Volume 77 | Issue 1
January 2009

Senior class gifts engage recent graduates in philanthropy to support the college union

Carolyn E. Farley

Many campuses have a senior class gift program, which gives back to the college or university on an annual basis. For those that do not, it is never too late to begin one. The Hawaii Pacific University began its program in 2000 and has seen it grow ever since. Other campuses have had such programs for more than 100 years but have seen their popularity diminish over time. In any case, these programs can prompt future giving as recent graduates have an opportunity to see the impact of their dollars at work.

“The campaign can help you spot future alumni volunteers” among the students leading the fundraising efforts, Gary Cramer wrote in a 1999 edition of Currents magazine. Many campuses find that students want to give gifts to benefit the college union because these are often the facilities that the majority of the campus community uses. Maintaining a list of otherwise unmet needs that could benefit from this type of campaign may give you an advantage. Examples of recent senior class giving programs include:

University of California–Los Angeles
Past gifts have included a van for the community service program and refurbishing a study lounge. In the last few years, the focus has changed to allow students to give to a wide variety of options including research, individual departments, scholarships and student life.

North Carolina Architectural and Technical State University
The 2009 senior class will be dedicating a mural to be painted on the wall of the student government association office in the union.

Purdue University
Generally gifts are statues, outside patio areas, or other high-visibility items, as the classes like to be associated with the union due to its “immortality” profile. Often they are only partially funded, which creates some problems. In general, they have been downplayed in recent years because of major development campaigns and the desire to keep money flowing to those.
To date, there have not been any class gifts for scholarships or similar endowments. In fact, it’s the endowment piece that seems to prevent that, as the gifts are not large enough usually to merit an endowment baseline, without which the scholarships are too temporal to be worth the effort administering them.

Northern Arizona University
Two years ago, a senior class giving program was established in the form of a scholarship to seniors entering their final year of study. Therefore, Senior Class Gift contributions directly assist the following year’s seniors; however, as of now the scholarship is not endowed, meaning it must be replenished annually.

University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, the Development Office recently changed from a senior class gift/project to allowing students to give to whatever they want on the campus. Student leaders like the idea of a tangible legacy. However, the old project-based gift was getting a 9 percent giving rate of seniors where the new giving rate is 35 percent.

The Carolina Union has been the recipient of two recent class gifts. The Class of 2000 donated funds to the Union for naming rights to a lounge. A plaque in the room lists all the donors, and their gift paid for the furniture in the space (about $32,000). In 2001, the union received the gift for an aquarium. The tank cost $18,000, and the balance went into the maintenance fund for the tank. The new system uses an application process, through which undesignated funds can be used for fish or tank maintenance or furniture repair.

University of California–Riverside
In 2008, the student government association chose for its senior gift to support an environmentally conscious campus, including new/additional recycling bins.

Pennsylvania State University
Penn State landmarks such as the Lion Shrine and the Allen Street Gates are the result of senior class financial support. The Class of 2009’s gift to the university will be the restoration and display of the Old Main Bell. So far, seniors have pledged more than $20,000 to the project.

University of St. Thomas
The 2008 graduates wanted to be the first class to establish an endowed scholarship, encourage a community atmosphere by awarding the scholarship to an on-campus resident, and publicize the campaign in a paperless, “green” manner. As a result, they raised nearly $46,000.

University of North Carolina–Wilmington

Recent classes have fundraised toward the following gift ideas: a water feature for the Student Center, a salt water aquarium to be housed in the library, and the athletic logo in pavers to serve as a literal welcome mat into the renovated union.

Some campuses maintain a tradition of allowing the class to identify a tangible gift item that literally marks their time with a plaque or other monument to their fundraising accomplishments. Other campuses are moving toward a menu of options more in line with what they offer to their alumni on an annual basis to give the students an opportunity to recognize these options while still enrolled. This second scenario seems to attract a broader base of donors because students are able to give to something that speaks specifically to their experience. For example, the options in a given year may include scholarships, a gift to a designated academic department or program such as orientation, or to a tangible gift such as an aquarium. Tangible items “are wonderful in their own way, [but] unrestricted gifts … are perhaps more valuable to an institution,” Rob Schur, an assistant director in the development office at Amherst College, said in a 2008 USA Today article. Amherst College formalized such a plan in 2003.

Minimum gift amounts may vary, but for this type of campaign, the goal is more often associated with the number of gifts received rather than the dollar amount collected. At McMaster University, the gift amount matches the year of graduation, so for the class of 2009, a $20.09 gift would be asked of each graduate.

While more is always welcome, it is the practice of giving that is the focus of a senior class gift campaign. Cramer also recommends using “a challenge grant to motivate giving. Ask a single benefactor or a group … to match each gift or make a special gift if the seniors reach their participation or dollar goal.”

Recognition for all donors should be considered in advance so that it can be promoted as part of the campaign. There should be a formal record of all gifts in a given campaign. A good practice is collecting all the names and giving levels and binding it as the Gift Book for a particular year. This book can be placed in the library archives. For the target giving level, there should be a more substantial recognition such as inclusion on a plaque or in a brick paver set for that purpose. For larger gifts, these same methods may be used, but a larger name plate or paver may be used so that an individual’s or a company’s name may be featured more prominently.

“If we want students to become philanthropists, we need to provide examples of alumni donors and experiences that students can have before graduation,” Currents magazine advised in 2006. “That requires partnership and collaboration with student affairs professionals to create philanthropic opportunities beyond typical senor gift efforts.”

Some cautionary notes are offered in the descriptions of the gifts, but are worthy of reinforcement. It is important to be realistic about the amount a class might raise or the institution may be left to pick up the tab on the balance of the cost. This has resulted in a much more thorough review of all costs—including any solicitation costs, such as printing, postage, or promotional events—that may be involved. Maintenance of a gift is also often a responsibility of the institution. This can vary significantly depending on the gift. Some campuses are intentional about trying to build those costs into the fundraising to allow for an endowment to support the ongoing care.

It is also important to know what is required to minimally fund an endowment. While a class may aspire to raising funds for a scholarship, on many campuses this would be an unattainable goal, so leaves a gift potentially unfulfilled and/or unresolved. There is also great value in having a written agreement with the class gift chairperson(s) to allow for management of any unspent funds. On such an occasion when the class has raised more funds than can be expended on the gift, these monies could automatically default to a student leader scholarship fund or other fund so that they have a predetermined destination. This eliminates the need to contact new alumni for some agreement on how to manage the funds.

Advisement for the senior class gift campaign may rest in student affairs, the development office, alumni association, or some combination. No matter the model, it is important to remember that there is new leadership among the students each year, so establishing processes and lines of communication is critical to the program’s success.

“The collective power of thousands of students supporting a common cause perceived as valuable and long-lasting carries more weight than any single major gift in creating a legacy,” the 2006 edition of Currents reported. “We know millennials want to be part of something larger than themselves. We know they want to create a legacy with true and lasting impact. So let’s not forget the value, meaning, and impact a philanthropic gift must have for this new generation of donors.”

With this in mind, college union professionals should find a way of working with development staff and the alumni association to foster a philanthropic spirit among our student leaders beginning in their first year on campus.