Bad for the Bottom Line: As Protests Roil College Campuses, Some Donors Cut Back

A common rule of thumb in philanthropy is that donors like stability. The greater the chaos, perceived or otherwise, the less likely they'll open their wallets.

This hypothesis is currently playing out in real time at colleges and universities across the U.S., and the takeaway is unmistakable: On-campus discord is bad for fundraising.

A recent piece in the New York Times reports that colleges—particularly small, elite liberal arts institutions—have reported a decline in donations, accompanied by a laundry list of complaints ranging from political correctness run amok to—and we're quoting Yale alumni Scott C. Johnston, here—campus administrators who "wilt before the activists like flowers."

Let's look at the numbers.

At Princeton, where protesters unsuccessfully demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson's name from university buildings and programs, undergraduate alumni donations dropped 6.6 percent from a record high the year before, and participation dropped 1.9 percentage points.

A spokesman for the school said there was no evidence the drop was connected to campus protests.

And yet Carolyn A. Martin, Amherst's president, said she was "not surprised" that student protests had contributed to a 6.5 percent decline in alumni giving for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Meanwhile, participation in the alumni fund dropped 1.9 percentage points to 50.6 percent, the lowest participation rate since 1975.

(In the case of Amherst, the school recently renounced its unofficial mascot, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, known as Lord Jeff, an 18th-century British commander in the French and Indian War, who gave his name to the town and the college. Among other things, Amherst promoted the idea of spreading smallpox among Native American tribes by giving them infected blankets.)

Needless to say there are complex dynamics at play here.

The first, most obviously, is the debate around modifying—or to hear some detractors describe it—erasing certain unseemly elements of a university's history. We don't go down that rabbit hole today.

Instead we'd like to accentuate the reality of this charged climate. Clearly, there's a cost-benefit analysis at play. To what extent does a certain decision generate unwanted press for a school? And from a somewhat cynical perspective, to what extent does that decision affect the bottom line? If these trends hold, will administrators stop "wilting like flowers?"

If we think through these questions a bit further, the idea of a kind of donor generational gap arises. Older donors, the logic suggests, would be more sensitive—and for a lack of a better term—conservativelyinclined when it comes to on-campus racial and identity politics. 

Take Scott MacConnell, who graduated Amherst in 1960 and is 77 years old. He wrote a letter to the college's alumni fund in December, announcing that he was reducing his support to a token $5. "As an alumnus of the college, I feel that I have been lied to, patronized and basically dismissed as an old, white bigot."

And yet the Times' (admittedly unscientific) survey suggests the logic doesn't hold. Amherst alumni Robert Longsworth stepped down as the president of the school's New York City alumni association because the college has become "so wrapped up in this politically charged mission rather than staying in its lane and being an institution of higher education."

Longsworth graduated in 1999.

In somewhat related analysis, check out our take on news out of the University of Michigan, where a donor withdrew a $3 million naming gift after it became apparent that the gift would rename the only building on campus named for an African American.