It seems logical for people to donate less when their wallets are tight. Phillip Lyons, a high school economics teacher in Palo Alto, Calif., has been donating $100 to his alma master, UCLA, every year since graduation. However, things became different after the recession hit.
“I haven’t given since the [economic] downturn,” Lyons said. “But in all honesty, I think it’s psychological. I still have a job and the same income but I feel less well off so I haven’t given.”
Yet, despite the recession, Cornell received a record amount of donations in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, according to Tommy Bruce, vice president of communications. Cash gifts totaled $446.7 million, $319 million from alumni, outpacing Cornell’s nearest Ivy peer by $24 million, according to Bruce. Although donor psychology is complicated, many believe that graduates’ relationship to their alma mater, not income level, is the most determinant motivation for alumni giving.
“Income levels do help predict giving behavior among the college students that I’ve had in my studies, such that those from wealthier families are more likely to give than those from lower-income backgrounds,” Eric VanEpps, a senior psychology major at the University of Richmond who spent a year researching donation behavior, stated in an e-mail. “[However], in my personal opinion, I don’t think the disparity is necessarily proportionate to income. I wouldn’t be surprised to find studies that say that people of all income levels give relatively similar proportions of their income.”
One correlation VanEpps noticed is that people are more likely to keep their money if they view it as “earned money” rather than something they have been given. Experiments show that when participants are paid in the lab and asked to donate before they had the time to “internalize” their pay as “earned” money, they are more likely to donate it back to whatever charity the researchers propose, VanEpps said.
Kat Morisy ’11, a caller for the Cornell Annual Fund, agrees that income is not the most important factor.
“Even when the economy is great, people [I call] still argue that they just bought a house, just had a baby, just had a divorce, family member in a nursing home, etc. In general more people are using [the recession] argument, but if they really want to give, they still give, just less,” she said.
“The most important reason [is] definitely how connected they feel [to Cornell], which is why callers are important.” she added.
Callers at the Cornell Annual Fund are not just calling to solicit donations, but also to build rapport with alumni and strengthen their connection with Cornell, said Morisy. When on the phone with alumni, callers listen to their life stories and talk about problems they see at Cornell. They also spontaneously help them with everything from reconnecting with alumni services for job searches to finding a place to stay for graduation weekend.
“I called a man, and he asked me ‘how the hell did they get you to do this terrible job?’” Kat recalled. “I replied that I enjoy talking to alumi and hearing their stories from Cornell. He started telling me about his crazy fraternity hijinks and even gave a gift in the end.”
Morisy’s parents, Michelle Landis Morisy ’76 and Lee Morisy ’76, said they feel that it is their “duty to give back”.
“I donate because I was on major financial aid as a student, obviously made possible by donors,” Michelle stated in an e-mail.
“I don’t really know why I donate every year, I just do it,” chuckled James Prout ’83, father of Olivia Prout ’12. “I had a great experience at Cornell, and I want to make sure Cornell is there for others to have a similar great experience.”
On the contrary, a poor relationship with Cornell is often the reason why people hesitate to donate.
“I have called really, really, angry people,” Kat said. “Some people are angry their children or relative didn’t get in, other people feel their teachers were mean or unfair.”
“My first child [Michael Morisy ’07, former Sun managing editor] applied [early decision]. We normally make our annual donation in Nov/Dec and held off that year waiting to see if he got in — if he hadn’t it would have been a bit more difficult to make a donation, but we might have anyway,” Michelle said.
VanEpps and Lyons also noted that it is important that it is more “psychologically fulfilling and self-reinforcing” to know exactly how their donations will be used.
“What the money is used for is the number one thing that first motivated me,” Lyons said. “If they said they were going to use it for new parking spaces I wouldn’t give a dime, but if it was 100 percent for scholarships I would.”
“People donate when they feel like their donations actually make a real difference,” VanEpps said.
In addition, “providing naming opportunities often stimulates giving,” Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, ILR, stated in an email. Ehrenberg started his own foundation to honor his deceased son, explaining that the opportunity to honor loved ones is important to donors. However, some donors also believe that true “charitable giving” only includes anonymous donations where the donor do not receive any recognition.
“There is no right answer,” Ehrenberg said.
Recently, New York Times Magazine columnist Randy Cohen wrote that it is “unethical” to donate to wealthy institutions like Harvard and Cornell because although the endowment at these schools suffered greatly, they are still a lot more wealthy than smaller institutions such as community colleges, which serve many more Americans.
“This is a big issue,” said Ehrenberg. “This question is no different than asking whether people should donate funds to food kitchens or to support symphony orchestras. Individual beliefs on what is important to them typically carry the day.”
“While smaller institutions are certainly important, they don’t necessarily have the combination of top-notch facilities, world-class faculty and researchers, and phenomenal students that Cornell has,” said Corey Earle ’07, associate director of student programs at the Office of Alumni Affairs. “Supporting Cornell means supporting education, research, and outreach on issues like poverty, sustainable energy, nanotechnology, the arts and humanities and everything else.”
“One of the best ways to motivate gifts is simply educating people about how Cornell operates. People think of Cornell as this incredibly wealthy institution, but our endowment per student is much, much lower than at many of our peer institutions. It’s important to understand the impact of a gift as well,” Earle added. “If all Cornell alumni gave $5 annually, that would have an incredible impact.”