Over breakfast on a snowy January morning in 1984, Rev. William Buursma ’49 asked me if I thought of the Calvin alumni director position as a long-term challenge or simply a stop along my administrative journey. I was interviewing to become the third alumni director in Calvin’s history, and Rev. Buursma was president of the Alumni Association, so it was not an unimportant query!
I told him that Calvin meant much to me. And I added that, after working at several colleges and universities, I couldn’t imagine another institution that would resonate better with my personal and professional values. He seemed satisfied with my answer and so, almost 20 years ago, I was offered the job.
Rev. Buursma still calls regularly, often with questions about the latest Calvin news and sports. He is one of my role models of a truly dedicated Calvin graduate, and I treat my pledge to him and to the college with deep gratitude and respect.
One of the calls I get from Rev. Buursma has to do with the annual U.S. News & World Report college rankings. He asks me about the various categories and how Calvin improved or declined in comparison with other schools over the past year. One statistic that’s been bugging him in recent years also perplexes me: Calvin’s reported alumni annual giving rate of 29 percent.
The 29 percent mark is not a poor percentage, but it is an anomaly — the one statistic that seems out of place among the other satisfaction measurements Calvin tracks. For example, it pales in comparison to the 38 percent of the student body with alumni parentage and the 77 percent of alumni in a recent survey who said they would choose Calvin again if they were heading off to college.
And the truth is that the 29 percent giving figure hurts Calvin’s rank in the U.S. News list and in other national comparisons of alumni engagement.
Last summer, at a gathering of Christian college alumni directors at Taylor University, a number of alumni leaders reviewed statistics about our graduates. Calvin did very well in most categories, but the number-one comment I received after the session was, “I am so surprised that your alumni giving rate is so low.”
Admittedly, alumni giving rates can be misleading if you don’t know the reporting institution’s definition of alumni in the equation. For instance, some schools report just four-year graduates, some report only those who were asked for a gift, and still others include any person who has attended the institution for at least one year or more.
Calvin reports three numbers: 26 percent of all those who attended one year or more gave a gift to the college; 29 percent of all four-year graduates gave (if, as U.S. News requests, you average the last three years); and last year, the four-year graduate giving rate rose to 31.6 percent. It seems right to use the middle number of 29 percent to give a general impression of financial support.
How low is it? Well, this year, sister school Dordt College reported a 49 percent alumni giving rate, tops among Christian colleges. Other Christian colleges in the top tier were Taylor (Ind.) at 40 percent; Wheaton (Ill.) at 39 percent; and Gordon (Mass.) at 35 percent.
And that’s just for starters. There are other national colleges to which Calvin compares favorably in academic terms but unfavorably in alumni giving. Note these: Amherst (65 percent), Carlton (64 percent), Swarthmore (61 percent), Notre Dame (48 percent). The highest Michigan small college I noted was Albion with 45 percent. Hope College? Our next-door neighbor is at 37 percent.
Why just 29 percent for Calvin? From my almost 20 years of traveling around North America and visiting alumni in their homes and communities, I know Calvin alumni to be a generous bunch. They are often called upon for strategic and financial leadership for local churches, schools and civic endeavors.
Given all of this, I still call out to Calvin alumni everywhere to make the college part of your annual giving pattern. The amount is far less important than the annual gift. Moving the 29 percent mark higher puts Calvin in a better position for foundation, corporate and larger personal donations — in addition to reflecting the confidence alumni have in their alma mater.
Does Calvin need the money? Yes. While we often tout the successes of new buildings, programs and achievements in the pages of Spark, what is harder to communicate is the strain of attracting and keeping good faculty members and building an adequate endowment for the size of the institution, while keeping tuition rates far below the national average.
If you have not given to Calvin yet this year, please do so now. Any amount. Let’s demonstrate to the college faculty and staff — and to the many who pay attention to Calvin as a leader in higher education — that we alums care about this place and know the impact it has in sending out talented and dedicated agents of renewal in God’s world.
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