Monday, April 27, 2015

Rethinking the Senior Gift

This is a cross-post of an op-ed I wrote in The Harvard Crimson. You can read the original here.

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With just a handful of weeks before graduation, we seniors are becoming well aware of our changing roles—not just from students to alumni, but from kids with the privilege of taking in educational resources to adults with the capacity to give back. The college is realizing this too, and talk of the Senior Gift has begun to fill our dining halls and inboxes. Along with it comes a perennial question: To give, or not to give?

I’d like to expand this binary, so that we consider not only whether to give, but also in what ways and to which causes. I think that it matters how we answer these questions, and that we should give in a way that reflects our own values, not just the loudest requests of those around us.

The literature on alumni donations has found that past giving is the single strongest factor in predicting future giving, and that “encouraging [young alumni] to [donate], even in modest dollar amounts, may have significant life-time giving effects.” This is one reason why the Senior Gift Committee focuses more on participation than on amount raised; the significance of donating is not that we give enough to make an impact, but that we “enter into a tradition of giving back to future students.”

If indeed our decisions today influence our altruistic tendencies tomorrow, we should reevaluate their significance. We are not just shelling out $10 in the dining hall. Rather, we are forming habits which—like it or not—will affect the way we act on our values during the rest of our lives.

So, what habits do we want to form? If we want to give back to a world that has given us so much, we should start now—whether it means donating our money, volunteering our time, or raising our voices in advocacy. And since these decisions not only reflect our current values but also shape our future identities, we must make them ourselves.

It can be hard to make our own choices when our peers seem to have already declared the “right” decision. Whether it comes from friends or Senior Gift House reps, many of us will feel pressure to give. And there is nothing wrong with donating to Harvard—we may (and largely do) deeply appreciate the Harvard experience. But then we should give to Senior Gift on that basis, not because our friends told us to. After all, every donation we make is a donation we don’t make somewhere else.

For example, $10 to Harvard could contribute to a student’s financial aid; ten dollars is probably about the cost (if not value) of one meal in Annenberg. By comparison, donating those same $10 to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, an organization in sub-Saharan Africa that treats people with parasitic worms, would “deworm” about eight children, resolving intestinal issues, preventing organ damage, boosting test scores, and even increasing earnings later in life by upwards of 20 percent. 

To me, this comparison is emotionally moving and morally compelling. Giving to SCI highlights values—of promoting human welfare and flourishing, regardless of nationality or alma mater—which are my core principles. Of course, they may not be yours, and I invite you to disagree with me. But these tradeoffs exist, and whether or not we acknowledge them, they are implicit in our decisions.

There are a multitude of ways to give back to the world, and the Senior Gift is one of them—but it is only one. If it best reflects your values, then support it; if not, then support the cause that does. Whatever decision you make, remember it is one which will shape your future actions, and in choosing who you will become, make sure to choose for yourself.

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