Rethink your donation

In the last couple of weeks, seniors have been asked to select the class agent they would prefer to be berated by for money on behalf of the College for the rest of their lives. From their personal class agent, each graduate can expect to be called every year or two and asked for money, aside from the regular letters they will be receiving requesting the same thing. They will likely be told that by giving to Williams, they’re contributing to a legacy of social mobility that helps poor and middle class people.

I have advice for those seniors. Once you have received confirmation of who your class agent is, block their number. Now, I know some of the class agents personally, and they’re quite lovely people, but who calls anyone anyway? They can still contact you via Facebook. I recommend this because there is fundamentally no reason to deal with your class agent, because there is very little reason to give money to Williams.

Essentially, there are three reasons one might give to the College. The first two are of a similar kind: you might give to the College because you had a good experience and it gives you a fuzzy feeling to contribute to its continued existence, or you might give to the College because you want to implicitly bribe the admissions office to give your children preference. The third reason that you might give for donating to the College is that you view it as a charitable donation in the name of social justice.

I do not really intend to comment on the first two reasons. If you intend to give to the College as personal luxury consumption, go ahead. Good for you. You should still probably block your class agent’s number, because if you’re going to get pleasure out of giving to the College anyway, you should not force yourself to get pestered about it as well. If the only reason giving gives you pleasure is that it earns you a bit of a respite from being asked to do so, it probably isn’t really worth your money.

On the other hand, if you are giving to the College as a vessel for making the world a better place, you should reconsider. Williams is a truly terrible instrument for whatever humanitarian goal you have in mind, be it directly increasing social mobility, promoting scientific research or indirectly promoting the development of more socially conscious citizens. Give your money somewhere else or stop lying to yourself and accept that it is merely consumption. Consumption is not a bad thing, or at least I am not in the position to come out against it – just the other day I bought myself Neko Case’s album from last summer. But what I’m concerned with is charity.

If you are looking to get the best value for your dollar for net human well-being, I suggest you go to and take a look at their charity rankings. Their current top charity, GiveDirectly, gives money directly to very poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda and has proven to be extremely effective in improving standard of living over the long term, especially given how far your $10 donation could go relative to its essentially meaningless impact on the Williams endowment.

I am not going to go so far as to say, however, that it is only acceptable to give to the very best charities. The fundamental issue is that if you are giving money to Williams, it is going to have essentially zero positive effect on the world. You would do more in giving your

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$10 to a homeless person you see on the street. Williams already has vast amounts of money, it already accepts relatively few extremely poor students and the relatively few extremely poor students it accepts already receive generous financial aid.

But say you want to have an impact specifically on one of American social mobility, academic research or the production of more socially conscious citizens. Suppose you reject the idea of achieving these goals by donating to expanding pre-kindergarten or research independent of educational institutions. Suppose you’re committed to making a difference specifically through institutions of American higher education. Even then, there are better choices to make than donating to Williams. I have adored my experience at the College as much as the next student, but I know in my heart of hearts that fundamentally it’s not different from that which I would have had at Amherst or Skidmore or Reed.

If you want to further social justice by donating to higher education, do some research. Washington Monthly Magazine has an annual higher education ranking specifically on the basis of social mobility, research and service. Go there, decide what you value most, maybe do some independent research and make your decisions on the basis of facts, not feelings. Figure out which schools do the best in the categories you care about relative to the size of their endowments, and donate to them. Then, send Williams a letter saying that maybe you would give to the College instead if it stopped spending money on fancy new buildings and spent it instead on returning to zero loan financial aid and dropping preference for legacy students.

It’s not wrong to donate to Williams, but it is not very effective charity. Call it consumption, or call off your donation.

Chris Huffaker ’15 is a math and French double major from Calgary, Alberta. He is studying abroad at Oxford.

Comments (14)

  1. As a financial aid student here, I have to completely disagree. You’re writing off the need that exists for these students, and trust me, even if we are only a tiny minority of an otherwise rich school:

    The opportunity to study at Williams _was_ unique. It wasn’t Amherst, and it wasn’t Skidmore. I haven’t yet graduated, so I can’t say Williams will get me a better job, or a bright future. But studying here has given me confidence and something that my family never had: education. For free.

    You say donate to other charities. Donate to everything and anything you want, I don’t care what you do with your money; your argument has merit in the sense that donating blindly to Williams shouldn’t make you feel better at the end of the day for having changed the world. However, I vehemently disagree over your discrediting of those who’ve donated or will donate.

    I’m not ashamed of the funds that have put me through school. And when I graduate, if I have the chance, you can be damned sure that I’ll give back to the institution that thought I had the chance to make an impact.

    Also, why should the college feel bad about investing in its infrastructure? I agree about the loans-free aid, but this just seems like a misplaced diatribe against something that all schools do.

    1. Amen.

  2. This is just so uniformed and driven by the emotions you dismiss as stupid.

    Just because the endowment is big does not mean we have tons of money to spend. The endowment is to ensure the longevity of the college and we can only us a certain percent of it each year. We can’t just scoop out $100m (or however much) to build a new and revolutionary library that will greatly enhance the Williams experience.

    You make such a huge deal of zero loan fin aid, but it’s really a tiny fraction of the fin aid package and a small loan is a good incentive to work hard when you get out of college. Also, I simply don’t see the problem with legacy students. You are creating a loyalty to the college and greatly increase the community spirit and it keeps our incredibly valuable alumni network engaged.

    I’m not going to even waste my time arguing that Williams (and other higher ed) makes a difference in the world. The evidence is abundant and obvious. I’ll let someone else take that issue up.

  3. Don’t mindlessly give your money to charities either. The one mentioned here sounds like a good charity, but most donations go into the actual running of the charity organization and not to people in need or the money goes to a government/government agency and never gets to the people that need it. OR worst of all, a group of people who think they know what’s best for everyone else spends that money on things that aren’t needed. If you want to effect change in this world donate to activism or become an activist yourself. Personally, I believe Williams has a chance to create activists, so I would probably give my money to them before I gave it to a charity.

  4. To start, I think this is incredibly reductive and short-sighted. Also, it is insulting to the College itself. Although you may see the building of new highly efficient buildings as a waste here at Williams, there is still an impact Williams is making on the students who attend here through that decision. Coming from an area that did not appreciate sustainability, I find that the spending the college does to progress its sustainable position rather enlightening and inspiring. It challenges me in ways I never expected.

    Additionally concerning the donations given to the college, what exactly do you think the college should do with the funds? Donations after all are really helping many students who attend Williams in terms of financial costs and availability to try explore new interests like classes and study abroad programs. It is hard enough getting into elite colleges now days, but when a college can offer you the financial flexibility and academic advantages Williams does, I think there is something special about that college. I am beyond thankful for the alumni who have made my career here at Williams so incredibly comforting so far.

    Also, comparing Williams and saying that you could easily transpose your experience here to an experience at virtually any other prestigious college/university is simply naïve and unacceptable. I chose Williams because I knew the experience I would have here would be so incredibly unique. That experience is in part shaped by the funds given from alumni. So, when I graduate, I will happily invest back into the college that made such an impression on me. I’m sorry if Williams wasn’t the total “experience” you were expecting. Nevertheless, this college has got a lot of positive things going on for it, and I think it would be more productive of you to focus on that.

  5. You know, if you’re not pleased with Williams and the priorities this insitution has, it’s not too late to transfer (though time is running out before you’re forever tied to this place!).

    Aren’t you at WEPO? You’re taking advantage of one of the things that makes Williams unique. How many other of these perfectly fine institutions (that you did not matriculate to, for reasons unbeknownst to us) could have afforded you this opportunity?

    According to you, “if you are giving money to Williams, it is going to have essentially zero positive effect on the world.” You sure about that?” Endowed resources cover only about 30% of the College’s financial aid commitment. The Alumni Fund helps make up the difference.” Too bad you’re overseas. You could use some Ephpreciation.

    Also, spending money on fancy new buildings? Have you seen Sawyer lately? This institution has changed a lot since the inaugration of that library nearly 40 years ago, and I think allowing a new library (God forbid, at a college campus) to reflect that is neither frivolous nor unwarranted.

    Yeah, my experience would’ve been just as good anywhere else, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t have the roommate I have now, the boyfriend I have now, the awesome book collection I’ve got, or even a Mountain Day. I get being disenchanted with this place – believe me, I’m a woman of color here. You can bite the hand that feeds you, but I know my experience here wouldn’t be possible without these very same dollars they solicit from alums.

    Also, it’s about HALF the campus on some sort of financial aid. $2000 of FinAid can be just as make or break for some families as $50K packages. Not every FinAid student at Williams is in abject poverty, and all are benefitting from the generosity of those who that have come before them.

    “The fundamental issue is that if you are giving money to Williams, it is going to have essentially zero positive effect on the world.” <- Nope. Nah. Negative. Uh-uh. Wrong.

  6. Marie,
    I apologize if it somehow seems like I think there should not be financial aid. I am happy you have this opportunity. I am simply arguing that because of the amount of money Williams already has and the amount of it that, in my opinion, is essentially wasted, there are more effective ways to improve people’s lives by donating money. There are other schools that give proportionally more students greater financial aid than Williams does. I understand that for you, specifically, Williams is the one that has done so, but statistically, there are other schools that do more.
    As for this being a diatribe, at least in part, against something all schools do: Yes, it is. I think American higher education is an imperfect system. I would like it to be better. But I can’t write an op-ed in the Times.

    1. By wasted, do you mean solely on material things (e.g., the buildings?) Or are you upset with the fundings of all things, including campus life activities, etc?

      I think the best way to resolve your issues would be to get involved with the student gov, and I get that people are busy so that’s not realistically achievable. But when people complain with no constructive advice, it kind of serves no purpose. And I’ve worked with Minority Coalition, so I know that at least some funds go to really great causes… maybe if you see the funds going to these things you’d be less disenchanted?

      Do you have another tangible example of a “better” school? I suppose I’m just skeptical about your claims.

      I suppose my personal sentiments just don’t allow me to read these types of inflammatory arguments appreciatively if they don’t set out to correct the issues they raise.

      Thanks for the time in writing/responding, nonetheless.

  7. Smartly written, thinking outside of the box

  8. Chris, can you point to me some institutions of higher learning that “give proportionally more students greater financial aid than Williams does”?

    Moreover, your claim that “You would do more in giving your $10 to a homeless person you see on the street” is tenuous. When you give that homeless person $10, you have no control over how that money is spent. When you donate $10 to the college, you can specifically designate which programs (teaching, athletics, financial aid, etc) will benefit. So I agree that the American higher education system is imperfect, here is one way you can personally help by contributing to the College where you think its priorities should lie. I am not arguing against giving money to the poor (disclaimer: I am a Christian and a student of development economics, and work with several nonprofits/volunteer-led organizations), but just pointing out that the arguments you make – such as the illusion of “making a world a better place”- can be made on almost an cause.

    Finally, why not do both? Give to the College what you think is fair. After you graduate from College, you will start to recognize the subtle blessings and luxuries we had there that are in many ways, irreplaceable. After that, give to whatever organizations you want.

    As an aside, I have always prefer Charity Navigator, since they clarify much better what they consider to be “good” charities.

  9. You forget about the benefits of the donations to the donor. They create a richer college that attracts brighter students thereby preserving the legacy of Williams and sustaining the value of your diploma.

  10. Chris, you’re a great guy and I have a lot of respect for you, but you need to check your privilege. (Okay, I hate that phrase, but I think the idea is sound…) I don’t think you fully understand how many opportunities this school has afforded to students. Students at other schools don’t have a lot of the opportunities that we have. Not every school offers the academic resources, access to deans/administration, or health services that Williams does. What about special opportunities offered, like WEPO or service trips or the seemingly infinite student groups? None of this is a given, even at all other small, well-funded schools. These resources shouldn’t be taken for granted; we don’t inherently deserve them, and not everyone has them.

    Also, Williams is not, as you seem to think, interchangeable with many other schools. For so many students, but financial aid students in particular, there are very few schools quite like Williams. Amherst, sure. As much as we like to talk about rivalries, we are very similar schools. But there are very few others who can offer the same opportunities at the same cost for the poor/middle class. Many of my high school peers have not been able to finish college, and those who have are saddled with significant debt.

    Quality higher education isn’t considered a given for everyone. You seem to think that a little money sent to Williams won’t help anyone, but I strongly disagree. I’m grateful for every person who sent in a dollar that helped send me through college, but I’m appreciative of more than just the financial aid. I’m glad we’re able to offer students more than just “the Williams experience,” but also “the Williams education.” There are so few schools that can offer such an education. I’m sure that without Williams level financial aid, I would have gone to college, but I’m just as sure that without it I would have gone to a school which would not have challenged me academically. So, so, so many schools are like that; sure you’ll get out the other end with a degree, but you won’t have gotten the same education. It’s why we all went to Williams in the first place, right? The education? Don’t try to take that away from those who can’t afford it.

  11. Pingback: No, You Shouldn’t Donate To Your College | In The 'Cac

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