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Good intentions gone awry (#1070)

Topics/tags: Expressing appreciation

You know those days [1] you make decisions (or sequences of decisions) with good intentions, but they don’t end up having anything close to the effect you intended? That happens way too much to me. I plan a nice dinner; I end up with chaos in the kitchen [2]. I plan an interesting assignment; my students lose sleep. I rant about an issue; things change. Oh, wait, that last one may be the effect I intended. It just doesn’t happen very often.

In any case, I had one of those experiences lately and my muse insisted that I write about it.

First, some backstory.

As students in my spring CSC 151 classes know, I love Scarlet and Give Back Day, Grinnell’s annual day (or day-and-a-half) of giving. I love the chaos. I love the giant squirrel costume [3]. I love the simulated excitement of If we make this goal, our anonymous donors will give this much more! [5] I love the I Give! stickers [9]. But most of all, I love the effects of giving to the College, of knowing that you can make a positive difference, even if a small one, to a place you value, or to part of that place.

Why do students in my 151 classes know that? Because I always offer extra credit for donating to Grinnell during Scarlet and Give Back Day and for participating in Scarlet and Give Back Day activities. I realize that not all students have the resources to donate, so I also offer to give them the money to donate. Why? I want them to have that sense of giving back to Grinnell, of thinking about the future of the institution; that wonderful option of considering where the money might go: to scholarships, to a sports team or student group that makes a difference, to a department they value, wherever.

I’m on sabbatical this year, and therefore not teaching 151. So I had been considering ways to hack Scarlet and Give Back Day [10,11]. For example, I thought about setting up a table right next to the primary table, a table at which I would hand out dollar bills for students to donate.

Then came the pandemic. The College canceled Scarlet and Give Back Day. And, in any case, without the in-person aspect, any hack I did would be much less fun.

But donations are important, particularly at this time.

So I thought about something else I might do. Recalling the joy I get when I hear that someone has donated to Grinnell in my name, I thought about donating to the College in the name of each graduating senior and talked it through with Michelle. We decided to donate for each graduating senior. And we decided to do it anonymously; the goal of donating is not to get acclaim, it’s to make a difference. I also thought it would be better if students had to wonder who would donate in their name [12].

We chatted with DAR [14]. They were generally amenable to the plan. However, they suggested it would be more impactful [15] if our names were included. arguing that knowing that a couple of Grinnell parents that includes a faculty member and a community member have donated for you would be more meaningful than having to guess who would choose to donate in your name. We agreed, reluctantly.

We took a quick look at the letter that DAR told us they were sending to students. It was a bit more effusive than the standard donation acknowledgement [16]. We did not read it carefully. We did, however, suggest the addition of one sentiment, that we appreciate all that the student has brought to the College. I sincerely believe that each Grinnell student makes it better in some way.

Then the letters went out [17]. The first note I received was about wsa the reaction I had originally hoped for (although we weren’t hoping for or expecting notes): I’m not sure why you decided to donate in my name, but thank you. The second was from Middle Son, telling me that the email had gone out. The third was a complaint, a reasonable complaint.

Like many students these days [18], the student was struggling with finances. And if you’re struggling with finances, hearing that someone donated in your name (and the implied You should consider donating) doesn’t feel very good [19]. If you believe the College has let you down through its recent actions and inactions [20], it feels even worse. And the pandemic has everyone on edge. So the student lashed out.

I’m working hard to be patient with everyone right now, including myself. I took a deep breath, reflected on the issues the student raised, and wrote back. I apologized for the way in which our donation was taken, explained our reasons for donating, expressed sympathy at their situation, and offered to discuss things we could do better once they felt they had the time to do so. I did not suggest that the Grinnell of today only exists because of the gifts of past Grinnellians [21], although it’s something I regularly keep in mind. Such a comment would not be helpful.

I heard from DAR that a few students had also complained directly to them. I offered to write a similar note back to those students, but have not heard back yet.

I thought things were done.

Then I got a note from two students, We hear that others are upset at your donation; we just wanted to say thank you and that we appreciate it. A note from a colleague, Thanks for donating. How did they hear? Why did they feel compelled to write? A note from my Dean, do I want to chat about the situation?

We didn’t want to make students feel bad. We didn’t want to cause extra work for other people. We didn’t want our gift discussed. We just wanted to make students feel appreciated and to help support this institution we love.

What could we have done better? We don’t regret giving. We don’t regret giving in honor of our students; we may not know them all, but we know they are all amazing. Perhaps we should have insisted on anonymity. Perhaps we should have requested that the honorees only hear when the Honor Roll of Giving appeared. Perhaps I should stop trying to hack systems [22]. Perhaps we should have written a letter in our voices, a letter that acknowledged students’ current situations, that better explained our reasons for giving. Perhaps.

Postscript: Another perhaps. Perhaps I should have indicated when the backstory ended. I’ll leave it to you to decide what is backstory and what is story.

[1] Weeks, months, years, lifetimes, whatever.

[2] My family will probably report that almost every day my kitchen masterpieces become mess-terpieces.

[3] I want to see a giant Pioneer costume, too [4].

[4] Or perhaps a Pie-on-ear costume.

[5] I’m still waiting for anonymous donors who match gifts to particular recipients. E.g., if I give $100 to the new Simple Message Service [6] program, they will, too. We’ll match up to $### [7] would be fine, too, as would We’ll donate $### to any program that receives over # donations. [8]

[6] SMS stands for Science, Medicine, and Society? I hadn’t realized that.

[7] The # symbols are intended as number signs, not hashes, meshes, or pounds.

[8] Just spitballin’ here, in case you couldn’t tell.

[9] For those who have not heard the Dad Joke or seen the stickers, the I Give is written directly under the tail end of the squirrel in a standard pose. The joke begins, You know the saying, I don’t give a rat’s …?

[10] Just to be clear, I use hack in the old-school sense, to use something in a way not quite intended with the hope of learning more about it or creating fun and unexpected results.

[11] Apologies to my colleagues in Development and Alumni Relations for my approaches to their event.

[12] As I said, I like to hack systems.

[14] In this situation, DAR stands for Development and Alumni Relations, not Daughters of the American Revolution nor District Attorney Rebelsky nor whatever other DAR you were thinking of.

[15] I don’t know whether they actually said impactful, but it feels like a DAR term.

[16] This letter acknowledges that Person Name has donated to Grinnell College in your honor.

[17] More precisely, email messages went out.

[18] Like many people these days.

[19] Michelle reminds me of what it was like when we were struggling to pay bills, and we got a note that mom had had trees planted in our names. I expect we were still in much better shape than many of the students who are feeling frustrated.

[20] I refuse to comment on most of the College’s decisions, even the ones I support. I might not have made the same ones, but I accept that people were working out of a spirit of concern, were working on a tight time frame, and were balancing way too many issues. I’m not an engineer, but I’ve learned enough about engineering to accept that almost every design represents a compromise. I also expect that decisions I might have made could have had worse outcomes.

[21] I think we can reasonably consider any past donor a Grinnellian, even if they did not attend.

[22] Like that’s ever going to happen.

Version 1.0 of 2020-05-15 .