Philanthropy and Education

The Uneasy Convergence of Elite and Mass Fundraising in Higher Ed: The Harvard Endowment Fund drive, 1915-1925

Editors’ Note: HistPhil takes a brief break from the forum on anonymous giving for a post from Bruce Kimball on the path-breaking Harvard Endowment Fund drive. It is adapted from Bruce A. Kimball, “The First Campaign and the Paradoxical Transformation of Fundraising in American Higher Education, 1915-1925.” Teachers College Record 116, no. 7 (2014): 1-44.

In September 2013 Harvard University publicly kicked off a five-year, $6.5 billion fundraising campaign, “the largest ever in higher education,” according to the Harvard Gazette. In 2017 when President Drew G. Faust announced her resignation (effective this June), the Harvard campaign had topped $8 billion with a year still to go.

The endless succession of such “largest ever” campaignsin American higher education, now so familiar, began scarcely a century ago with the first comprehensive, multi-year, mass fundraising drive, which was also conducted by Harvard University between 1915 and 1925. Considered path-breaking at the time, the Harvard Endowment Fund (HEF) drive established many new fundraising policies and practices that are now taken for granted, but were contested, negotiated, and finally adopted, to become the accepted customs of conducting such campaigns.

To be sure, leaders in American higher education since the founding of the first colonial college in 1636 had sought funds for their institutions by soliciting wealthy individuals, conducting lotteries, and enlisting subscribers. But the size and dimensions of the HEF were unprecedented in several respects: the goal of over $15 million to be raised, the ten years involved in planning and canvassing, and the network of 3,000 volunteers soliciting 36,000 alumni divided into 70 districts around the world.

Concomitantly, the HEF developed a new organizational model for fundraising in higher education. On the one hand, during the late 1910s, the alumni leaders adopted what they called a novel “businesslike” approach. They carefully analyzed individual prospects for their capacity to give, built a corporate reporting structure, hired full-time staff, rented office space, kept formal accounts, and issued regular progress reports. On the other hand, they borrowed novel “popular” tactics from the multi-million-dollar drives run by the YMCA, the Red Cross, and the U.S. Liberty Loan Bonds over the prior two decades. These included orchestrating publicity through the press, convening and educating volunteer leaders, getting a quiet “running start” with selected donors before publicly announcing the drive, and making a “whirlwind” push at the end complete with graphs, gauges, and thermometers depicting the progress.

The third innovation was to gain the cooperation of the President. Today, university Presidents, like Faust, normally encourage such drives, solicit major donors, and even become the face of the campaign. The HEF was launched by a small group of young alumni, and Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell (1909-1933) did not encourage the high-profile appeal to all Harvard graduates, which he considered to be publicly “begging” for money, unworthy of the university. His contemporaries—Presidents Nicholas M. Butler at Columbia (1902-45), Woodrow Wilson at Princeton (1902-10), and Arthur T. Hadley (1899-1921) at Yale—positively discouraged such campaigns. But Lowell gradually came to appreciate and grudgingly cooperate with the HEF. When Hadley wrote to him from Yale in 1919 complaining about the upstart HEF, Lowell responded, “you are quite right, but when your alumni are working very hard to raise an endowment for the college you hate to decline the requests they make.”

Another novel step was to persuade the various alumni organizations to cooperate with each other and with the university. Like most universities, Harvard had at least three kinds of alumni organizations: clubs in geographic regions, an association sorted by graduating classes, and a class officer association. These groups not only competed with each other but maintained that their members’ donations should belong to the organization, which would then decide how to spend the money for the benefit of the university. Because they possessed the alumni networks and addresses, these organizations had great leverage and even threatened to conduct their own competing campaigns with the HEF! After tense negotiations in the mid-1910s, the groups agreed to allow all donations to flow directly to the university, which soon subsumed and consolidated the groups within its own administrative structure. By the end of the HEF, the formerly independent alumni groups were subordinate members of the university administration, headquartered in new offices of alumni relations and development.

Similarly, a fifth innovation concerned governance over the various schools and departments at Harvard. During the nineteenth century, these units, including various museums and the arboretum, had been encouraged to make appeals for funds, largely without oversight or limitations. But this unrestrained and uncoordinated “miscellaneous begging” by Harvard’s departments interfered with the new, highly organized, mass campaign. Consequently, President Lowell and the Harvard governing board were finally convinced to intercede, and the university henceforth harnessed and prioritized the fundraising efforts of its various units.

Yet another novel outcome of the HEF was to spawn the profession of fundraising in higher education. Today colleges and universities hire such professionals to staff their own development offices. But the vocation originated in new, independent consulting firms, and the first and most successful such firm during the first half of the twentieth century was formed by paid staff of the HEF who broke away from Harvard’s campaign in the fall of 1919. That firm, John Price Jones, Inc., then led hundreds of campaigns for other colleges and universities over the next forty years.

Paradoxically, yet another new step was to incorporate public, mass fundraising into higher education. In the late nineteenth century, soliciting donations for colleges and universities had been done quietly, discretely, and apparently effortlessly by the institutions’ presidents meeting privately with wealthy donors. This arrangement contributed to the resistance of Lowell, Butler, Wilson, and Hadley to the new mode of “people’s philanthropy,” which violated the customs and the control of such Presidents.

The paradox lies in the fact that, although the HEF campaign pioneered and established this new mode of fundraising that hundreds of colleges and universities adopted over the next decade, that mode did not fully succeed. Though publicly extolled as a landmark success, the HEF drive fell short and raised only about 90 percent of its goal, to the consternation of its organizers. Thus, Lowell turned out to be right. Quietly approaching wealthy individuals was a more effective and a more efficient way to raise money. He often told his deans at Harvard that “large sums…are best obtained from a few people rather than from many” and that awidespread appeal to alumni “brings the minimum of feathers with the maximum of squawking.”Nevertheless, the inception of mass fundraising gradually led wealthy donors to appreciate and even to expect that less prosperous alumni would demonstrate their support by making small donations. Hence, the new mass campaigns came to complement the quiet solicitation of wealthy donors.

Consequently, by 1920 another 75 colleges and universities were “following in your wake,” as Princeton President Walter G. Hibben (1912-1932) wrote to the HEF leaders at the outset of Princeton’s first Endowment Fund campaign. The first “largest ever” campaign run by Harvard between 1915 and 1925 thus inaugurated today’s ubiquitous and episodic pattern of continuous fundraising in higher education, in which mass comprehensive campaigns alternate with and complement discrete solicitations of wealthy donors.

-Bruce Kimball

Bruce Kimball is a professor in the Philosophy & History of Education Program at Ohio State University and a former Guggenheim Fellow.

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