Why This Donor Opted Out: A Cautionary Tale

Opt Out

“You never know what that last straw will be. You never know what’s finally going to say, loud and clear, ‘With this behavior towards me, these people are not worth a gift.’ You unfriend them. You unsubscribe. You never again give to them or recommend them to others. You edit them from your personal story.”

This is the beginning of Tom Ahern’s blog post, “‘Dear Numbskull Robot….’ My Name’s Tom, not Thomas: How MoveOn.org stupidly and avoidably lost me as a donor.”

I’ve been relating to it a lot recently.

Today’s post is going to be a little longer than most, but stick with me—there’s an important lesson in here for all of us.

I am heartsick to report to say that this week, I am seriously considering withdrawing my financial support from my beloved undergraduate alma mater, Colgate University.

This was no easy decision. In fact, I have been on the fence for months, agonizing about whether or not to break up with them.

Because, you see, I love Colgate. I had a (mostly) fantastic undergraduate experience. I loved my classes. I played soccer with wild abandon. I was involved in a bazillion clubs and had a wonderful group of friends. I embedded myself in the life of the university. In fact, I am still friends with four of my professors!

Now, you would think for a rabid alumna like me, Colgate would be among my top philanthropic priorities. And they are. But they only get 1/10th of what Boston University School of Social Work, my graduate alma mater, is getting out of me financially, and about 1/1,000,000th of what BUSSW is getting out of me in terms of my time and talent.

Why is that?

My donor experience with Colgate hasn’t been all that great. For years after my graduation in 1987, I diligently donated $25 a year. Colgate didn’t ask me to increase my donation to $50 until our 10th reunion. If they’d asked sooner, I would have gladly given more. And while my annual gift has since doubled, it certainly isn’t reflective of my giving capacity.

Why?

Because quite frankly, Colgate has been a sloppy suitor.

I get solicited by the soccer team. I spent most of my life, from age 5 to 45, playing soccer. I was obsessed! But I am not obsessed with the Colgate women’s soccer team. My complete lack of response to every last one of their solicitations hasn’t stopped them from hitting me up, year after year. Um, Coach Whoever-You-Are? It’s getting tiresome.


I also get solicited by my class gift chairs as part of the annual fund. Every university needs operating funds, and I am happy to support a university that I love. Well, I was happy to support them…until I started getting an impersonal, two-line thank-you email instead of a thank-you card.

Apparently, I am one of only two percent of Colgate alumni who have given consistently since graduation. With graduating classes of about 600 students each year, two percent is a pretty small pool of donors. You’d think they’d zero in on this group, get to know us a little better, do a little investigating, cultivating. But no!

For a few years in a row, I’ve received a note with a sticker in it notifying me that I am a member of the Acorn Society, which is apparently a giving society for people who have made a gift at least three years in a row. I’m not really sure what that means, or why it’s special, or what I’m supposed to do with the stupid sticker they send each year. There aren’t any additional communications, events, or benefits for Acorn Society members, so the whole thing comes off as random and arbitrary.

Beyond this, I am a member of the Willow Society, a small (perhaps even tiny) group of alumni that have let the university know we have made provisions for a gift to Colgate in our will. Again, a small group of donors who have raised our hands and said, “Um, I’m pretty serious about you and would like to go steady,” yet we remain ignored.

The fact that Colgate has missed hundreds of cues that I am a donor who’s ready to go the distance for them has left me wondering if anyone’s paying attention. Intentional or not, it’s sent the message that I—and my gifts—don’t really matter. That’s left a really bad taste in my mouth. At the end of the day, if my gifts don’t matter, then why should I keep giving?

Still, I’ve continued to give—despite what the university is doing, not because of it.

Conversely, BU School of Social Work has gotten to know me, gotten me involved in a variety of meaningful activities, solicited my advice, tapped my time and talent. As with Colgate, I’ve been giving every year since I graduated. Only BUSSW has consistently asked me to increase my giving. Beyond what I ever thought I could “afford.” But you know what? I’ve been happy to go out to dinner a little less frequently so I can support a prize fund for graduating students who want to go out into the world and make it a better place. You can see why BUSSW is getting ten times the money out of me that Colgate is!

I received word from a fellow alum that a major protest was going on at Colgate over racial injustice and lack of diversity. More than 400 students took over the administration building, holding a sit-in that started on Monday, September 22nd and lasted five days in response to racist remarks posted on social media by some students and a denigrating comment made by a professor about students of color—sent via email to a student!

While racism, sexism, homophobia, and elitism are nothing new at Colgate (the campus has always been overwhelmingly white and privileged), what made me consider opting out as a donor is the fact that in our diversified, multicultural world, this is still going on, 27 years after I graduated.

As part of the protest, students posted videos about their experiences in and out of the classroom. It was heartbreaking and infuriating to witness the outrageous and disrespectful ways they have been treated by their professors, classmates, and other students. I cannot believe this is going on in 2014 at an institution of higher learning.

Is something about the culture of Colgate that fosters sexism, racism, classism and homophobia? And if there is, what is the University willing to do about it as an institution?

Although the students and administration came to an understanding and the protest is over, still, I am waiting. And watching. I am teetering on the brink, standing on the thinnest of ice, just about ready to call it a day with Colgate. Whether or not I will continue to donate depends largely on the administration’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is, to take bold steps to examine the ways in which the school, as an institution, may be contributing to an environment in which not all students feel welcome. I hope that Colgate rises to the occasion, shows up as its best self, and does the work it needs to do in order to make the campus a more welcoming place for all students. However, until I see some action, I will continue to withhold my financial support.

So, what does this have to do with you?

Are your donors having an experience like the one I’m having with Colgate, or like the one I’m having with BU School of Social Work? And how many of your donors might be standing on the brink, waiting for and watching your next move?

Remember: it’s far easier (and cheaper) to retain an existing donor than to find a new one. Yet with role compression being what it is and development staff operating under more and more pressure to raise more money, we often take short cuts or do what’s expedient in the rush to get to the next dollar. However, without proper acknowledgement, cultivation and stewardship, that next dollar might just be the last that donor ever gives you.