Ballin’ with Barb: Debunking Myths about Fundraising and Spending

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The Sarah Lawrence community woke up to what felt like hitting the jackpot on February 26th. Barbara Walters, a Sarah Lawrence alumni of Today Show fame, donated the largest single-donor chunk of change in SLC history: a massive 15 million dollars. However simplistic it may sound, the popular opinion seems to assume that the money was won as easily as buying a lotto ticket and crossing your fingers. The news of the donation was followed by an outpouring of recommendations via social media regarding how to spend the $15 million.

However, the beliefs and confident recommendations from the student body seem somewhat removed from the reality. Fundraising has always been tough at Sarah Lawrence College for numerous reasons. The college is relatively new, compared to many peer institutions, therefore the college does not have a large number of prospective donors. Sarah Lawrence is a small school, with a student population ranging between 1200-1400 at present. Historically, the college was even smaller. Consequently, the college’s roster of alumni is not impressive in terms of length. Of the thousands of alumni, most are non-donors (normal for most colleges), and only a few are major donors. With the college’s endowment being under $100 million as of now, the college is mostly dependent on tuition from students; one of the reasons for being the most expensive colleges in the US. However, with present challenges, the school’s leadership was able to convince Barbara Walters to donate $15 million dollars.

Most donations are spent on everyday campus operations: faculty and staff support and of course, student scholarships and financial aid (because of low endowment). Presently, around 69% of the students receive some sort of financial aid, which is sponsored by alumni, friends, parents and trustees alike. While the $15 million dollars seems like an impressive amount that would solve any and all problems at SLC, the reality is quite different. Most major gifts come with strings attached, as did this one. Major gifts are more often than not channeled towards a specific cause or program, in this case ‘The Barbara Walters Campus Center.” While, most would hope that the money would go to our preferred causes, for example faculty support and student scholarships, ultimately the students do not make that decision, nor does the school’s administration. Ms. Walters donated this amount for the campus center, named after her, and no one else has the discretion to allocate the amount otherwise.

However, to put the generous amount into perspective, the school was able to reach the goal needed to make the capital campaign public. The school started a private financial campaign around 5 years ago to increase the endowment fund. This gift has allowed the campaign to reach half of its goal, which means that the campaign can go public. The public phase would, ideally, bring in the goal of the entire campaign i.e., money that will go to our preferred causes such as faculty support and student scholarships. Therefore, the gift from Barbara Walters,, the largest from any one donor in the college’s history, would allow Sarah Lawrence to progress in more than one way, which would have otherwise remained hindered due to financial difficulties.

The campus center would allow major student activities such as Student Senate and other social spaces such as Common Ground, the radio station could relocate from Bates to the student center, creating room for academic and other purposes. Space has always been an issue on SLC campus and this new building hopes to rectify that issue. Additionally, the building would allow the college to cut costs such as the infamous tent, which runs about $10,000 a day for formals and other events. The building also seems promising in terms of the social dynamics of student activity on campus. Besides all the cozy spaces, students would have an entire building for their activity and use, which would solve a lot of space and social problems on campus, hoping to add positive spaces for social activity on campus.

Regardless, $15 million dollars seem a blessing for the school at this time.

 

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