A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How Small Funders Can Make a Big Impact in Higher Education

Last month, Amazon patented a gift card that allows the purchaser to place restrictions on how recipients spend “their” money. The new technology allows gift-givers to limit not just price, but the sorts of products a recipient can buy—and even the item’s brand.

Although holiday shoppers might question the generosity of a giver who puts such onerous requirements on a stocking stuffer, small funders can often make an outsized impact in higher education by placing thoughtful limitations on how their gifts can be used.

When funders are armed with a better understanding of how their higher education institutions work, even gifts well under $20,000 can have a profound impact on both institutions and the students they serve. Here’s how:

Think beyond scholarships, or the annual fund

Money is fungible, and colleges are expert at shuffling resources to cover the costs of near-term needs rather than the sort of aspirational initiatives a funder may expect. Consider the case of frugal college librarian Robert Morin, who left his entire estate to the University of New Hampshire, which promptly spent a quarter of it on a scoreboard for the football team.

Gifts to the annual fund give schools carte blanche to spend money as they see fit. Funds might be used to pay for upgrades to facilities rather than academic excellence, or routine maintenance as opposed to student support. Scholarship funds targeted at worthy and needy students may seem appealing, but sometimes do little more than offset the cost of existing programs.

The best way to ensure your grant truly has the impact you desire is to borrow from Amazon’s emergent strategy, and think through guidelines to govern how funds should be spent.

Find faculty friends

Faculty members are on the frontlines of working with students and often have strong perspectives about their needs—or opportunities for investments with the potential to improve their educational experiences. Some professors even direct student-focused programs that could benefit meaningfully from a boost of five or ten thousand dollars.

Small givers are often well-served by investigating schools’ calendars to identify events and activities that can introduce them, first-hand, to experiences, faculty, or programs aligned with their priorities. Rather than poring over glossy fundraising brochures, check out the course catalog and reach out to departments and faculty that look like they might share your interests. Connect with student-led groups or extracurricular programs on campus.

Based on student and faculty conversations, you may decide to designate a gift toward a professor-led program or institute, or develop a deeper understanding of student needs.

Consider special purpose funds that share your views or objectives

Novice investors often invest through mutual funds because they lack the time or expertise to choose individual stocks wisely. Smaller givers may, likewise, do well to consider contributing to “field-of-interest” or special purpose funds that support specific areas of work, rather than particular institutions.

Special purpose funds can enable donors to invest in a particular student population (e.g., first-generation college students), geographic area, or focus area (e.g., economics or U.S. history) without the burden of evaluating the nuances among individual institutions, faculty, or programs.

Local community foundations often house field-of-interest funds that allow donors to direct their philanthropy to a cause, drawing on the expertise of experts or like-minded donors to select individual recipients.

The Fund for Academic Renewal, for example, has created Special Purpose Funds that allow small givers to support subjects ranging from American history to science, mathematics to economic literacy.

Support ideas, not institutions

Sometimes, the most impactful strategy for supporting higher education may not involve giving money to schools at all. There are many worthy national and local nonprofit organizations that provide support services to students—or advance critical causes like college access, rigor, and research.

These include the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (which advocates on behalf of students’ First Amendment rights) and New York’s Morningside Institute (which offers seminars and excursions to cultural events in order to expose students to classic works). Contributing to organizations like these can support students in ways that reflect a donor’s passions—while avoiding the pitfalls and hurdles associated with giving directly to a college or university.

As year-end approaches, individuals with a philanthropic orientation and commitment to higher education should consider how best to focus their contributions. Because taking an intentional approach that balances student and institutional needs with donor priorities can help even small funders make a big impact.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill is the executive director of the Fund for Academic Renewal, which provides free programmatic and legal advisory services to help donors structure major gifts to colleges and universities. She works closely with donors to design, monitor, and evaluate transformative gifts to higher education that meet their philanthropic objectives. Previously, Jacqueline was vice president of development at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and served on the faculties of St. John’s College (Annapolis) and the College of William & Mary.

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