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 GiveWell.org 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
$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.