Does Giving to Elite Higher Ed Count As Charity?

The NYT has a nice section on Giving, including one piece which gets at something I’ve been thinking about for awhile – a lot of charity nowadays isn’t going to the poor. I don’t think families/individuals are being philanthropic of they simply give money to their alma matter. The best colleges and universities still serve the privileged by giving money back to the college you went to, you are perpetuating an instituation which leaves the poor behind. I’ve written in the past about how a lot of aid seems to flow to non-critical causes, since hunger in Africa isn’t exactly close to home.

Ben Stein riffed on this a month ago when he wondered why he still gives money to Yale Law School, when $500 in a $13 B fund has a much less impact than $500 to about a million other charities. After a lot of mail, he changed his POV a week later saying "it’s OK for emotional ties to override reason"; in other words, he likes his Yale, so it doesn’t matter whether giving money there still makes sense.

Link: What Is Charity? – New York Times.

At Harvard University’s current rate of growth, its endowment will be larger than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest foundation, in three years. And while Harvard increased its spending last year on financial aid for undergraduates to $80 million a year, that figure represents less than .5 percent of its $22 billion endowment, and only about 2 percent of the approximately $4 billion it earned last year on its investments.

"For the past 15 to 20 years, educational institutions have been funded primarily by tuition and fees, not donations," Professor Colombo said. "We’re conditioned to think of them as charities, but they aren’t."

4 comments on “Does Giving to Elite Higher Ed Count As Charity?
  • I think the article about why aren’t more people giving to the human services sector hit the problem right on the head. The majority of human services sector charity groups are unable or unwilling to prove that either the money is actually benefiting the poor (as they claim) or that it’s doing any long term good.

    Having grown up on the mid-east coast, where to be truly homeless is remarkably akin to a death sentence (nearly 6 months of the year are just not terribly habitable if you have no protection from the elements); and STILL seeing regular new stories about how charity organizations that claimed to work with the poor often pocketed that money, I know that I personally have pretty stringent requirements about any charity I contribute to.

    I NEVER donate money without checking out the charity first; and if they can not demonstrate both to who and how they are spending my money, they don’t get it. Is that harsh? Possibly. However, I’d rather toe that line and make sure my money makes it to SOME people that need it, instead of merely trusting a group to use it wisely and finding out later that it bought someone their own personal tropical island in the Med, and didn’t help the people I wanted to at all.

  • One has to have an objective definition of a charity. Saying, “this charity is good, and this one is not” leads us down a very slippery slope. Who decides what is good?

  • Ah, but what are the criteria with which you judge “biggest impact”?

    Ben Casnocha responds:

    I would take your tack when it comes to arguing points, but not this.
    Indeed, a main problem with conversations about philanthropy nowadays is
    everyone feels like it’s taboo to talk critically about charotable giving. I
    don’t think we should absolve people from critival questions simply because
    it’s charity.

    Chris Yeh Responds

    I don’t disagree. I just don’t trust the government to make such
    distinctions. Of course every individual philanthropist should ask the
    critical questions.

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