Senior Class Gift: Empty gesture or philanthropic deed?

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March 28, 2008

2:35 AM

I can’t decide whether or not to give to the Senior Class Gift. On one hand, it’s a no-brainer: The College is in desperate need of dough, and even a modest donation would go a long way. But the Class of 2008’s campaign for funds has been one of the more masturbatory self-indulgent spectacles in recent memory, and I have some scruples with supporting it.

It’s inherently awkward to beg for money, especially in a culture that so values the stuff. In many ways, any plea for cash is tantamount to begging and, to avoid humiliation, we must tread lightly.

Absolute candor often smacks of desperation; misleading and underhanded fundraising tactics are off-putting and unethical, to say the least. I have a deep respect for the students working on the College’s Phonathon, cold-calling to solicit funds from alumni and parents. I imagine it’s pretty soul-crushing work, rife with rejection and embarrassing silences.

In its incessant, albeit ardent, requests for donations, the Class of 2008 has taken an unusual approach. They’ve decided to market the Senior Class Gift as essentially the Greatest Donation Ever, an omnibenevolent act in which we’re privileged to take part. They’ve launched a website, a Facebook profile, a YouTube promo video and a slew of aggrandizing paper ads in the form of faux newsletters. All this media drives home the same point: If we all donate, ’08 can go down as the best class in College history.

“And finally, we, the Class of 2008, look good,” proclaims the YouTube promotion. “Damn good,” it reiterates. “And we get our plaque!”

The website, meanwhile, lists “Close to making 2008 the most active class ever!” as number eight in its “Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Pledge to W&M” Five of the 10 reasons end in exclamation points.

In e-mails to the senior class, officers have more than once emphasized the prestige that supposedly accompanies a high participation level. At first glance, it’s enticing — cough up some cash and you can go down in history. But what legacy, really, would we garner?

It’s not as if future generations of students will stand around and gawk at the mind-boggling largesse of ’08. Given recent trends, our record would likely be broken as early as 2009. It seems like the Class of 2008 is merely exploiting an irrational desire for fame and recognition.

Worse still are the persistent references to nonbinding “pledges.” Quoth the website, “A pledge is a promise, not an obligation.” But according to Thesaurus.com, “promise” and “obligation” are synonymous.

“Remember,” recommends the YouTube promo, “a pledge is not an obligation, just a promise to the College that you can give, if and when you can.” This is a vague, slippery sentence. What if I promise to give you a car, if and when I can afford to purchase you one? Given the presence of the conditional “if,” this doesn’t really constitute a promise at all. “If and when” really means “if or when.”

As many ethicists have observed, the motives of charity are knottier than they appear. We agree that generosity is a good thing, and we enjoy feeling good about ourselves. We also want other people to believe that we do good things.

This devolves into a tricky paradox — ultimately, our charitable behavior relates to our vanity, not our selflessness. We give to look and feel good.

Accenting the tenuous nature of pledging only brings out the worst in our charitable impulses. If we act now, we can reap the benefits of giving without having sown anything. The exclusive wine and cheese parties, the bragging rights of record-breakers, the warm and fuzzy feeling of having contributed: All of these can be ours, with no cash down.

These are miserly and curmudgeonly quibbles, I realize. At the end of the day, the Senior Class Gift still benefits the College in myriad ways, even if it is given for the wrong reasons.

We’re in the midst of a grave financial crisis, and I don’t intend to dissuade anyone from donating. I expect too much, apparently, in believing that my class officers can raise money without appealing to narcissism – theirs and ours.

Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.

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