US way to give in life or death

May 14, 2004

As the dishes are being cleared from the evening meal in the campus dining hall, students at Bates College file upstairs and take their places in long rows of seats.

It is 7pm and the students are not here for a lecture, or to study. What happens in this room is all business.

The students begin to call the school's alumni from a bank of phones, pursuing donations. They are not allowed to accept vague promises - they are instructed to make the alumni they call commit to a specific amount.

The Bates College phone-a-thon is one of the many ways US universities solicit millions of dollars from their graduates. Despite appearances, it is one of the less aggressive methods of doing so.

US university alumni are encouraged to leave money to their alma maters in their wills. They are sold merchandise, including coffins, with their university's insignia on them.

The 60-year-old president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle this spring plans to climb Argentina's Mount Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside Asia, to raise money for a $9 million (£5 million) athletic complex by asking alumni to pledge the equivalent of a penny per foot.

That US universities go to such extremes is no surprise. Nearly one dollar in every 10 spent on higher education comes from charitable gifts, according to the Council for Aid to Education.

This is about $24 billion a year in total - a quarter of that comes from alumni, with the rest coming from corporations, philanthropic foundations and other individuals.

While encouraged to give out of pure loyalty, alumni can also count on systems to sweeten the process of giving. Donations are tax deductible and, in many cases, their employers will match their gifts.

The pressure to raise more from alumni is growing as all universities, including public institutions, face cuts in government support, the stagnation of returns on endowment investments and growing protests by students and parents over rocketing tuition charges.

On top of this, the total amount of alumni donations fell by 14 per cent in 2002, the last year for which figures are available. It is widely believed to have fallen again in 2003. This follows annual 10 per cent increases in the mid to late-1990s.

Public universities are also being pressed by courts to disclose donors'

names and the conditions that accompany large gifts. Large donors often shun publicity, particularly if their largesse comes with strings attached.

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