Yesterday, I attended my very first Alumni Leadership Conference (ALC) up at Bread Loaf (two words, FYI). This 34th annual gathering of alumni volunteers gives graduates of Middlebury a chance to get-together outside Reunion or Homecoming to focus on fundraising for Middlebury and get updated on the latest of what is happening on campus. As a recent alumnus, these gatherings are curious exercises because they seem to be primarily made up of people from the classes of the 80s and 90s. So, I felt a little out of place, also perhaps because I wasn’t even really supposed to be there. I am neither a class agent nor a class correspondent. But as a regular yet inquisitive alumnus of this fine institution, I was determined to investigate this annual event.
It’s refreshing to hear fundraising talked about so openly and clearly at the ALC . It’s very hard, perhaps purposefully so, to hear about fundraising back on campus. I think the majority know about the big donors: how else are you going to get a name on a building? But there are a ton of small donors that really do count both in percentage participation and in actual dollar amount. That’s why most alumni will get a call (or ten emails and a facebook reminder) in the late Spring asking for money. The small guys usually contribute to the annual fund, the pool of money that the school relies on (partially) to keep the school running every year — lightbulbs, staff salaries, etc. Usually the push is for unrestricted funds but last year the push was to give to financial aid which totaled up to a reported $2.4 million translating to financial aid for around 70 students. Nearly 3000 people gave small amounts to that financial aid challenge. Other times people give to endowment. Recently valued at $815 million, it’s hard to see the effect of the endowment as clearly as the annual fund, but it is the driver of long term growth.
It struck me that there is a real disconnect between all these fundraising activities and recent graduates. Maybe it takes the time to reach the 5th or 10th reunion to “get it,” but anecdotally, I find more and more friends saying: “I’m not giving to Middlebury.” And worse, they don’t know why they would give to Middlebury even if they wanted to or had the money to. Is that why my very own Class of 2009 did 29% participation last year, the lowest among all classes? Or is that because my classmates in particular don’t have jobs? To be fair, the classes of 2005-2008 averaged 50.5% participation in giving to Middlebury last year. Maybe one could postulate that once graduates get beyond the first year post-grad and begin to feel nostalgic for Middlebury, they begin to give back.
Still, I see that most young alumni have little context for how donations fit into a continuing Middlebury and their own lives. We didn’t hear about fundraising as students, why would we suddenly know how it works as graduates? You can’t tell me that the senior class gift really teaches seniors about giving — didn’t you just want the Class of 2009 pint glass? Further, what is your relationship with Middlebury (outside of donating) supposed to be once you graduate? How are you supposed to act? The formal institution would say that you should be giving back to your College. Become an alumni admissions interviewer. Come back to reunions. Read Middlebury Magazine. Go to ALC. But I’m convinced that the strongest bonds for young alumni are actually the informal: the current students you know, the student organizations you were apart of, the professors that continue to teach, knowing Muchadei Zvoma, athletic teams you keep up with, the fellow alumni you meet in random corners of the globe, etc. But how, then, do you give back to Middlebury in informal contexts?
Middlebury must model both the formal and informal for current students what those very students will be doing as recent alumni in a few short months or years. If you want alumni to “get” fundraising, then Middlebury should be talking about fundraising way back when they’re students on campus. If you want alumni to be invested in campus news and community, then Middlebury should model how to get that information as students. I think Middlebury does a decent job of all this in the formal context, but I’ve recently wondered how to harness the power of the informal connection to Middlebury. What’s the role of an informal space like MiddBlog in the alumni community? How should MiddBlog be asking students to stay interested in their own community while on campus and then continue that interest once leaving?
I don’t think I’ll ever be one to use this blog to promote donating to Middlebury’s annual fund even if I donate myself, but I do see a need to create a clearer context of how Middlebury sees its alumni and vice versa. Ultimately, alumni are stakeholders in Middlebury, and it’s important that they know, value, and maximize their sense of ownership whether they’re the class of 2010 or the class of 1938.