Addressing Barriers to Giving

Last Collection 2015 Collage

Last year, more than 8,500 people (including thousands of alumni) made financial gifts to Swarthmore College. Most gave through The Swarthmore Fund, often citing gratitude as their main motivation. Crediting the College for creating the opportunities they’ve pursued in their lives and careers, they want to give back.

We also sometimes hear from people who rarely give to the College despite their appreciation for what it has done for them and despite their support for Swarthmore’s mission. Below are four commonly cited barriers to giving, followed by reflections on these barriers.


#1 “The College already has more than it needs.”

Swarthmore is fortunate to have an endowment of nearly $2 billion. While this amount pales in comparison to schools such as Yale ($25 billion) and Harvard ($37 billion), it is considerably more than most of the College’s peer institutions.

Its endowment plays a key role in helping the College expand its mission. Interest drawn from the endowment, among other things, enables Swarthmore to attract and retain the most highly qualified faculty, to maintain an 8:1 faculty-to-student ratio, and to offer generous financial aid packages.

Each year, the College’s financial managers must determine how much to spend from the endowment and how much to invest in the College’s future. Common financial wisdom calls for an endowment to grow at a reasonable rate; a consistently declining endowment signifies financial problems.

Income from the endowment and from tuition-paying students falls short of what it takes to operate the College. The Swarthmore Fund, to which thousands contribute annually, closes this gap.

To be sure, without philanthropic support, the College is in no imminent danger of ceasing operations. But annual support from donors enables us to do far more for our students than we would otherwise be able to do. “Doing more” includes closing the “opportunity gap” by recruiting more students from low-income families and underachieving high schools and creating more opportunities for them once they are here. It also includes improving campus facilities and increasing summer research opportunities for all students.

The bottom line is this: grateful as we are for what we have, the College aspires to do far more in pursuit of its mission. And support from donors makes a tangible, measurable, and overwhelmingly positive difference.


#2 “Organizations and schools that are not as well off need my gift more.”

People who care about improving our world typically divide their philanthropy among several organizations, supporting causes that align with their passions. Understandably, donors consider how much an organization needs. However, financial health is usually an indication that an institution has a worthy mission and, further, that it is managing its resources wisely.

As anyone who has been here knows, Swarthmore—in deference to inherited Quaker values—routinely favors the simple and essential over the proverbial “bells and whistles.” The College makes every effort to steward its resources carefully and responsibly. With this in mind, we invite donors and potential donors to focus not on the College’s resources, but rather on how it puts these resources to work in accomplishing its multifaceted mission of preparing the next generation of students to serve the common good.


#3 “When I see that some are giving millions to the College, I don’t see how my small gift can make much of a difference.”

Swarthmore is grateful, as any institution would be, for its major donors, including some who have given millions of dollars over the years. But in fiscal 2015–16, gifts of $150 or less provided the equivalent of nine and a half financial aid awards (nearly $43,150 apiece) to students. Clearly, “small” gifts made a difference for these students.

Remember also that philanthropy is not just about the organization; it’s also about donors, many of whom derive a sense of satisfaction—some would say joy—as a result of doing their part. We encourage those who believe in Swarthmore’s mission to give as they are able. We celebrate all gifts, regardless of size. And we invite and encourage all donors to feel fully engaged with the College’s mission.


#4 “I support charitable causes that address more urgent human needs both in my community and in the world.”

The first (and some would say most difficult) task of anyone who works in development (i.e., “fundraising”) is to help people recognize the importance of philanthropy and of giving to something, anything. Swarthmore College’s ultimate mission centers on building a better world. Thus, we encourage support for responsible organizations dedicated to feeding the hungry, providing medical care, and countless other important and worthy causes.

History has demonstrated, however, that Swarthmore graduates have gone on to address the needs of our world in fundamental ways—striving to find cures for diseases; providing clean water for people in developing countries; offering legal counsel to those who cannot afford it; and much more.

Supporting Swarthmore and addressing urgent needs is not an “either-or” but rather a “both-and” proposition and opportunity.