From the Archives: Give Us Money! Please! Now!

Do you get the same phone calls I do? As a nerd, I’ve attended several different colleges. And my phone sometimes rings with a call from an earnest undergrad working the alumni phones at Northwestern or Wash U or Madison, asking me to please consider a donation—”even a small one!” As a teacher and a historian, I always tell them I’ve got nuthin. As I worked on my new book about evangelical higher education, though, I couldn’t help but notice the connections between ALL schools when it comes to pleading for alumni cash.

One of the central themes of the new book is that evangelical colleges have sometimes bucked trends in secular/mainstream/pluralist higher ed. At other times these evangelical institutions have been subject to the same forces that shape all schools. Like all institutions, evangelical colleges have always needed money. Like all universities and colleges, evangelical schools have tried to tap their alumni for funds. In some cases, though, evangelical schools threw in a culture-war twist.

During the twentieth century, funding patterns changed for higher ed. Big research schools started getting more and more money from big research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense. However, as historian Roger Geiger pointed out, that sort of big-grant research money tended to go to the same schools over and over. For example, during the 1920s, new Rockefeller funds poured twelve million research dollars into universities. Back then, though, only six schools—Caltech, Princeton, Chicago, Cornell, Stanford, and Harvard—received more than three-quarters of that money.Gordon 1944 ad for donations in Watchman Examiner

Other colleges—evangelical or not—scrambled to find money elsewhere. For most small schools, tuition dollars continued to represent the biggest single source of revenue. Tuition funding is risky, though. In any given year, it can go down drastically and suddenly if enrollment lags. Just ask Sweet Briar.

In response, most colleges—including evangelical ones—scrambled to build donor networks to collect reliable donations. Over the course of the twentieth century, these administrative departments grew larger, more professional, and far more influential.

Most evangelical colleges participated in this trend enthusiastically. Sometimes, though, evangelical schools did it in a unique way: They harped on the unique culture-war features of their institutions. Gordon College, for example, tried to appeal to evangelicals in general to support their work. In the 1940s, for instance, they advertised their school as a vital evangelical institution. “Consecrated young men and women,” they pleaded, “called of God to Christian leadership” needed Gordon, and Gordon needed money.

At the same time, Gordon experimented clumsily and amateurishly with directed appeals to alumni. One plea for library funds didn’t make any mention of evangelical values. It simply begged alumni to donate. (It’s not clear exactly what year this appeal went out, but it is located in a box of materials from before 1944.)plea to alumnus funds for library cartoon

As the century progressed, many evangelical schools continued both strains of fund-raising appeal. They asked alumni for money, like all schools. But they also asked evangelical culture-warriors to support their work. At Biola, for example, the alumni office sent out a personal appeal in 1970. Here’s what they told alums:

Headlines in the 60’s were frightening.  Hippies and Heart-transplants; Racism and Demonstrations; Assassins and Murderers; Mini-skirts and moon landings.  We read much about power, most of it explosive: flower-power, black-power, atomic power, student power.  The decade was full of change, violence, war, noise and new things.

Power—‘all power’—the explosive power of the Word of God created headlines at BIOLA in the 60’s. Student Population Explodes; Classrooms Crowded Out; Thousands Accept Christ in Orient; 1708 Grads Take Message to Frustrated World.

God used investments like yours to make things happen at BIOLA in the 60’s.

Biola, like a lot of evangelical colleges, sold itself in the 1970s as the healthy conservative anti-college, the stalwart Christian school that not only resisted pernicious trends in mainstream higher ed, but also created a powerful form of counter-counter-cultural higher education.

By the end of the century, evangelical colleges and universities—just like almost all institutions of higher education—had organized bureaucracies to solicit donations from alumni. My guess is that they have continued to emphasize both the distinctive elements of their evangelical promise as well as the mundane institutional needs they face.

I’ll go out on a limb this morning: I bet those of you who attended evangelical colleges get the same kinds of alumni appeals I get from my secular alma maters. But I also bet that your letters sometimes talk about particular evangelical values. They probably sometimes talk about boring financial needs such as a new library, and they probably sometimes emphasize the dire need for Christian values and leadership in these dark times. But they ALWAYS ask for money.

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1 Comment

  1. Nothing is certain except for death, taxes, and being dunned for donations.

    Reply

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