Office of Development permits donors to earmark contributions

As of this month, the Office of Development has implemented substantial changes to its giving policy, now allowing donors to the Alumni Fund and the Parents Fund to earmark their gifts for usage within particular departments of the College. Under this new policy, gifts can be directed to any one of five categories: Highest Priorities; Financial Aid; Great Professors, Great Teaching; Student Life and the Arts; or Excellence in Athletics.

Donation categories

Prior to the implementation of the new policy, all gifts to the College were routed into what is now called the Highest Priorities designation. The money in this fund was allocated by the College to wherever there was the greatest need for it and supported approximately 7 percent of the current operating budget, according to Director of Annual Giving Jim Trapp ’76.

Now, donors are asked if they would like to direct their gift to any one of five particular subsections of the College. If not, their donation will be directed into the Highest Priorities category for the College to utilize where needed.

Donations earmarked for financial aid will help support the College’s financial aid packages. Development is also currently working to establish specific scholarship funds within the category of financial aid, according to Trapp.

Great Professors, Great Teaching, the designation specifically focused on donation to the classroom, is meant to support academic endeavors. Student Life and the Arts is  intended to allow dedicated donors to express their passion for extracurricular activities on campus.

In the case of the Excellence in Athletics designation, parents and alumni can choose to donate to the athletics department generally or can request that their funding be directed to one team in particular.

“For the people who don’t want to make that choice, they can still give to [the] current unrestricted [category],” Trapp said. “[The donors] don’t mark one of the buckets, and basically it goes to what it’s always gone to. But this year, we’re giving people a chance to say, ‘I want to be more specific in where my money goes.’”

Giving to athletics  

According to Athletic Director Lisa Melendy, the recent donation policy changes will help to simplify and streamline a process that has generally been complicated and overly bureaucratic for both donors and the College.

While the College did not previously have an institutionalized outlet for donations to athletic programs, passionate parents and alums could donate to teams directly outside of the sphere of the Office of Development, creating a complicated situation for coaches not necessarily versed in the numerous policies on the issue.

Donations to collegiate athletics are regulated not only by individual schools’ policies, but also by the NCAA and by NESCAC regulations.

“We’re not allowed to solicit, coaches aren’t allowed to solicit parents or alums, so a check would arrive, or someone would ask a coach, ‘What do you need?’ or they would see something and say, ‘Oh, I think you could use this,’ and they would want to purchase that,” Melendy said. “It was a really cumbersome process of needing to check with the [athletic director]. I would check with Development. I would need to check with the Provost’s Office, can we accept this, can we use this, and the answer was sometimes yes, sometimes no based on a lot of things.

“We’re really trying to have more coherence around [donating], first of all, that we would decide upfront more as the College does instead of having [what we spend money on] be donor-driven,” she said.

In annual budget-setting meetings, coaches will now be able to make a case for need in their program that they hope to be able to cover with the help of donations, such as funding for spring break trips or the purchase of new equipment. Such needs will be assessed and prioritized during the budgetary process, and budgets will be drawn up using estimates of how much giving each team and the department as a whole expects to receive during the course of that year,

according to Melendy. “Now if a coach feels like there’s a need lacking in their program, that would be discussed in the budget process with the athletic director and with the College. We would set priorities for the department and the College based on those conversations,” Melendy said.

In the event that a certain team receives more funding than it requires to meet its annual budget, the overflow will be redirected into the general athletic department coffers. Furthermore, donations funneled into the athletic department in this manner are only used for annual operating budgets, and therefore will not go toward funding large-scale projects or construction.

Melendy also emphasized that all teams will in turn have the chance to take advantage of increased funding opportunities. “It’s going to vary by year, so every year, it’s really about making that part of the budgeting process,” she said. “One year a team might like to take a trip, or some particular equipment might need replacement, and those things in particular may change.”

As coaches are prevented from fundraising by league regulations, student-athletes and their families have traditionally have been forced to help their teams plan fundraising activities or to encourage parents, alumni or local businesses to donate in order to meet the team’s needs. “It’s that sweat- of-the-brow fundraising we’re hoping to decrease,” Melendy said.

Allowing these donations to contribute directly to individual teams’ budgets will not only hopefully remove barriers to entry for students who cannot afford extra team fees to cover the funding gap that many teams currently encounter, but will also take an extra burden off coaches working to ensure that all of their players have the same opportunities. One of the most prevalent issues is break trips, for which many student-athletes are forced to pay expenses out-of-pocket because team funding cannot cover the costs.

“It is our hope that any trip a team takes for regular season competition, including break travel, will be fully budgeted and paid for in that fashion,” Melendy continued. “We hope to get to a place where the total departmental cost is fairly constant, and there is balance and taking turns in terms of destinations.  We are very hopeful that we can cover all costs this year, but we are not quite where we can say that there might not be a small cost to students.”

Recognition of philanthropy

Formalizing the donation process also helps to legitimize donations that otherwise were not recognized by the College either as tax-deductible or as counting toward a donor’s philanthropy each academic year.

“The IRS wouldn’t recognize [some informal gifts] and wouldn’t allow us to receipt that,” Trapp said. “So this allows us to more legitimize that, make sure that those kinds of expenses are put into the budget. Rather than have that person pay for the team dinner, if they make that gift to the team … then they get their tax deduction too.”

“One of the really important things for us is that we’ll be able to acknowledge [donors’] full support for the College, and that’s really important to us,” Jane Nicholls, director of the Parents Fund, said.

Trapp also spoke to the relative simplicity of a Development-driven donation program as opposed to that of alumni and parents contributing directly to teams. “We struggled with consistency because there were questions about how much parents could give, how much time coaches had to spend in figuring out how to get enough money to go on some trips,” he said.

“And from a student’s perspective, knowing that their team would go down on a spring trip and they, you know, would be expected to pay $1500 – that’s inequitable. Financial aid students can’t afford that. So they would actually be discouraged from playing. That doesn’t happen in any other area at Williams,” Trapp said.

Giving to financial aid

While donations marked for financial aid are all contributing to general financial aid funding, the Office of Development and the Office of Financial Aid are hoping to lay the groundwork for individual scholarship programs that individuals could donate to specifically in the near future.

“For a donor to endow a scholarship, it’s a lot of money,” Trapp said. “About a quarter of a million dollars, basically, is the starting point. And obviously there’s a big area there in between where someone could still want to support a specific scholar and get linked up with a student and everything like that, so we’re putting together something that works for both a larger donor … or even a $5000 or $10,000 donor to pool something with their classmates.” Class-based alumni scholarships are a particular area of interest because of their financial stability, according to Trapp.

While the program is still in development, the hope is that a version of it will be ready for implementation by the fall.

“Financial aid is one of the things that a lot of the parents are quite passionate about. They’re really happy that we’re need-blind and that we’re able to give as much support as we do,” Nicholls said. “So we know this is something that … will inspire [donors] to stretch a little bit and give a little more, especially if they can have the real relationship of knowing who it is they’re dealing with.”

Giving to Student Life and the Arts

In terms of giving to Student Life and the Arts, additional revenue generated by allowing donors to give specifically to that area will be budgeted for and used by the College and not by any specific student organizations or by College Council, according to Trapp.

“Gift revenue received for a designated fund, including Student Life and the Arts, will be spent by the College in that general area of its operating budget. It will not be given directly to specific student organizations, and they will not see an immediate increase in available funds,” he explained. “Rather, the College will continue its funding and planning of institutional support of those organizations through the normal budgeting [and] planning process that happens each year.”

Benefits to Development

According to Trapp, the impetus for a change in Development’s policy came for a desire to provide better stewardship to dedicated donors. “From our perspective, once we find what someone might be passionate about in terms of their giving, then we can do a better job of directing, you know, information to them in those areas,” he said. “Instead of receiving something that’s really generic from the Alumni Office that has things that they’re not really interested in, we can be more specific. And it also really helps us, I think, in terms of our stewardship of them and pushing things to them so that they stay connected with Williams.”

“It really is much more a show of passion than a real change in the allocation of the College’s budget,” Nicholls said. “These are not going to enhance these particular budgets; they’re just a way to show what you really care about at a college and what your first priority is.”

Future policy changes

Aside from plans for specific individual scholarships within the umbrella of financial aid, no plan to further break down any of the funding subgroups is in place outside of the existing framework in athletics.

“There’s no breakdown in any of the others at this point,” Nicholls said. “So we’re test-driving with this, I think, in athletics … We have an institutional and kind of a global sense that these are things that people give to year in and year out at other schools and so forth.”

Trapp did say, however, that if the revamped policies inspire donors to “show more passion,” the College may explore the possibility of implementing a group-specific donation policy within the designation of Student Life and the Arts.

“That being said … it doesn’t mean all of a sudden these student groups are going to get more money because … we still work within our budgeting process of getting things approved and all,” Trapp said. “The same thing even with the coaches: It’s not an automatic now they’re going to have more money within their teams. They still have to go through, get their budget approved by the College, identify what their top priorities are for their teams.

“The goal is, let’s make sure that everything … basic in the program should be covered. And the same thing is true for … any group on campus, athletics or any student groups, but if we have a greater show of support in that area, the Alumni Office is going to respond, and that’s one of the reasons why I think they wanted us to move in this direction,” Trapp said.