A day in the life of an alumnus to a small liberal arts college is never dull. Here’s an email received yesterday, with the names blocked out to ensure anonymity.
Dear M. Snowe,
As Senior Vice President of Anonymous College, I am writing to ask you for some very valuable feedback. Our records indicate that you have not recently made contributions to the College. I am not asking for money at this time; I am merely looking for information. Will you share with us why you do not give?
If you take a moment to let me know why you don’t give to Anonymous College, I promise to respond to you personally. We are working to make Anonymous College the top choice for ambitious students eager to discover themselves in an intellectually rigorous, Jesuit, liberal arts environment. We need the support of alumni to make that happen. That is why it is imperative for us understand why some alumni do not give. If you’re willing to share that information, I would be very grateful.
Just email me at anonymous email address with your response, and I will get back to you as soon as possible.
Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts with me.
Senior Vice President
And here is an appropriate response to such an outrageous request, sent back to Mr. Anonymous this morning, for your viewing pleasure.
February 19, 2008
Dear Mr. Anonymous:
Thank you for your letter. Because you took the time to address me, I intend to answer you in full, and address the question of why I do not give.
I must remark first that I was a bit taken aback by your email. While I have received many direct mail and email queries for alumni giving, I’ve never received a letter quite like this, addressed directly to me. Your letter might not be the tack I would necessarily employ, but your candor should be applauded.
I truly enjoyed my four years at Anonymous College, and I agree with you that Anonymous College should be a top choice for ambitious students, and that Anonymous College is an intellectually rigorous liberal arts environment – I have seen and heard from students at many other schools whose experiences don’t come close to the one offered at Anonymous College. I have Anonymous College pride, and I am never hesitant to recommend the school to any potential college student.
But one of the many life lessons that Anonymous College helped to instill upon me is something I would like to share with you, and hope it gives you a better understanding as to why I take offense to your letter. Being taught in a Jesuit and liberal arts tradition, I learned the importance of the virtues of morality, justice and intellectual questioning. New ideas and diverse interpretations are breeding ground for a fulfilling and empathetic life. But when you ask me: why then I do not give? I must ask you: how can giving be defined so narrowly?
During my freshman year in 2001, I participated in the anonymous program. The key question appended to each theme is, as I am sure you know: How then shall we live? – Which strikes a familiar chord to me when I re-read your question of why then I do not give. I don’t know whether you phrased your question as an intentional mnemonic to make me flash back to freshman year, but if you did—it worked. So let me tell you about my freshman year. I took classes on searching for the true self, and the self in society. I made wonderful friendships. I worked in the dining hall and took extra shifts to try and contribute more towards my tuition. I worked on school breaks when at home. I studied hard, and did well. I learned what it was like to live by myself, and also how to live with my peers.
From Freshman year on, Anonymous College only continued to help develop a fuller sense of myself, the world around me, and the change I wanted to affect to better that world. Anonymous College has given me a lot, and I do owe it some form of repayment. And eventually, that repayment might take the form of cold. hard. cash.
But my question that I will repeat again is: how can giving be defined so narrowly? And why do I ask this? Let me go through any given day of mine. In the morning, I get on a subway train into New York City to go to work. It is always packed, and people are always bustling to gain those extremely coveted seats. I see a woman who is pregnant forced to stand, or an older couple shunted to the corner, clutching handlebars. Without a second thought–I offer my seat. And you ask me why then I don’t give. I get to work an hour or two early and work well past the standard quitting time, in order to prove my work ethic and be the best I can be. And you ask me why then I don’t give. I collect donations for food kitchens and cancer research to donate before I run in 15Ks. And you ask me why then I don’t give. I stay up late in order to edit my younger sibling’s college papers. And you ask me why then I don’t give. I volunteer regularly after work. And you ask me why then I don’t give. And most importantly, many know of where I went to college, as I laud my alma mater with pride. And all these small yet important acts contribute to the larger goal of showing people the tools that Anonymous College provides, and what a Anonymous College graduate can become. And so I repeat: And you ask me why then I don’t give.
On a less abstract note, I’d like to say that I do want to give financially to the school. Eventually. Right now, I am still paying off three college loans. Perhaps I would have more incentive to give financially if I was sure that my gift would be going directly to the aid of someone like me, who had to work their way through college, and whose parents, who tried to help, could only contribute a few extra dollars from their already tight salaries. Also, Anonymous College helped me to realize that the aspect of money is not anywhere near as important as happiness, fulfillment, and service to others – and my job right now fulfills and satisfies me. It does not however, allow me to veer from a very strict budget, which to me is fine, but perhaps you take offense. But in terms of my service to others, I feel as though I have given much. I feel as if my support to Anonymous College has been unwavering, but if defined by your terms, I have been found wanting. Yes, financial stability is an important aspect of any college, but if Anonymous College believes in itself, and the messages and gifts it conveys to its students, it will never be bankrupt. I fear that too much focus on the monetary will lead Anonymous College towards a bear intellectual market. So perhaps the questions that should be asked are not why then don’t you give? but what does it mean to give, and can giving be more than what is measured in dollar signs, line charts, and profit margins?
So once again, I thank you for your letter, and for considering my response.
Class of Anonymous
“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”