The Powerful ROI of Giving Back to Your College

This is the time of year when we're all receiving multiple solicitations from great people-serving organizations asking us to give. After all, it's both the holiday season and the end of the tax year--double the incentives to donate.

It's well known that the American people are among the most generous in the world when it comes to charitable contributions, but increasingly, we're considering the impact and ROI of our gifts. That only makes sense. People sometimes ask me, "Why should I make these end-of-year donations? What difference will it make?"

In higher education, where I work, the return is extremely powerful, and not just because annual alumni giving counts in every institution's U.S. News & World Report rankings. As Benjamin Franklin proclaimed, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest"--in four major ways:

First, even modest giving has an outsized impact on the development of the school. That's because each gift directly impacts the annual operating budget. For example, last year at Franklin & Marshall College, we raised nearly $5 million through annual giving. That's equivalent to the draw on $100 million of endowment. It would take years for us to raise our endowment by that amount in order to have the same day-to-day impact at the college. While building endowment is imperative for an institution's long-term vibrancy and stability, gifts for current use have the benefit of going to work immediately, supporting critical projects and the educational mission, from hiring faculty to improving technology to supporting student activities.

Second, giving sends an inspiring message to the faculty and staff who work every day to advance learning and scholarship. A donation of any size is a way to say "thank you" for the 24-7 work at a college--from faculty to library staff, from public safety officers to food services employees, from the counseling center staff to performing arts educators. When alumni give back, those who educated them hear the message, "Your work matters. You touched me. You made an impact. I have grown because of what you did." This gesture heartens and energizes all who teach, all who give of themselves, within a learning community or any other service organization.

Third, giving empowers us both to shape and to continue learning from our alma maters. Donating annually means that we claim a critical role in a college's ongoing narrative. Our philanthropy helps determine how higher education approaches critical issues for emerging adults, like inclusivity and leadership, personal wellbeing and professional skill building, intellectual calling and purpose. As standards of education evolve with our society, we have a voice in shaping positive changes to the American college experience.

And, in developing that voice, we grow. During my twenty years in higher education, I have loved watching alumni become passionately interested in the living missions of our institutions and the age-old questions they contain about how best to create new knowledge, how best to foster learning, how best to protect free speech and inquiry, how best to compete for resources, and how best to promote cultures of fairness and civility. It has been inspiring to watch alumni get swept up in the passion of a professor's research or the dignity of a brave student's struggle to succeed. Giving profoundly changes the giver.

And finally, when we invest in education, we renew our commitment to providing learning and knowledge for future generations. That's an investment in the people whose minds will solve the great challenges we face as a world--from climate change to global stability, from educational equity to biomedical discovery. And in our own country, that's an investment in economic strength and democracy.

Giving to higher education sustains and grows essential engines of human development, knowledge and innovation. By cultivating the minds and talents of each generation, education expands the resources of society. That's an ROI that matters in the holiday season--and in every season.