Every dollar counts, and Barnard is trying to raise a few more from those who know it best: its alumnae. Alumnae participation in the annual gift now hovers at around 30 percent. The college's Office of Development and Alumnae Affairs seems newly determined to increase that number. The boost in revenue would support financial aid, increase the relatively small endowment (left at $174 million as of August 2009 due to the economic crisis), and foster school community. "People at Barnard generally feel that they got a stellar education," Barnard President Debora Spar said. "They've had a life-transforming experience, yet they don't give back to the college at the rate that some of the other schools regularly see," she added. Columbia University had a 36 percent alumni participation rate in fiscal year 2008, according to Jerry Kisslinger, executive director for communications at Columbia's Office of Alumni and Development and CC '79. A few of Barnard's peer institutions, Amherst College and Williams College, had some of the highest participation rates in the country—around 60 percent, according to their Web sites. "That's because they have really entrenched traditions of giving back," explained Bobbi Mark, vice president for Development and Alumnae Affairs at Barnard. "You walk in, before you even make your bed, the first day you're getting inoculated with the tradition that [donating] is the right thing to do. We haven't had that tradition for quite as long." Spar has previously suggested that the low donation rate may in part be due to Columbia-Barnard couples—wives assume that when their husbands give to Columbia, Barnard is covered too. In the year that Mark has been at Barnard, she has expanded the department's online presence with a new Web site and representation on Facebook. She also appointed a new annual giving officer to oversee alumnae fundraising and to build up the corps of volunteers who call and write to former students, asking them to commit to an annual donation. Alumnae say that those volunteers have had an impact. "I take pride in writing a check to Barnard every year," LaToya Wilcher-Smith, BC '01, said. "I have missed two years since graduating and that was because of my own disorganization. Even if I had no money, I know I could find $20 to send. However, the two years I missed, I usually would have gotten a reminder follow-up for donating, so maybe those years the volunteers for the campaigns weren't sufficient." Mark also hopes that more will give if their donations are better rewarded. Next fall, a list of donors will be published for the first time in Barnard Magazine, with special recognition going to those who have given consistently over a period of five or 10 years. Alumnae donations are important because those funds address the college's most critical needs, which, during the last year has meant financial aid, Mark said. The recession has meant that more students need aid, but because of the economy alumnae have been more reluctant to donate, and a lack of contact information has made many difficult to reach in the first place. "When you get laid off, the first person you call is not your college," Mark said. "We still have work addresses for Lehman Brothers. We're probably still sending things to peoples' parents, those who haven't settled down yet." Sheena Gordon, BC '05, is a member of the Alumnae Association's Barnard Fund Committee and has seen the effects of the economy while working with other alumnae. "People who previously gave large gifts, might not be able to do so at this time. Some people may be embarrassed about having to scale back on their gift, so they won't give at all," Gordon said in an e-mail. Mark emphasized that Barnard's location and history make it difficult to compare its numbers with other schools. Most students who attended before 1985 were commuters, and the city provides plenty of off-campus distraction even now, perhaps making the student-campus bond weaker than at other institutions. "It could be a little bit of New York. Still, we never have to make the pitch like other institutions, to answer the question 'Did I get my money's worth?' We don't have that problem."
Columbia Spectator Staff