Annual Fund challenged by tough economy, less giving spirit among recent grads

Nate Lessler

With the rising cost of a college degree, many Whitman students may forget that tuition expenses only cover 60 percent of their liberal arts educations. The remainder of these expenses is largely covered by Whitman alumni, who donate millions of dollars per year in gifts to the college’s Annual Fund. Whitman has seen a decline in gifts from recent graduates over the past decade, however, as alums focus on paying off college loans accumulated during tough economic times.

“Some people feel entitled and think that they shouldn’t give more because they are already paying so much for college,” said senior Maryn Juergens, who works for the Annual Fund as a development office intern and serves as chair of the Senior Fund. “Without all the fundraising efforts of the college it wouldn’t be able to operate on the level that it does.”

In 2009, the participation rate of Whitman alumni in the Annual Fund dropped to 46 percent. With the 2010 fund drive in full gear, officers and volunteers are aiming to receive gifts from half of all alumni.

“We have increased our goal for this year,” said Brian Dohe, director of the Annual Fund. “Our goal is to get back to 50 percent participation and continue with $1.2 million in unrestricted gifts from alumni.”

Alumni have the option of designating their contributions to a specific department or making unrestricted donations that the college can use in any area of need.

Total contributions to the Annual Fund are measured in both dollar amounts and in participation rates. Both statistics are integral to measuring the success of the college’s fundraising efforts.

“We’re hoping to get 80 percent participation [from recent graduates],” said Juergens. “The dollar amounts matter, but the participation rate has a lot more impact than people realize, no matter the amount. To get outside grants from other institutions, that stat is used because it’s seen so favorably by outside institutions and people looking at the school.”

The lower rates of participation among alumni are mostly seen in graduating classes from the past 10 years who have been affected by the recession.

“I think the public and donors are still worried about the volatility of the market,” Dohe said. “I think it’s a result of the economy.”

Senior Allison Armstrong, who manages the Annual Fund’s phonathon, believes declining rates of participation result from increasingly larger graduating classes compounded with a poor economy.

“Whitman is graduating larger and larger classes of students recently and because the larger classes are younger, they are less likely to give because they have jobs that pay less or have to pay off loans,” she said.

Juergens commented that in addition to these factors, students from younger generations are less focused on giving to others.

“I think our generations are less philanthropic-minded: it’s something that’s not as inherit in our generation, to give back, that is,” Juergens said.

In order to get students in a philanthropic frame of mind, Juergens spearheaded the Senior Fund, a fundraising campaign she and 11 other seniors organized with the mission of getting students involved in the giving process early.

“The idea is to educate people about the importance of fundraising while they are still at college,” said Juergens. “If students start the tradition of giving immediately, once they have already given it will be easier to give next year.”

Juergens hopes to engage soon-to-be alumni at the Green Lantern on March 4, when the Senior Fund and the Senior Class Committee will co-host a karaoke party in celebration of the class of 2010. People who choose to donate to the Senior Fund will receive sunglasses marked “Whitman 2010.”

The Senior Fund will also be collecting donations through Friday, Feb. 26, in Reid Campus Center to fund a scholarship for a member of the class of 2014.

“This year we’re not making the gift a tangible object, but rather a scholarship. A bench is great, you know? But a scholarship’s going to make a lot more of a difference,” Juergens said.

Between the efforts of the Annual Fund and the Senior Fund, Whitman’s fundraising team is pleased with the success it has met so far.

“Dollar-wise, we are ahead of where we were at this time last year by about $350,000,” said Dohe.

Nevertheless, the Annual Fund has received 60 fewer gifts than it did at this time last year, a number it hopes to surpass as fundraising efforts continue over the next year.