We can do better than donating to Stanford

Opinion by Claire Zabel
May 14, 2015, 9:42 p.m.

If you’re an undergraduate graduating with the class of ‘15, you’ve probably been bombarded with requests that you donate to the Senior Gift. For those of you who are unaware, the Senior Gift Campaign is a program run by The Stanford Fund that tries to get all graduating seniors to donate to Stanford before they leave. But we think that to celebrate Stanford and the education we have received here, we can do a lot better than participating in the Campaign.

Last year, a Stanford Daily op-ed documented some personal concerns about the Campaign. Like the author, Tim Borgerson, we have been personally contacted and asked to participate multiple times (this was at the end of the 2013-14 academic year). Attempts to get students to donate can feel invasive, burdensome and even coercive.

Stanford has an endowment of more than $21 billion. Trying to guilt graduating seniors, many of whom are entering the workforce with debt and little in the way of savings, seems like a distasteful use of influence by a powerful institution on its young, often inexperienced students. But besides these issues, however, we wish to draw attention another problem with the Campaign and the lessons it teaches.

There are a few reasons why Stanford may want to squeeze that last $20 out of you before you depart. People are habit-forming and like to remain self-consistent. That means that a person who has donated to Stanford once is more likely to do so again. She may come to think of herself as someone who gives back to her alma mater; it forms a part of her identity. That’s why it’s so useful to start the habit of donation when students are young and impressionable, and it’s one reason why graduating seniors who donate are often rewarded with gifts that may be more valuable than the donation itself (last year, a wineglass).

Graduating Stanford students tend to become Stanford alumni donors. This doesn’t happen by accident. Stanford helps provide its students with the skills and connections to succeed, and many achieve amazing things. But Stanford also attempts to train in the sort of nepotistic navel-gazing that can keep money endlessly shuttling among wealthy individuals and institutions instead of reaching the more needy. Donating to the Senior Gift is the first step in training students to give their earnings back to Stanford or to other institutions that have served them and earned their favor. Many wealthy people donate to museums, operas and their private schools, because these are parts of their culture that they enjoy and appreciate. While this is a good and admirable use of money compared to many others, we should pause and reconsider before continuing the cycle of such a narrow and elite brand of generosity.

It reflects well on Stanford when its seniors donate. When more seniors donate to Stanford, and its participation in the Senior Gift is higher, it can demonstrate students’ appreciation and love for the school. But how much better would it reflect on Stanford if students celebrated their education, and how much they have learned about the world and the suffering in it, by giving a gift where it could really make a difference? That would show Stanford’s ability to select and support socially responsible and ethical citizens far better than a 3 percent participation lead over another elite school.

The money itself does little. Even if all of the 1,651 students who received bachelor’s degrees in the 2013-14 academic year donated $25, the university would only raise $41,275, significantly less than the bill for a single student’s tuition for a year without scholarships. If this money was donated more thoughtfully, on the other hand, it would be enough to save more than 12 human beings from death or an amazing 363,220 animals from horrific factory farm conditions (and death). At Stanford, that money is a symbol. Outside Stanford, it could be so much more.

This is not meant as a criticism of Stanford. Those of us who have been satisfied with our Stanford education (as the authors of this article have been) and come to love Stanford should absolutely celebrate that fact. But there is a better, more ethical, more thoughtful celebration to be had.

We should think about our charity as carefully as we reflect on our work life and as responsibly as we strive to manage our personal relationships. We can do better than The Stanford Fund wants us to. Helping the very needy is a more admirable legacy for a Stanford education. We hope that this year, students choose to start a newer, more sincerely altruistic tradition of giving where it will do the most good, not to the institution with the most captive of audiences. Let’s start using what Stanford has given to help where we best can, not where we’re told.

On the Senior Gift website, it says, “Nobody knows Stanford like students. So your vote of confidence means a lot to alumni and others who are thinking about giving.” It’s true; Stanford students can send a message to alumni. That message should be about making the world better as best we can, taking a global view and having a wide moral circle, not just funneling money back to an already elite institution. That’s what Stanford has taught us, at least.


Contact Claire Zabel at czabel ‘at’ stanford.edu and Joseph (Joey) Zabel at joezabel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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