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It's the Thought That Counts

Senior Gift campaigns should give students control over how donations are spent

By Judd B. Kessler

The 200 members of the Senior Gift campaign have spent the last few weeks encouraging their peers in the class of 2004 to give something back to Harvard, and on April 23, when the Senior Gift ended the House competition portion of the campaign, a majority had.

Between the gift’s kick-off in February and last Friday, 65 percent of graduating seniors contributed, donating a total of $33,000 to Harvard. The campaign will continue collecting money until June 30.

But while the Senior Gift Committee can be proud of its accomplishment thus far, changes to the Senior Gift that give seniors more control over how their funds are used would lead to a higher participation rate. A high participation rate is the top priority of the Senior Gift because it helps maintain Harvard’s reputation, encourages giving from older alums and sets the stage for future giving from members of the graduating class.

Currently, seniors are encouraged to direct their funding to financial aid or to the unrestricted fund. In a letter from the Senior Gift Co-Chairs Christopher D. Shutzer ’04 and Tamiko A. Tsurudome ’04, seniors were told that giving to financial aid “ensures that Harvard can maintain their unparalleled (and face it, expensive) international need-blind admissions policy,” while giving to the unrestricted fund would help pay for things like “wireless internet, athletics, gym renovations, dorm refurbishing” and “new faculty and courses.”

But the budget for the College’s financial aid is fixed and dollars given to the Senior Gift are fungible; earmarking money to financial aid just means that another dollar in the unrestricted fund can be spent elsewhere. Similarly, contributions made to the unrestricted fund are not designated for more faculty or dorm renovations; budgets for those are set independently from senior giving. In essence, every dollar given to Harvard through the Senior Gift is the same, and whether seniors convince themselves that their dollar is going to wireless internet, gym renovations or financial aid, they have no control over their gifts—the University will devote its unrestricted funds to whatever priorities it deems most important.

Frustration over this absence of choice in donations has led many students to withhold their gifts from Harvard. A small group of seniors even started an “Alternative Senior Gift,” whose mission statement, which is available on their website and was e-mailed to all 12 House lists, highlights this lack of choice: “Harvard Senior Gift does not allow us to give back to the specific aspects of Harvard that have been most positive for us. There is no flexibility.”

One way to give seniors more control is to have each class vote on a fund or physical gift for which they want to raise money. If students could direct their giving to a specific improvement, they would be more invested in the fundraising. And if donating to the unrestricted fund were still an option, a larger percentage of the class would contribute to the Senior Gift. Selecting a class-wide gift would also be a bonding experience as students pooled their resources to improve Harvard.

Arguments against selecting a class-wide gift are often overblown. “Trying to come to a consensus on the best physical gift would be a difficult task, and most likely, more expensive than Senior Gift can afford,” Tsurudome wrote in an e-mail. But seniors are able to vote for their class Marshals and a College-wide undergraduate council referendum is starting today, neither at that high a cost.

And even if this process were costly, the Senior Gift is not about the number of dollars earned. It is obvious that asking for money from poor college students—70 percent of whom are on financial aid, as frequently highlighted by the Senior Gift literature—is not going to generate a tremendous amount of cash. The $33,000 raised thus far wouldn’t cover one student’s tuition, room and board for a year at the College. I’m also unconvinced that $33,000 could cover the cost of the Senior Gift campaign itself, which includes a kick-off dinner at the Charles Hotel for all 200 members of the campaign, open bar events, prizes for high contributing Houses, and paying a staff member at the University’s Development Office who devotes a significant amount of time organizing the Senior Gift campaign. (Unsurprisingly, no one involved with the campaign could give me exact cost numbers.)

But the Senior Gift participation rate matters, in part because “a lot of people look at participation as a vote of confidence in the institution,” according to Andy Tiedemann, Director of Communications for the Harvard University Development Office.

Sure, devoting $30,000 to “student space” or “mental health” won’t be enough for the University to build a student center or erase depression from campus, but participation is the priority, and giving them control over how their money is spent will make students happier about giving back to Harvard.

Judd B. Kessler ’04 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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