Ephs can choose

WSO hackers like pizza. Three years ago, they (jokingly) solicited PayPal donations for their pizza fund. I bought them $200 worth. This made them happy, since neither College Council nor the Williams Administration is likely to fund their eating habits. It made me happy because I got to contribute something small but tangible to a student group that I like and respect. Every Eph wins.

Why doesn’t this sort of interaction happen more often between students and alumni? Because College bureaucrats trust neither students nor alumni to behave responsibly, at least as far as fund-raising is concerned. The College wants to control the money. It does not trust students to ask for reasonable things. It does not trust alumni to refrain from funding unreasonable requests. It worries that student awkwardness will harm its relationships with alumni donors.

Newly elected College Council co-presidents presidents Jeremy Goldstein ’09 and Peter Nurnberg ’09 seek to allow alumni (like me) to donate money directly to student groups (like WSO) – money that will fund specific purchases (like pizza) that the College has decided, for whatever reason, not to fund. This is similar in spirit to DonorsChoose.org, a non-profit organization that practices “Citizen Philanthropy” in public schools. Teachers submit requests for funding. Individual donors pick and choose among the requests. DonorsChoose spends the money and posts pictures/descriptions of the activities thereby funded, allowing donors to see immediately the good that their generosity has accomplished.

DonorsChoose is an excellent template for Williams, but one that the Administration will fight. My advice to Goldstein and Nurnberg:

First, create a new organization. Call it EphsChoose. College officials will try to delay you, will insist that they are interested in working with you on this project. Trust me: they’re not. They hate this idea. They will do everything they can to stop it, including every college officials’ favorite trick: smiling delay. If they can keep you busy with proposals and meetings for a few months, they know that you will lose interest and then graduate. You need an organization with an existence separate from Williams. It should be a 501(c), registered in Massachusetts. If your plan is to work, you need a structure that will outlive your own time at the College.

Second, recruit an alumni board of directors for EphsChoose. Key criteria, besides a love for all things Eph, are wealth and a willingness to spend it on your cause. To get started, you don’t need a lot of money, but an initial donation of $10,000 would make other things easier. You need at least one lawyer on the board. Adding an alumnus from the faculty would provide credibility. Reach out to some of the prominent alumni who live in Williamstown.

Third, recruit a governing board of students. Although the two of you will be involved, you will need help. Ideally, your board will include students with the necessary skills: at least one technical whiz to run the Web site; one would-be lawyer interested in dealing with the documents; a treasurer to handle the finances; a photographer to document the projects; an operations person to keep track of all the details. Do not underestimate how much work will be involved. Seek help from outside College Council. Recruit first-years.

Fourth, spread the word. What’s your motto? “Students ask. Alumni choose. Williams thrives.” would be one option, derived from that of DonorsChoose. Once your Web site is up and running, you will want to reach out far and wide. Many student groups have more projects than they have funds. Contact them. Reach out to alumni, especially those still in contact with student organizations. E-mail the officers of regional alumni groups. Use the Alumni Directory. Involve parents. Once your first few grants have been distributed, document the results. With luck, you ought to have all this done before June. With just a handful of projects actually funded before next fall, you will be in position to have a non-trivial impact on alumni-student interactions in 2008-2009,

Will it work? Maybe. Starting a new organization is not easy. Potential volunteers are busy. Paperwork is boring. Most importantly, the College will try to stop you – will insist that it is interested in your ideas and wants to “help” you. The Sirens of Hopkins Hall will claim that you don’t need a separate organization, that the Alumni Office is eager to assist you and that your effort falls naturally in the work that the College is already doing. Avoid those rocks.

Only a handful of students each year have an opportunity to change Williams in a permanent way. Few now remember the co-presidents of five or 10 years ago, not because they were bad people but because nothing they did has outlived their time at the College. Goldstein and Nurnberg have a chance to fundamentally alter the relationship between Williams students and alumni, to draw the community of Ephs together now and forevermore. My pizza buying should not mark the high point of direct alumni donations to student groups. It should be just the start.

David Kane ’88 is on the board of Ephblog and lives in Newton, Mass.