What makes Middlebury ‘most loved’? Dollars vs deeds.

60.1% of Middlebury alumni give money (of any amount) to the College (as an average over 2008 and 2009). That puts us in the top ten colleges nationwide in the key category of alumni participation in giving. But more importantly, it earned us a “most loved” badge from ratings giant U.S. News last year.

This year, Middlebury will again attempt the feat of trying to reach back up close to that ~60%. And the school has set its sights on young alumni, specifically the classes of 2001-2010, as the subset of alumni who will make or break achievement. That’s the reason for the “Your Voice, Your Choice: Young Alumni Challenge,” in which young alumni that donate any amount get a vote for $100,000 from the President’s Fund to go to one of three projects. Those projects are: 1) Internship funding, 2) Projects for Peace, 3) Language School Scholarships.

In the lead so far: internship funding for unpaid internships obtained by Middlebury undergraduates with 60.29% of the vote.

It’s smart marketing – get young alumni involved by giving them a voice greater than the pure dollar amount. And who doesn’t want to vote? Even if you only donate a dollar, you still get a vote. But behind the voting challenge is this percentage participation goal and reaching the goal can get us that pride-boosting “most loved” moniker yet again. It really is a challenge: participation in capital G-Giving can be a tough thing for younger classes. And it’s a big competition among liberal arts colleges… no really, it is a fight of sorts according to a new campaign by Wellesley College:

Note when the announcer in the video says: “This will prove a crucial match for Wellesley in securing its position in the national rankings. But it’s really about protecting its prominence as one of country’s top educational institutions.” This is the line that could be used at any the top-tier liberal arts school. It applies to Midd too.

Here’s how Middlebury is doing this year in that critical “young alumni” category versus the rest of the alumni. As of May 1st – here are my back of the envelope calculations for the average percentage of alumni that have already donated in 2011 (as grouped by decade of graduating class to correspond to the young alumni challenge):

Classes of 2001-2010 – 26.1%

Classes of 1991-2000 – 25.3%

Classes of 1981-1990 – 30.9%

Classes of 1971-1980 – 36%

Classes of 1961-1970 – 42.1%

Classes of 1951-1960 – 48%

Classes of 1941-1950 – 41.5%

While this is just a snapshot before the June 30 deadline, I’m thinking either the younger classes are procrastinators or there is a trend. I’m going with mostly the latter and saying that it is hard to get young people to participate and that’s a great reason for launching the voting challenge. By getting young alumni to increase their percentage participation, it drags the average among all Middlebury grads up.

But again, why the fascination with this percentage? Who cares? What goes often unsaid is that alumni participation percentage matters in the U.S. News rankings of National Liberal Arts Colleges. That number accounts for 5% in “weight” that produces the score to determine the rankings, according to the U.S. News methodology. 5 percent doesn’t sound like much, but it does make a difference when the top ten liberal arts colleges are often separated by tenths of a point. I remember some trying to make the argument that Middlebury’s big jump in rankings, from outside the top ten list to #5 in 2006, was the result of minor recalculations of self-reported numbers to U.S. News like student-teacher ratio. It’s the same idea – little changes make big differences in the oddity that is the rankings game.

It’s not my intention to give rankings more of a spotlight than they already have. But is there another compelling reason for caring so much about this one metric? Sure, alumni that donate when they are young also continue that habit of donation as they grow older, so it’s important to start early. Fine. It’s also possible that Middlebury just really cares about its young alumni or maybe feels that they are not as engaged as the College wants. Also fine. But even beyond this push for the magical number of percentage participation in alumni giving, it is still hard to understand how this makes Middlebury “most loved.”

That’s no specific fault of the College. If anything, it’s the fault of U.S. News for linking some easy, self-reported metric to winning some title. But while we’re at it, I think Middlebury really is loved by its alumni even if the title is phony, and the school should set out on a new path to prove it. It requires a new metric too because I believe strongly that those younger graduates have far more to give to their alma mater in non-monetary sums than the strict dollar value of what they’re giving now. Middlebury must think about how it can engage its young alumni in ways beyond the monetary donation.

Can you imagine if 60% of young alumni mentored a current student over the summer during an internship? Or let that a current student crash on their couch? Or even offered to have lunch with a current student? Or gave career advice via skype to a current student? I think this is valuable at a time when Middlebury realizes that career-preparation in a liberal arts setting is going to be critical for the success of not only graduates but Middlebury as an institution. Meanwhile, I cannot even tell you the graduated friends of mine that get angry that Middlebury calls to ask them for money when they are unemployed or just trying to eek out their existence in the world. But those same people still love Middlebury deeply, but they aren’t being counted toward our alumni giving merit badge. If the College wants a relationship with this specific group of alumni so bad, then give alumni something to engage in beyond that one phone call every year (and if you’re lucky, you hear about how to be an alumni interviewer which is cool but removed or how to join MiddNet so that your name can be on a list on the Internet). (For reference, here is the current list of the obvious volunteer/non-dollar-donation opportunities as an alumnus.)

In other words, you can’t win “most loved” in my book until the College breaks from whatever compels the fascination with “percentage of alumni” giving and starts looking for a new metric to engage alumni beyond the “did you give?” checkbox.

UPDATE: Part 2 of the video:

and the tweets start a rollin’:

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2 thoughts on “What makes Middlebury ‘most loved’? Dollars vs deeds.

  1. Ryan: interesting topic, but you miss THE major point here. The press has picked up on aggressive fundraising ideas and mistakenly linked it to something as inane as US News Ranking, and you jumped on the bandwagon. Understandable.

    This fundraising has gone on for a long time, and here is why it is important: without the very big push for alumni giving to the annual fund (which is what the participation rate measures), the very internships and “career opportunities” you seek for Middlebury students would be impossible as the annual fund provides a significant portion of the annual budget. That is, you might want to link the push for participation to rankings firstly, but that would be missing the point. Sure, if one gives only a dollar it goes to the participation rate, but you are underestimating the link between early giving and continual giving among alumni, and so if a member of the class of 2007 gives $5 today, and gives every year, that $5, studies and data show, turns into $250 or $500 or $5000 15 years from now. And your education (I assume you are a Middlebury student) is right now being subsidized or enriched or both by previous and current alumni who have given to the college each year. The annual fund amounts to 6-8% of the annual budget, which means $13-$15 million dollars!

    So while it is sexy to link everything to US News, annual fund fundraising goes back before US News even had rankings; we hear about it much more today because electronic communications makes it easier to blast information about such things.

    In reality, the main thrust and need for such fundraising tactics is to ensure students have the opportunities we all wish for our (now) grandkids at Middlebury (and Wellesley), etc.

    But your provocative interpretation does raise awareness…let’s hope!

    • Charles, thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right about the annual fund being at the top of the priority list. This is something I learned in attending last year’s Alumni Leadership Conference – http://midd-blog.com/2010/09/26/young-alumni-and-midd-fundraising/ I don’t think many fully realize that the annual fund is needed to keep the school running (like keeping the lights on), which is certainly the top priority.

      Your related point about how I underestimate the link between early giving and continual giving among alumni is fair. And I do underestimate it considerably in my post. But I’m also not asking for Middlebury to stop fundraising for young alumni. I certainly want alumni to give each year. Instead, I’m thinking that maybe we’re missing opportunities to do far more and that engaging people in new types of Giving can also multiply the amount given down the road. It’s really about how connected you feel to your alma mater, no? If you feel connected, then you’re going to give when you can. And I think it would pay off to the annual fund and otherwise.

      So no, this article is not at all about U.S. News despite my long paragraph on it. I do think Giving needs some “sexiness.” Thanks for reading and sharing your important knowledge.

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