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Young alumni donations impacted by COVID-19

December 3, 2021

Donations to the Alumni Fund are essential to the financial health of the College, making up six percent of Bowdoin’s operating budget annually. The generosity of Bowdoin alumni has played an integral role in allowing the College to expand its financial aid policies  to their current state, launch new construction projects and support countless internal operations.

Amongst young alumni, whose college experiences were significantly altered by the pandemic, participation rates in the Alumni Fund have decreased significantly from historical averages—raising questions about what long-term effects the pandemic could have.

The arrival of the pandemic in the United States in March 2020 had an immediate impact on overall contributions to the Alumni Fund. Giving in the final months of the 2019-20 Fiscal Year (FY19-20), typically a key fundraising period for the College, fell below 50 percent, a 30-year low, wrote Director of Annual Giving Christi Lumiere in an email to the Orient. (Despite that slowdown, Bowdoin still finished the year with the fourth-highest participation rate among liberal arts colleges.) Since then, participation rates have stabilized to normal levels.

However, the effects of COVID-19 on alumni giving have extended beyond the spring of 2020. Since then, giving rates among seniors and young alumni—classes whose college experiences were significantly affected by the pandemic—have declined, throwing into doubt the likelihood that these alums will contribute to Bowdoin in the future.

In FY19-20, Alumni Giving participation among the youngest five classes declined to 26 from 41 percent in the previous year, according to Lumiere. Last year saw an 11 percent rebound, with 37 percent of these young alums making a contribution to Bowdoin, closer but still slightly below the historical norm of just above 40 percent.

In the most recent fiscal year, the recently graduated Class of 2020 had a 31.3 percent participation rate in the Alumni Fund.

“I haven’t donated at all,” George Benz ’20 said. “I didn’t feel very strongly about Bowdoin when I left, and I don’t think that’s necessarily Bowdoin’s fault, that’s just a COVID[-19] thing. I really didn’t have fond memories of the end of my senior year, so I’m like, ‘Why would I donate to Bowdoin?’”

Benz said that even if he finds himself in different financial circumstances further along in his career, he still does not intend to contribute to the Alumni Fund.

“I’m probably not going to change [my stance] going forward,” said Benz. “I don’t feel very interested in Bowdoin at all. Even though I do like Bowdoin a lot and did like my time there a ton, I also have the feeling that they’re going to be fine. They have so much money.”

Juliet Halvorson-Taylor ’21 also reported that she has not yet donated.

“I haven’t donated at all,” Halvorson-Taylor said. “I probably would at some point … it’s not necessarily at the top of my priorities list. They did a really good job of making it feel like we were at Bowdoin at the last second [of my senior year], but I went abroad my junior year, so that meant I was on campus for six weeks out of the past two years of college. When I graduated, I already felt pretty disconnected from the physical campus space.”

Some recent graduates, such as Sam Kingsbury ’21, have made contributions..

“I did donate … I think for me, [COVID-19] didn’t really have an effect,” said Kingsbury. “I obviously didn’t have as good a time at Bowdoin in my last two years as opposed to pre-pandemic, but that wasn’t going to change whether or not I donated. I think for some of my friends, it did, though. I think their experience during COVID[-19] gave them a much more negative perception of the school, so if they were undecided [on donating] before that, that pushed them toward no.”

Many current seniors are now faced with their first opportunities to give back to the College, either through the Senior Class Gift Campaign or by contributing to the Alumni Fund after they graduate this spring.

“I’m really open to the idea of donating if I know where my money is going. I’d love to see it going toward financial aid or expanding resources, but maybe not so much athletic facilities or career planning or things like that,” Ally Niles ’22 said. “I feel like our college experience was interrupted in a lot of ways, but I think that Bowdoin [still] did a good job trying to create an experience. I think that could make a big impact in terms of people from the classes of 2020-2024 donating in the future.”

“I’m often asked why alumni participation matters,” Lumiere wrote. “Every student activity, academic department, team, performance, lecture and exhibition receives support from annual gifts … Bowdoin’s high participation rate bolsters the College’s reputation, which in turn attracts the most accomplished students and faculty. It helps Bowdoin secure major research grants from foundations and corporations.”

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