Sunday, February 10, 2019

Small Pond, Big Splash

I love this story.  A Massachusetts philanthropist, Maureen Wilkins, donated $5 million to Cape Cod Community College.  A donation of that size might not be newsworthy at an Ivy, but for a community college of Cape Cod’s size, it’s epochal.  It’s likely to have a much larger impact at Cape Cod than it could ever have at, say, Harvard.

Community colleges generally have been late to the game on private philanthropy.  Part of that is because community colleges generally are relatively young; about half of them around the country were established in the 1960’s, so many didn’t have significant numbers of alumni hitting the peak earning years until the 1990’s.  Most also don’t have high-profile athletics of the sort that Big Ten schools have, so they don’t draw the kind of attention and loyalty that certain kinds of sports franchises do. (Brookdale football has been undefeated since 1967, in the most literal meaning of “undefeated.”)  

As a sector, they tend to be administratively lean.  Having worked at three of them, I’ve never seen an Associate Dean at one.  That is a mixed blessing. It’s good in the sense that resources tend to go directly to supporting students.  It’s bad in the sense that the leaner the administration gets, the harder it is to do new, non-routine things.  Community college administrators are typically so focused on keeping the ship afloat that they don’t always have the time to devote to matters that are important-but-not-urgent, like the relationship building on which fundraising depends.  Fundraising requires upfront spending on administrative capacity, which can be a hard sell when you’re cutting budgets.

Of course, being open to all students necessarily involves giving up on the cachet of exclusivity.  The article does a nice job of pointing out the difference in economic profile between the students at Johns Hopkins, where Michael Bloomberg recently made an enormous donation, and at Cape Cod CC.  (For example, it cites the median family income of a CCCC student as $65,000, as opposed to the median of $177,300 at JHU.) The student body at most community colleges looks a lot more like America than the student body at most exclusive universities, except for the gender ratio.  Given that community colleges skew female, the wage gap women face is another strike against fundraising.

The article notes that community colleges educate nearly half of the college students in America, but receive about 1.5% of the total philanthropic money for higher education.  It’s true that research universities incur costs that we don’t, but even allowing for that, 1.5% seems a bit low.

The relative absence of large-scale fundraising here has also allowed some myths to flourish on campus.  For example, I’ve heard some people assert, with cloudless certainty, that we could plug gaps in operating budgets if only we did more fundraising.  It doesn’t really work like that. You don’t want to use one-time gifts for recurring costs, for obvious reasons, and you don’t want to speak the language of “need” to donors.  To many donors, that sounds like throwing good money after bad. It’s better to speak the language of success, and to invite them to be a part of something positive that will have impact for decades to come.  As a sector, we’ve become so fluent in the language of cuts and needs that making the pivot is a challenge.

Still, kudos to Ms. Wilkins for making a much greater difference at CCCC than she ever could have made at wealthier places, and for putting philanthropy back on our radar.  In a relatively small pond, a big splash makes a great difference. Here’s hoping that we start taking the opportunities in the fundraising world more seriously than we have.  The students will benefit.