The College Donor Digest

Part Two of College Giving in the Age of COVID-19

April 17, 2020 | Emily Koons Jae

On Friday, March 13—the day my own office transitioned to remote work—I received an email from my alma mater, Davidson College, announcing that students would complete the semester away from campus.

Colleges have taken unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of their students and their communities. Higher education institutions were among the first to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak by closing campuses and transitioning students to remote learning for the remainder of the semester.

The swift campus closures meant that students had mere days to pack their belongings, find appropriate storage facilities, arrange transport home, and ensure that their homes are equipped to accommodate remote learning.

In response to the unforeseen circumstances, the email from Davidson urged alumni to make a special donation to the Student Emergency Fund and included a link to a Google Doc to track non-cash donations.

As of the end of March, Davidson alumni contributed more than $31,000 and 225,000 airline miles to help students make the trip back home. With less than 2,000 students, a base of dedicated and high-earning alumni, and a sizeable endowment, Davidson was well-positioned to respond aggressively. Thanks to a pledge from five families, students were reimbursed for their room and board, given full pay for work-study arrangements, loaned laptops, and provided with free storage units.

Unfortunately, not all colleges and universities have the same resources as Davidson. Alumni across the country received similar requests as colleges scrambled to meet the diverse needs of their students. Student emergency funds are the predominant resource from which colleges can draw for situations like the coronavirus outbreak. The University of North Carolina System lists a student aid fund for each of their 17 campuses. Most existed well before the pandemic, but these funds have grown in size and relevance over the past two weeks.

College giving in the age of COVID-19 is uncharted territory for both donors and institutions. In the short-term, as colleges weather the crisis, a modified kind of giving may be required.

How can donors give intelligently to student emergency funds? A few thoughts:

Give now: For major gifts, FAR advises donors to take their time. Rushing the process never results in a good outcome. It takes a significant investment of time to make on-campus allies, craft a gift agreement, and negotiate with administrative leaders. However, to maximize the impact for students in need, donors should consider making modest gifts to student emergency funds now. Small gifts can make a big difference for individual students.

Keep it simple: FAR never recommends unrestricted gifts to higher education; instead, we advocate for well-crafted gift agreements that clearly articulate the donor’s intent. When making a small gift directly to a student emergency fund, however, donors can skip the step of crafting a gift agreement. Designating a gift specifically to the student emergency fund gives colleges some flexibility to help students in the most urgently-needed ways, while respecting donor intent. Crisis giving requires a different mindset. This is not an endowed chair that will endure for perpetuity; this is meeting a short-term, immediate need. Planning a gift for establishing a new scholarship or academic program may need to be put on hold until the pandemic stabilizes.

Think beyond your alma mater: Although I am impressed with how my alma mater has communicated with alumni during this difficult time, I have not written a check to Davidson. My alma mater boasts a healthy endowment and a wealthy alumni base. And it does not have a particularly high percentage of low-income students who are likely to be disproportionately affected by the transition to remote learning. If I give to a university at this time, I am far more likely to give to institutions with more vulnerable student bodies that may need greater support. Over the past month, I have directed my giving beyond higher education entirely to support my local food bank and organizations that care for the elderly.

This is an extraordinarily difficult time for colleges and universities. It is also a difficult time for those of us who are not in academia, so do not feel guilty if your giving capacity is limited at the moment. But a little can go a long way, and it is important to consider how we can all support others during this crisis. 

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The Fund for Academic Renewal is a program of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions to FAR are fully tax-deductible to the maximum extent provided by law.