We need to talk about the relentless machine that is higher-education fundraising

Written by Vu Le

Every month or so, I get an appeal letter from my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis (Go Bears!), usually with a promise of some socks or a keychain if I contribute any amount. I love Wash U. It was some of the best and most formative years of my life. It was there that I discovered the power of activism. I was vegan, and the campus had little more than salads, so I started mobilizing the other plant-eaters. We marched on the administration. Many of us fainted on the way because we didn’t have much energy, and our fake-leather shoes disintegrated. It was the longest 50 yard of our lives. But at the end, we were triumphant, and we feasted upon soy nuggets and quinoa bowls with pride. I will always be grateful for what I learned at Wash U, the friends I made, the experiences I had, and the doors that being an alum has opened for me.

But I’m not donating. Wash U is one of the most well-endowed higher education institutions in the US, with over 15 billions in reserve.

In general, the sheer scope and scale of higher education fundraising departments would make the vast majority of nonprofits’ development work pale in comparison. At a large university, we could be talking about a team of hundreds of people raising hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Higher ed institutions, especially elite ones, are so effective at pulling in money that they’re like supermassive stars whose gravity saps resources that could be used for more pressing purposes, while simultaneously reinforcing terrible philosophies and exacerbating societal challenges. How fundraising is done at these institutions, just like how it’s done at hospitals and other large nonprofits, affects the entire sector.

Which is why it has been heartening to see some higher education development professionals having conversations about how to fundraise differently. As fundraising in our sector evolves, spurred on by movements like Community-Centric Fundraising, philosophies and practices long held by the biggest players need to adapt as well. If you are a fundraiser working within higher education, I hope you will consider these things:

1.Stop reinforcing money as the primary goal of fundraising: Higher ed institutions often have annual fundraising goals in the hundreds of millions, sums that are unfathomable for many of us. Large elite institutions like Harvard use their name and reputation to become massive fundraising machines. And yet many universities still struggle with lack of diversity among staffgender wage and leadership disparities, horrific poverty wages for adjunct staff, worsening mental health of students, and other problems. What is the point of raising hundreds of millions of dollars if these funds don’t necessarily correlate with making things better and more equitable? How fundraising is being done, how the money is being invested and deployed, and whom it is affecting, is just as vital, if not more vital, than the total amount being raised.

2.Mitigate fundraising practices that are reinforcing white patriarchal norms: The fundraising practices you use have ripples and consequences. For instance, major donors often enjoy perks such as the gross practice of legacy enrollment, further perpetuating the cycle of wealth and power being concentrated within white families. Another practice, one that happens more frequently at higher education institutions than anywhere else, is the naming of buildings after major donors. But donors of the size that would warrant their name on a building are mostly white men. And given the history of racial, gender, and other forms of inequity in the US that is tied to wealth in this country, do we really want more veneration of wealthy white men?

3.Understand the impact you have on other orgs in the ecosystem: Wealthy alums will leave millions of dollars to their elite alma maters, and we fundraisers (and society in general) encourage and celebrate these donations without much thought or analysis about who else might be affected. Community colleges, for example, are absolutely vital, and yet do not receive nearly the same level of support in public funds or private donations. Donors would have so much more impact if they donated money to community colleges instead of to their already wealthy alma maters, but that is not how higher ed fundraisers (or any fundraisers) have been trained to fundraise. We must think beyond our own organization/institution’s individual well-being and start considering what is best for the community.

4.Get out of the idea that higher education institutions are neutral: There is the idea that colleges and universities are simply politically neutral places, and thus fundraising is also neutral. But some of the worst people on earth actually come from some of the most prestigious schools. Their pedigrees are used to gain power, which they then use to undermine democracy and roll back human rights. Fundraisers at these institutions must understand the role they play. Without thoughtful analysis, you may be unwittingly helping to strengthen inequity and injustice. 

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.