Sass from Senior Gift

Just a Thought

Dear Class of 2001 Senior Gift Committee,

Thank you so much for your recent note, reminding me that I haven't yet made a donation to the Senior Gift fund. I wanted to take a moment to address several points from your letter.

First, please notice the use of pleasantries in the first line of my letter to you. We can't all be expected to know proper etiquette for letter writing, but if you contrast my opening with the way you address me, I think you'll notice a difference.

In your first line, you wrote: "Dear Classmate: We have received notice of your refusal to participate in the Class of 2001 Senior Gift."

Why such hostility? In everyday life, we get these "we have received notice" letters every once and a while, usually for things like being three months late with a credit card payment or failing to show up for jury duty. But when you are asking for money, sometimes it pays to start off with a warm salutation. I mean, does my "refusal to participate" in an entirely voluntary charity drive really deserve such a harsh tone?

Your first paragraph goes on to say that you respect my decision not to make a donation (thanks!) but wish to restate the merits of the senior gift. Okay, you're warming up. I'm willing to listen. You even make the gracious gesture of offering me "a second opportunity to make a pledge of $10.00 before Commencement." It's nice that you're giving me another opportunity to take my money-I thought the window had closed. Phew!

Had you stopped there, I might have been inclined to read further. But the last sentence of the first paragraph really nips that urge in the bud. "Please read through this letter at least once," your letter commands me-in bold. Perhaps you should have added "you stubborn ox" to the end of that sentence, just to make your intentions perfectly clear.

Now, I know that you Senior Gift people have a tough (and indeed frustrating) job convincing people like me to give you money. These tactics probably seemed like a good way to get your message across yet another time. But must you really resort to this level of condescension? Do you think that rude language and silly commands actually make it more likely that I'll keep reading, much less give you my money?

Still, wanting to see what else was in store for me in the letter, I kept on reading. Your note continues in its glowing manner, touching on many of the usual reasons why people opt against donating to the Senior Gift. "As any one of our 200 Senior Gifters would be happy to tell you, a contribution to Senior Gift speaks to your commitment to this community and its improvement," you write. I guess that I'm supposed to feel bad that I haven't yet seen the light.

But just after you say that all you really want is a contribution to Senior Gift, it becomes clear that what you really want is a contribution of a certain amount. I am urged to donate at least $10.00, so that my gift will "count" toward a goal of 71 percent class participation. I take this to mean that only some donations truly "count." You will gladly accept my $9.99, but it doesn't really help you get to that magical 71 percent, at which point an anonymous family "associated with our class" will kick in an additional $24,000. With this last point, it becomes quite clear that you care less about people actually giving for the sake of giving, and more about them giving a certain amount.

Nevertheless, my most serious concerns with the fund drive are not those that you address in the letter, but simply the attitude that surrounds giving to the Senior Gift. The representative from Senior Gift who came to my room to solicit us for money couldn't have been less convincing about why we should donate. When my roommates and I politely declined to participate, he wanted a reason. And when we gave him a few, he proceeded to record our refusal and our reasons on his clipboard. I felt like we were being observed in a mental hospital: "Subjects just don't seem to get it." We were put on the defensive, made to feel like conscientious objectors to something that's supposed to be about good will.

Why must this be such a confrontational process?

As I said earlier, I empathize with the job that the Senior Gift committee has, of convincing people like me to donate the money. I do not doubt that you all care deeply-as do I-about Harvard College.

But the Senior Gift drive has gotten away from wanting to give something back to Harvard, and become more about guilting people into participating. Soliciting donations, to be sure, typically involves some convincing, but your tactics have gone too far.

Thanks to your letter-in which you treat non-givers like social pariahs-you have made it certain that I will not make a donation to Harvard this year. Several other seniors who also received your letter have expressed similar feelings to me.

Still, the Harvard Alumni Association can rest assure that I will donate money to Harvard at some point in my lifetime. But if the point of the Senior Gift campaign is to get soon-to-be alums into the habit of giving to Harvard, you've got an uphill challenge in front of you. Maybe it's time to reconsider the way you run this drive.


Scott A. Resnick '01 is an economics concentrator in Cabot House. This is his final column.