Alma Mater Giving Done Right

Colleges and universities may not have been entirely pleased with the recent federal tax overhaul, but they should be quite satisfied with their advancement offices.

America’s higher education institutions are raking in contributions. The Wall Street Journal headline explains it all: Giving to Colleges Jumps 6.3% to Record $43.6 Billion in Fiscal 2017.

Many donors support their alma maters. The excellent fundraising teams at these institutions remind us of our past college exploits each time they call for donations – and many of us are obviously pleased to respond accordingly.

Yet how much does your alma mater share your principles? As the teaching of American history and the humanities give way to speech codes and “safe spaces,” are our donations to universities aligning with the values that were part of those fond memories?

Despite concerns, particularly around free speech, it’s possible to find a myriad of positive programs at campuses across the country that deserve financial support. Here are three things to keep in mind as you contemplate giving to your alma mater – and a bonus idea that goes in a different direction.

1) Check for a General Alignment with Values

Media coverage of conservative speakers being shouted down, or in some cases physically accosted, may not apply to your college, but that does not mean your alma mater is a bastion of free speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintains an exhaustive database of the speech regulations at schools across America. A quick check will show any questionable limitations to free speech.

FIRE also has a “disinvitation” database where you can see if your alma mater has disallowed any speakers – and from where that pressure for dropping the speaker originated.

It may sound simplistic, but a quick Google News search for any items related to your school can also be a helpful tool for rooting out issues that may raise a red flag for your giving. Remember, schools don’t tend to put controversial updates on the “donate” page of their website.

2) Target your Support

Supporting your school does not have to come in the form of a gift to the annual fund. At DonorsTrust, in fact, we encourage the opposite. We ask clients to specify a particular program or a particular faculty member’s research, when requesting a gift to a college or university.

Specificity in your gift helps you address the question about alignment with values. Not every aspect of the university will comport to your thinking. Find the programs that do and earmark your donation there.

If you plan to give to the school, the simple act of designating how the funds should be used is the easiest way to protect your donor intent and your values.

3) Avoid Giving to Endowments

Giving to university endowments may seem like a targeted gift, particularly when giving large sums. However, James Piereson, an expert in the area of higher education philanthropy, suggests instead that liberty-minded donors would do well to skip endowment giving all together. As he explained as part of a longer piece in the DonorsTrust blog from 2016:

[W]riting checks for endowment campaigns is a misguided strategy, especially for a conservative donor. Once the check is written, the donor loses all control over the expenditure of the funds. After a decade or so, the donor is usually out of the picture for one reason or another, leaving university officials with a great deal of latitude in allocating funds to programs they regard as more important. If the funds are misspent or misdirected, the courts will generally side with the institution, not the donor or, in many cases, the donor’s family seeking to enforce his or her original intent.

In addition, perpetual endowments are inefficient instruments for spending money, since often they lie fallow for a few years while the funds accumulate and afterwards they typically pay out just 5 percent of their value on an annual basis.

This same advice holds true for endowed chairs. Such arrangements address a current need but a changing future might lead to the chair being altered beyond the donor’s intentions (such as happened with the Robertson endowment at Princeton). Piereson advises instead that, “Donors can get much more ‘bang for the buck’ by allocating those funds up front on programs they think are important.”

University Giving Without the University

Several conservative commentators make the case that donors on the right are better burning their money than giving it to their alma maters. That doesn’t always have to be true with the planning suggested above.

However, another strategy for givers is to separate the goal from the institution. If a donor’s interest lies in cultivating a new generation that understands the principles of liberty, or that simply appreciate a well-rounded debate, there are a number of organizations working to reach students and cultivate professors who understand these principles.

Jim Piereson notes a few of these:

The Jack Miller Center specializes in finding and supporting academic programs that encourage civic education and an understanding of the U.S. constitutional tradition. The Manhattan Institute…sponsors a program on the American university that has directed funds to worthy campus programs. The American Enterprise Institute has built a wide network of campus contacts, as has the Institute for Humane Studies. The Charles Koch Foundation has also been heavily engaged in identifying worthy programs.

Additional programs include the Mercatus Center’s work in economic training, and student groups such as Foundation for Economic Education, Students for Liberty, and Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Focus on Achieving Your Goals

It is possible as a donor to support universities – even your own alma mater – in a way that encourages free minds and America’s founding principles. Doing it productively, however, may take a little due diligence, direction, or indirect giving to achieve your aims.


  • Peter Lipsett

    Peter Lipsett is vice president at DonorsTrust. He also leads DonorsTrust’s Novus Society, a network of donors under 40 committed to growing their philanthropic know-how. He has a dual degree in political science and theater from Davidson College and finally got a practical credential with an MBA from George Mason University.

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