I Love to Raise Money (and other confessions of a college president) An Interview with Michelle Myers
You clearly enjoy fund-raising. So many people don’t! What is it about this work that you like so much?
Myers: I love to raise money because it’s a way to give people an opportunity to do something they actually want to do. People want to be philanthropic, to care about something, whether it’s their college or another cause that matters to them. For me, the pleasure is to identify something that they will be pleased to support, and to make it happen. Then you put a smile on everybody’s face: The school is happy, the donor is happy, and together we have made a difference. It’s a challenge—and a treat. At the end of the day you can see the results, whether it’s a beautiful new building, or money for things that couldn’t happen otherwise. Fund-raising provides a real sense of accomplishment with a real bottom line, which is rare in education, where so many aspects are intangible.
Aren’t there people who don’t like to be asked to give?
Myers: Some people simply are not philanthropic, or they feel that their income or their assets are not sufficient to allow them to be philanthropic. Or they may simply not be interested in what you are raising money for. But if they are interested and aren’t giving, then it is my job to understand why and to encourage them at least to make a small gift.
If some people don’t give because they feel their gift would be too small, how do you show them that their gift matters? Why is participation so important?
Myers: Participation is absolutely crucial. All foundations, and some corporations, make this the very first thing they ask you: What’s the percentage of board members and the percentage of alumnae/i who give? They assume that if alumnae/i don’t support their school, why should somebody on the outside give? What is it about their experience that makes them not want to give back? And when alums know that a high percentage of their peers support the College, it becomes an incentive for them to do it, too. The more people give, the more people give.
How can we best connect with alumnae/i about their Sarah Lawrence experience?
Myers: We are fortunate that more than 90 percent of our alumnae/i are telling us they deeply value their education. But there’s a disconnect between the value they perceive, and the sense that they should give something back. Their gratitude to their dons and their faculty is crystal clear. But it is less clear that they connect their good feelings to the institution as a whole—the very institution that actually hired and paid these faculty, providing the academic structure that helped create the one-on-one relationship. Alumnae/i need to understand their connection with the college, not just with faculty, to own a piece of this institution and say, “I want this transformative experience to be given to a new generation of students.” It isn’t somebody else’s responsibility. Staff, faculty and presidents will come and go, but the alumnae/i are forever. This is their place. It’s not anybody else’s.
We’re all fond of saying we’re different at Sarah Lawrence. What precisely does that mean?
Myers: I see it three ways. First, we assume that each student is an individual who need not follow the same pattern as another student when he or she learns, and we created a system that actually treats each individual as a different person: We have dons, conferences and very small classes where each person is encouraged to speak his or her mind. Each conference is going to be different from every other conference; each student will learn from the others at the seminar table. No other school duplicates this system.
Then there’s our commitment to social justice. Other schools do encourage that as well, but it’s the combination of social justice and individual learning that allows our students to design a compelling project. This moves their learning beyond being treated as an individual, to the world at large. It’s not enough to transform a person through education. What’s the good of it if it doesn’t change the world?
And third, we have a faculty who are very, very committed to spending a huge amount of time with undergraduate students in respectful, collegial ways.
Other schools certainly have the money to recreate our education. Why don’t they?
Myers: Because they’re spending their money in different ways. They spend a lot more on facilities and on faculty than we do. Many treat their faculty the way larger research universities do, because they’re competing with them for faculty. Many faculty are not interested in putting time into our hands-on approach; faculty at other schools often teach less than ours do but are paid highly competitive salaries. Since they’re evaluated for tenure on the basis of research, and because they don’t have graduate students who can help with that research, faculty at research-oriented colleges receive more money for professional development. It is not unusual for them to have a 3-year sabbatical cycle compared to our 5-year. That’s very expensive.
One dean at a top-tier college recently told me, “I have to beg and plead faculty to teach courses—forget advising.” There’s less and less attention paid to the undergrads, more and more money spent on faculty. We compete less with the big research universities for faculty, and so we look hard to find those who want to teach in our active way.
Let’s go back to your love of fund-raising. What have you learned about philanthropy from your many years of working with donors?
Myers: It takes enormous patience and a huge amount of tact. I can’t afford to be frustrated: People don’t have to give. They will when they want to, and if they care to. People do not give out of guilt, but only when they’re excited about a cause and feel involved in it, or responsible for making something happen. It’s my job to connect them to what inspires them.
How about surprises?
Myers: Oh, I’ve gotten plenty of positive surprises. I’ll never forget the day, early on in my tenure, when I explained our strategic plan to an alumna and her husband—who then said, “Okay, we’ll give you three million.” I wasn’t even asking! They just wanted to help launch the program. And there have been so many wonderful moments when we get a small gift from somebody who had not given before.
It feels very affirming.
What challenges do you see Sarah Lawrence facing in the coming years?
Myers: This is an uphill battle, because we are really counter-culture. Our society doesn’t always value the intellect and risk-taking; it values competition and mass production, sameness. But Sarah Lawrence people want to be different. Our values are at odds with many societal trends. We try to be ethical and moral at a time when people and institutions are caught more and more doing unethical and immoral things. We value truth and integrity at a time when many people in leadership positions are disingenuous. To keep this oasis going is going to require a lot of effort on a lot of people’s parts—so it comes down to responsibility, doesn’t it?
Let’s give you a magic wand. What will you do with it?
Myers: I would love someone to give us a major endowment right now. A bigger endowment would allow us to assure the viability of the College in the long term. And it would allow us to make some enhancements that are needed in a variety of areas. I spoke about those very wealthy schools and what they can do for their faculty; we can’t begin to touch that. But would I want to provide more of that support for our hard working faculty? Of course! Would I want to give our faculty—who put twice the amount of time into teaching students as they would any place else—a sabbatical a little more often so they can really attend to their own work and come back refreshed? Absolutely! Would I want more young people who can’t possibly afford to come to Sarah Lawrence to have the financial support they need? To push diversity farther and make the College a place for all the people who merit to be here, regardless of financial circumstances? Certainly! And would I want to ensure that we preserve that Sarah Lawrence difference, what we all love about our school? Not change one iota of our mission, not one? Definitely!
That’s what I would do if I had a magic wand. But we don’t need a magic wand—we have our alumnae/i, and we will take all the time necessary to get where we need to be.