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Donating to Grinnell

Grinnell has a one-point-something billion dollar endowment. That’s an awful lot, about one million dollars per student, which puts us 10th on the list of endowment per student that I found on the Interweb [1]. According to a colleague, it also exceeds the the combined endowment of all the private colleges in Ohio [6,7]. A donation of $100 [8] seems like a pittance in comparison. Nonetheless, I regularly give to Grinnell, and I encourage you to do the same, even if it’s $10 [9]. Why? Two reasons, which correspond to two kinds of donations.

First, it’s fairly clear that the long-term trajectory of Grinnell’s endowment does not match the long-term trajectory of Grinnell’s expenses. That is, our expenses are rising faster than our endowment [10]. There are a variety of possible solutions to that problem: We can start to cut services, which will impinge on the quality of education. We can stop raising salaries, which will likely make it harder for us to recruit the quality faculty we want teaching Grinnell students. We can try to recruit more full-pay students, but we’ve seen that that’s difficult, and there’s a fairly limited pool of families able and willing to pay the full cost of Grinnell. I also think it’s important that Grinnell provides an excellent liberal arts education for students who could not otherwise afford such an education. We could take a higher percentage out of the endowment each year to pay expenses, but that exacerbates the problem down the road. Or we could try to expand the endowment. One thing the Interweb has shown us is that there is power in a large community, even if each member of the community can only do a little. And so a lot of Grinnellians, giving what they can, can make some difference.

Those donations are for long-term growth. However, there is also great benefit to a second kind of donation: Targeted donations to a particular department or organization. I expect that every department has things they want to do or buy that don’t fit into the regular College budget [11]: receptions when students are presenting in classes, funding for students to attend activities in nearby cities, expanded opportunities for the SEPC to hold social events, celebrations of graduating seniors, supplies that are useful, but not strictly necessary, and so on and so forth. Even a small bit here can make a big difference. $10 buys a bunch of cookies for an impromptu study break or to surprise students in class [12]. $100 can send a car full of students to an off-campus event.

As an alum, or even as a current student, you know that there are things that your department or organization wants to do without charging students, but has difficulty doing. Donate to support one or more of those things. Donate to encourage the department to do new things.

I’ll use my own department, Computer Science, as an example. I’ve previously shared a version of my letter to donors. To summarize: The CS department has two restricted funds, one is our general restricted fund and one is our diversity fund. We use the general restricted fund to pay for snacks when students present in class, for lunches with summer research students, for small software services when going through administrative red tape would take too long, for our celebration of CS seniors [14], for the Pledge of the Computing Professional, for sending students to hack-a-thons, for our SEPC’s unexpected and expected expenses [15], for a few useful books for students in the CS Commons, and so on and so forth. We’ve used our diversity fund to send students to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing and the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. We’ve used our diversity fund to purchase a lot of This is what a Grinnell Computer Scientist Looks Like t-shirts, shirts which we now give to every major when they declare [16]. We’ve used our diversity fund to support the various student groups within the department. I think these are all valuable activities that make our students’ experiences at Grinnell better, and I understand that the College can’t fund them all [18].

I’ve also indicated that I’m willing to try to follow guidelines for designated gifts within the department. Last spring, some seniors suggested that we have a CS coffee fund, so that we always have good coffee in the commons [19]. They never followed through. But if they had, I had plans in place for someone to make cold brew.

Of course, if a group of alums wanted to get together and donate the $2M or so that it requires to create an endowed chair in CS, I certainly wouldn’t mind. (And no, it doesn’t have to go to me; I just want the extra position.)

I’ve used CS as an example. You certainly don’t have to donate to CS [20]. Lots of student groups could use a bit more funding, although I don’t know the particulars. here are a few other options. There’s a fund run by Student Affairs that supports students who need counseling and whose insurance does not pay for that needed counseling. The Art department can often use a few more tools in the woodshop, or supplies for students, or whatever. The Grinnell Science Project uses its restricted fund to provide more activities for GSP students. I’m sure that if you have some group or issue on campus that you are passionate about, and contact them to find out what they might use extra funds for, they’ll have an idea.

Note that if you donate directly to the CS department’s restricted fund or diversity fund (or, for that matter, to any department’s or group’s restricted fund), I’d appreciate it if you’d include a note similar to These funds are to be used as the department considers appropriate, and not within any particular time frame. Why am I asking this? It appears that the powers that be have decided that donors want their money spent quickly, and so require us to plan to spend half of our restricted funds each year. However, as department chair, I know that there are years in which I don’t need to spend much, and years in which I need to spend a lot. I’d rather use the funds as needed, rather than try to shoehorn in an expense. Of course, if you’d prefer that the recipient of your donation spend the money quickly, rather than as needed, let them know that and I’m sure that they will oblige.

Whether you are a current student, an alum, a faculty or staff member, a parent, or a community member, I expect and hope that Grinnell has had a positive effect on you [21]. Please donate to the College, and help it not only continue to have positive effects on current and future students (and faculty, and staff, and our community) but also effect students (and faculty, and staff, and our community) in new positive ways.

Where do I donate? I usually donate a little to the College’s base fund (the Pioneer [22] fund, I believe); a lot to the CS department’s diversity fund [23]; $50 or $100 to Studio Art; some amount to the swim team; and so on and so forth. I try to donate some portion of my MIP stipends to the department’s restricted fund, since that fund makes our summers a lot better. Sometimes, when I get an extra stipend from the College, I donate about 20% back to some appropriate organization. For example, after getting a stipend for a summer workshop on mentoring [24], I donated some back to the writing mentor program; I believe that allowed the program to have a celebration at the end of the semester.

I had originally planned to add a section on how things have changed in the College’s need during my time at Grinnell, and a section about some of my encounters with Development and Alumni Relations (DAR [25]) that almost got me to stop giving to Grinnell. However, this essay is long enough as it is. I think I’ll leave those topics as essays for another day.

[1] Why do I call it the Interweb rather than The Internet or The World-Wide Web? Habit, at this point. I generally mean that I found it on the World-Wide Web, but almost no one uses that term any more, and those that do don’t hyphenate [2]. Some folks use The Internet [4], but that refers to a broader set of services, not just the Web, but remote connections, file transfer, and more. Interweb seems like a good compromise.

[2] Arguably, one isn’t supposed to hyphenate, because the original name didn’t have a hyphen. But rules of grammar suggest that we hyphenate. And, as youngest son notes, I’m a prescriptivist rather than a descriptivist [3].

[3] I think we had that conversation at 7 a.m. one morning. We have an interesting family.

[4] Or the internet, with a lower-case i, since AP [5] has decided that it is unimportant to distinguish between an arbitrary network of networks and the particular network of networks that so many of us use.

[5] The Associated Press.

[6] I don’t really believe that. Let’s see … Oberlin’s is $832M, Denison’s is $797M, Wooster’s is $274M, Kenyon’s is $219M, Xavier’s is $156M, and I can stop there, since it’s already exceeded Grinnell’s. And Ohio has a bunch of others.

[7] Why Ohio? It’s another of those three-quarters vowels states, one that many people confuse with Iowa.

[8] I picked the $100 value without any particular reasoning; it’s an amount that many CS graduates should be able to donate without too much pain, even before they finish paying off their student loans. But the it seems like a pittance applies to donations of less, and even much more. $1,000 or $10,000 is still not much compared to our endowment.

[9] Yes, I intended to drop by a factor of ten from $100 to $10.

[10] You might think that good investing should keep pace with increases in expenses. However, remember that we take something like 4.5% out of the endowment each year. That means that increases in investments must cover both that 4.5% and the expected rise in base budget.

[11] I don’t think they need to fit into the regular College budget.

[12] Yes, the faculty can pay for the food in class, and most of us do. But it’s also nice for the SEPC to be able to surprise students with a study break or in a class.

[14] But not for the senior gifts; those come out of my pocket.

[15] Our SEPC has already used up their SGA-allocated budget for the year. At this point, they start relying on the department.

[16] At some point, I hope to set up a Web site showing our students wearing them to reveal the wide variety of folks who are Grinnell Computer Scientists [17].

[17] I also hope that Kumail wears one some time during Commencement.

[18] Yes, I realize that our endowment makes it feel like we can fund everything. However, although we have a lot of resources, the resources are still limited. We can’t fund everything.

[19] No, the coffee made in the small coffee pot is not particularly good. Yes, I did give a student money to purchase another. But it will still be coffee pot coffee.

[20] Although the CS department would very much appreciate your donations, my intent here is to encourage you to donate somewhere at the College, not necessarily to the CS department.

[21] Yes, I know of some obvious exceptions. For those, I apologize for the generalization.

[22] Or is that pie-on-ear?

[23] Michelle and I have committed to five years of donations to that fund. That was enough to allow us to create the fund.

[24] Since full-time faculty officially work only nine months, we get small stipends when we do summer workshops.

[25] DAR also stands for Daughters of the American Revolution and Sam’s Youngest Son, among other things.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-20.