistake by the IRS which accidentally revealed the fund’s three largest donors: Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO who contributed $1.9 billion, Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Steve Jobs) at $526 million and Jan Koum, creator of WhatsApp, at $114 million. All three of them are multibillionaires — and Steve Ballmer, according to Bloomberg, is the 10th richest person in the world with a net worth of $73.4 billion dollars.

The Bloomberg article, written by journalist Tom Metcalf, offers insight about DAFs usually unavailable to the public.

“The slip-up sheds light on the money flowing into one of America’s most prominent donor-advised funds, or DAFs, whose popularity is reshaping the world of philanthropy,” Metcalf writes. “Goldman’s fund is the fastest growing charity in the U.S., after raising $3.2 billion in 2016 — five times the previous year’s level. Such funds provide flexibility and anonymity to wealthy people who want to keep their charitable giving private and offer clients tax benefits.”

Steve Ballmer, the richest documented contributor to the Goldman Sachs DAF, is noted for his interest in shaping the future of education in the United States. A 2019 Education Week article by Benjamin Herold mentions a $59 million donation made by the Ballmer Group to Social Solutions Global, a for-profit software company that partners with K-12 public schools to compile incredibly detailed behavioral and test-based data about students for evaluative purposes. There have been many privacy concerns raised about these types of programs, which essentially surveil students on the basis of managing educational outcomes.

Many corporations donate in their own names as well — Microsoft, Boeing and Google are some of the prominent names mentioned earlier. Another one of those corporations is Valbin Corporation. Valbin is in the “Founders’ Society” tier of the President’s Gift Societies, which means that it gives somewhere between $5,000 and $9,999 annually. 

Readers might also recognize Valbin Corporation as one of the twelve employers recruiting at the Virtual Career and Internship Fair hosted by the Student Engagement Center on Oct. 21 this year. Valbin, according to its website, is “dedicated to delivering superior linguistic, analytical and cultural services to the diplomatic, defense, intelligence, and business sectors as well as corporate, private sector and business entities.” Valbin has contracted with such reputable organizations as the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense, to name only a few.

When it comes to donations and donors, it is also worth asking how gifts are restricted by donors to certain programs or departments in the college. Information of this type is inaccessible to the public. On Monday, Oct. 26, The Wire reached out to Whitman CFO Peter Harvey with several questions on this topic. The Wire received these answers on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2020 — on account of this timing we can only present them to you as such.


Q: When President’s Gift Societies donors make donations, are there stipulations about where exactly the money will be going in terms of program/department funding? If so, where might there be information available about which particular donors are putting money towards which particular programs and departments?

A: Any donor can put a restriction on how a gift can be used. Whitman has to approve that restriction. We would not accept a gift to support a nursing program, for example, because it would not fit our liberal arts mission. The majority of gift society donors make their gifts unrestricted to support whatever the college determines as the greatest need. These gifts generally go to support financial aid. We do report named endowments, which were funded by gifts of $50,000 or more. Those endowments are listed in the back of the annual report. We do not report every individual gift and their purpose because there are just too many of them to include. Instead, we list the names of donors by class years. We list them by class year because alumni like to see their classmates’ names. Many alumni like the credit of being listed as a donor but don’t want the specific amount of their gifts made public. 

Q: What percentage of Whitman’s revenue comes from state and federal funding? How has this changed over the past 20-30 years?

A: Whitman’s budget typically receives about $330,000 directly from the federal government, or less than 1% of the total budget. Whitman students receive federally subsidized loans in a far greater amount (typically around $7 million a year), but those are not tracked in our budget. We consider them a way students pay their bills and so they are counted as part of tuition payments. Whitman typically receives about $200,000 a year in state funds, again well below 1% of the budget. 

Q: Has the use of endowment funds increased at all since COVID, relative to past years? Or is the focus primarily on continuing to grow rather than spend?

A: Endowment funds for this year’s budget is $1 million greater than last year. The focus is to spend the endowment in a sustainable manner so that it continues to provide a similar level of support to students in the future as it does for students of today. We expect to earn 7% a year return on the endowment and so we spend 5% a year and retain 2% so the endowment can grow with inflation and continue to provide a similar level of support to future students. Of course, actual earnings fluctuate from year to year.