Swarthmore’s donors: the closest thing we have to an aristocracy. A few months ago, current seniors got a chance to join this elite. They received invitations to “Wine Tasting With Val,” a January 26 fundraising event in Upper Tarble, aimed at seniors. There, the administration gave students free alcohol. I watched it happen.
“Don’t forget your wallet,” the invitation read. We weren’t surprised. We were donors now, and donors never forget their wallets. If you donated $20.17, you could get a Swarthmore wine glass. $50 got you a tote.*
Zac Arestad ‘17 didn’t forget his wallet.
“I was planning to get pretty schlitzed,” he said, but he wasn’t really feeling it. He still donated, charmed into philanthropy by a member of the Student Philanthropy Council (SPC). “[H]e’s a very sweet guy,” Arestad explained. “I can’t say no to him.”
But if you bent down to the ground, put an ear to the Upper Tarble floor, and closed your eyes, you would have felt a tremorous undercurrent of discontent. It finally bubbled up at the senior speak-off on February 3, where seniors faced off to determine who would speak at graduation. Nader Helmy ‘17’s speech was among the more pointed.
“Seriously though, we cannot keep claiming [Swarthmore]’s loan-free. If that’s my one legacy here at Swarthmore, I’m totally cool with that,” his speech read, adding: “Just, please, stop asking me to donate before I graduate.”
I found Helmy in his Mertz room a few days later and asked him why he included that line.
“It’s something that I’ve heard a lot of people kind of talk about,” he said, though he noted that he had put it in “for levity.” He explained that he still had loans to pay back, so donating made little sense.
When asked about those who criticize the senior-donation drive as insensitive to low-income students and those who are in debt, SPC Co-President Sarah Tupchong ‘17 emphasized that gifts of any size are welcome.
“Senior giving is common at all of our competitor institutions […]. SPC’s role isn’t to just solicit senior gifts; our role is also to educate all students, especially underclassmen, about the importance of philanthropy and giving in general, to any cause,” she said, finally adding: “Gifts of any size are accepted and deeply appreciated.”
A recent Letter to the Editor in The Phoenix also addressed such criticisms. Its author, alum Louis Marcien ‘15, argued that young alums who are in debt should still donate:
“For some, this [fundraising] campaign may elicit some concern. For instance, asking recent alumni to contribute financially may be regarded as an undue burden to recent graduates who are still transitioning into adult life. That transition, understandably, can be especially difficult for recent graduates with student loans to pay off,” Marcien wrote. “That said, recent alumni still have an obligation to future generations of Swatties. In one way or another, someone had our backs while at Swarthmore, and we have to pay it forward.”
More than his specific criticisms, however, Helmy was getting at a larger, more intangible frustration with the College.
“My experience [at Swarthmore] was meeting some incredible people, having my mind opened in a lot of ways,” he said, “and having all this dissonance, of like ‘Why are there aspects of my experience here that make this place seem cold and corporate and removed, and not students-first, and not marginalized students first?’ “
Back at “Wine Tasting With Val,” the corporatism of the new donor class was in full swing. Arestad, schlitzed or not, noticed it.
“It’s very formal; I feel like we’re training to be in business,” he said, looking around at the students sipping wine with Val. “It’s very different from Pub Nite.” (Pub Nite was happening one floor below at the same time.)
After announcing her “Break Val’s Bank” fundraising challenge, President Smith briefly slipped into the language of the fund-strapped televangelist, trying to summon a divine surge in donations.
“I want you all to show what you’ve got!” she thundered.
So where does the money go? SPC members at the wine tasting made much of people’s ability to give restricted gifts, which are designated for a specific club, department, or fund. I asked the alumni giving office over email whether these restricted gifts specifically increase a given club or department’s budget, or if they simply free up money that would’ve gone to that budget, but can now go somewhere else.
“Typically, these gifts increase an existing budget, but not always,” Vice President of Advancement Karl Clauss wrote, adding that club gifts are spent at SBC’s discretion. “We are taking a closer look at how SBC and individual clubs are notified of restricted gifts to ensure that every donor’s intent is realized in a timely and transparent way,” he said.
He also gave the following example:
“If, for example, a program has a $10,000 budget, receives $500 in restricted gifts, and spends $10,500, then those gifts have augmented the budget. If the same program spends only $10,000 that year, then those gifts have underwritten the budget. Either way, those gifts have been used for the restricted purpose for which they have been given.”
In other words, there are times when your $500 would impact the program directly; at other times, the program’s budget would remain unchanged, and the College now has to contribute less of its own money to it than planned. This could indeed “free up” money for other purposes, like a new iMac for Dean Liz Braun. If that happens, it’s a matter of definition whether you’ve given money to your favorite program or helped pay for an overpriced computer.
The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving advises us not to blindly trust the restricted gift process. For example, it reads, if you were to give to a college political science department, it’s possible that “the dean merely subtracts that amount from the department’s allocation. If that happens, your gift does not actually do anything to enhance the political science department.” A 2016 Vox article argues much the same thing.
As of last Wednesday, 14% of seniors had donated, which Tupchong said was a much lower percentage than at peer institutions. She hopes that by graduation SPC can help raise it to 56%, i.e. 217 members of the class of 2017. While she didn’t tell me that rankings were a factor in the donation drive, other universities have explicitly told their seniors that more students giving helps rank a college higher. In 2010, Dartmouth and Cornell even publicly circulated lists of seniors who hadn’t donated, so their friends could guilt them.
Even Helmy, who called out the Swarthmore campaign in his speech, ended up donating a small amount at “Wine Tasting With Val.” He said SPC members promised him that, if he gave, the College would stop bothering him for a while.
*Disclosure: A friend and I have commissioned off-brand Swarthmore Class of 2017 wine glasses that we are selling for cheaper, with all profits going to refugee resettlement.
Featured image by Eduard Saakashvili ’17/The Daily Gazette