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"An Instrument of Good Will"

 
At 75, the Harvard College Fund spins a web of friendships.

Joseph Hamlen was shocked. He was new at the game and had yet to learn that when you raise money for Harvard, there are days when you score and days when you have your head handed to you.

Hamlen, of the class of 1904, had left his Arkansas timber business in the fall of 1925 to become the salaried chairman of the nascent Harvard Fund. One of his first tasks was to prepare an announcement of the fund’s existence, and he had called on President A. Lawrence Lowell to ask for a statement of support. Lowell refused him, explaining bluntly that he was against the new undertaking. The fund was “wrongly conceived,” said Lowell, “and will do more harm than good, for it will serve the alumni with an excuse to contribute smaller sums than they might likely give for a specific purpose.”

Hamlen was stunned, but not speechless. “I took the floor,” he later wrote, “and told him in vigorous language that I had been drawn back to Cambridge almost under false pretenses, and that, not being able to go on with the fund under such circumstances, I should have to return immediately to my business in the South.” Lowell, added Hamlen, “tried to pacify me by saying that his not liking the idea ought not to make any difference as to its success. He had told the Corporation at the time the members endorsed it that he was opposed to it, but he was going along with the others to make the vote unanimous—a requisite under the rules of that body.”

When other members of the Harvard Fund Council took up the cause, the imperious Lowell gave in. Hamlen rejected the president’s first two drafts as too tepid, but reluctantly settled for the third. The new fund issued its first annual giving appeal in the spring of 1926; a year later it could report 3,261 donors—just over 8 percent of the University’s 40,000 alumni—and $123,544.53 in contributions. Not sensational, but a start.

John Price Jones
John Price Jones
Harvard University Archives

 

During the next four years Hamlen nursed the fund through its infancy. He marshaled a corps of hard-working class agents, became Lowell’s friend and confidant, and hired the youthful David McCord ’21, L.H.D. ’56, a budding literary man, as his assistant. McCord, who joined the fund in 1925, would serve for more than 35 years as its executive director, putting his distinctive stamp on its communiqués and becoming, to a remarkable extent, a personification of the institution he represented. His five successors could not match the artfulness of his writing, but they did introduce new organizational methods and record-keeping systems that increased the fund’s drawing power. This fall, as it observes its seventy-fifth anniversary, the Harvard College Fund emerges from the penumbra of the audaciously successful $2.6-billion University Campaign and carries on as a principal life-support vehicle of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). In the past 15 years, gifts for current use have risen from $7 million to $20 million a year, and because revised accounting procedures also include capital gifts of up to $1 million, the grand totals announced each June are approaching the $100-million mark. All told, the fund’s intake has almost doubled in a decade. In the early days it had taken all of 30 years just to reach the million-dollar level.

 

Harvard’s announcement of a permanent annual fund, to be applied to the University’s “intellectual upkeep,” was widely noted. “The successful operation of a fund of this sort in effect makes the alumni body an additional endowment resource,” observed the New Haven Register, which had reason to know. “The Harvard Fund is the name of something new under the sun, and, better still, of a thing that is highly meritorious,” stated the Dallas News. “It will be interesting,” said the New York Evening Post, “to see the result of this novel appeal.”

Yet “novel” was a misnomer. Perceiving the value of unrestricted income to their college, Yale graduates had established an Alumni Fund in 1890. By the 1920s it was harvesting more than half a million a year. A dozen other institutions, including Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Princeton, had emulated Yale. But even without an annual giving program, Harvard had earned a formidable reputation for fundraising. Its earliest capital campaign, begun in 1904, had raised $2.4 million, making the University the first institution of higher education to raise as much as a million dollars in a single effort. As president of the Alumni Association, Bishop William Lawrence, A.B. 1871, S.T.D. ’93, had led the campaign and had kept it low-key. “It were better not to complete the full amount,” he had insisted, than to resort to “crowding or jamming for subscriptions.” President Charles W. Eliot did not involve himself publicly. He and the bishop quietly concentrated on extracting big gifts from rich Boston and New York alumni.

It was the University’s next campaign—the Harvard Endowment Fund, launched in 1918—that led to the creation of an annual giving program. This capital campaign represented a distinct shift in tactics. After America’s entry into World War I, fundraisers at academic and charitable institutions began to try some of the techniques of communication and organization that had proved so effective in the wartime “drives” for Liberty Bonds and the Red Cross. As an architect of the bond drives, John Price Jones ’02 explicated those techniques in reports and monographs and became the prophet of a new era in fundraising. Thomas Lamont, a Harvard Corporation member who had worked with Jones in the 1918 Liberty Loan effort, signed him on as the Endowment Fund’s director of publicity. Harvard—seeking to raise the hitherto unthinkable sum of $15 million—thus became the first university to hire a professional fundraiser.

As the wartime drives had done, the campaign deployed a network of volunteers—primarily class agents and officers of regional Harvard clubs. The alumni leaders of the time saw the logic of employing the same kind of network in an annual giving program, and committees of the Alumni Association and the Associated Harvard Clubs came up with a joint proposal for a University-wide annual fund in 1919. They recommended that solicitation begin immediately, but the start-up date was postponed when it was found that thousands of alumni who had made pledges to the Harvard Endowment Fund were spreading their gifts over a three-year period. What later fundraisers would call “the double ask” seemed importunate in those days.

The presence of John Price Jones as a charter member of the newly formed Harvard Fund Council ensured that those responsible for the annual fund would be well coached in his precepts of publicity and organization. Though he had made his reputation as a publicist, Jones now believed that organization was the most important element in fundraising. Publicity efforts should be “in keeping with the quality of the article or the idea which you are promoting.” From the outset, Joseph Hamlen and David McCord effectively joined their talents to translate Jones’s ideas into action. Hamlen recruited 70 class agents, mostly from the Boston area, spanning classes from 1855 to 1925. He then made speaking tours to promote the fund, starting with a Midwestern and Western swing that took him to 17 Harvard Clubs. McCord, meanwhile, unlimbered his typewriter and began the flow of gently hortatory appeals that were distinctively his—“fishing with barbless hook,” as this avid angler would later put it.

Basic to the fund’s appeals was the notion of proportional giving. The premise, as an early Harvard Fund Council statement expressed it, was that “all alumni…will welcome with enthusiasm a plan whereby they may express in some proportionate measure their obligation and loyalty to Harvard.” Certain class agents embraced this democratic ideal with almost excessive ardor. “Do not hesitate to give a dollar or two,” one wrote to his classmates, “unless you really want to give more.” One can almost hear the gnashing of Lawrence Lowell’s teeth.

 

But as a means of enrolling new contributors, proportional giving worked. Annual gift totals wavered, climbing to $184,000 in 1928, skidding in the year of the stock-market crash, and hitting an all-time low of $78,000 in 1932. Yet throughout the Depression and World War II, the fund never failed to increase its annual participation totals. In 1938 it became the first alumni fund to enlist 10,000 givers in one year. By 1957, when it broke the million-dollar mark, it had topped 19,000 donors.

In David McCord’s 37 years with the fund, his volunteer army raised more than $15 million for Harvard. For most of that time McCord ran the fund with a staff that was microscopic by modern standards. Marion Anderson, his executive assistant, managed the Wadsworth House office, maintained its files, and was mother hen to its covey of class agents. Winnifred Preble did the accounting. McCord liked to recall that in the depths of the Depression, his operating budgets had averaged just over $13,000 a year, including salaries. McCord himself had started at $60 a week—a modest wage, but twice what he’d been earning as associate editor of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin. It was also understood that he was “free to write books on my own, no questions asked.” And write he did. “While executively directing the Fund down the years from about noon to midnight (or rather later),” the Alumni Bulletin noted when he retired, “David McCord has written 21 books from midnight on: poetry, essays, history.” (In his retirement years, McCord would turn out almost 30 more.)

McCord estimated that he wrote upwards of a million words a year on behalf of the fund. The appeals he crafted might have accounted for a thousand or so. The rest went into letters: encouraging notes to class agents, thank-you notes to contributors, consoling notes to widows, tactful notes to disgruntled alumni. To McCord, the fund was far more than a mechanism for wringing dollars from donors; it was “an instrument of good will.” As such it could serve, as he put it in one of his classic essays, as “the court of first appeal on Harvard matters of astonishing variety.” That essay, written in 1955, went on:

For we live on letters…those of inquiry, commendation, delight in Harvard, censure of Harvard; those of creative suggestion, of understanding; those for tradition and against tradition; letters written with remembrance and with love, or in skepticism and rebuke; letters considerate of our own defective judgment and mistakes. Of late the vast majority have been on the side of encouragement. All of them of every kind, with amazingly few exceptions, have always been, in Henry Beston’s great phrase, “on the side of life.” Harvard herself has always been on the side of life. Let us never forget that.

Nothing pleased McCord more than having his own love of language returned in kind, or finding that he could use the aphoristic riposte of a correspondent as the takeoff point of an appeal: “’Who am I not to join so many?” There is genius in that sudden question…..” There was genius, too, in the verbal alchemy of this apologetic note from a member of the class of ’28, received in the Depression years:

Halogens:

As I am an aluminum of two colleges besides Harvard, and can not, with my bismuth in its current state, pay antimony to all three, I hope you will not think me a cadmium if I do not caesium this opportunity of making a donation. So far this year I have metal current expenses, but in these troubled times when the future holds in store we know not phosphorous, I could not make a contribution without boron from the bank. It would nickel out of my savings. A manganese spend his dollars these days; a tin spot is gone in no time. One is lead to feel he is pouring them down the zinc. Much better to sodium up in a stocking. So don’t be silicon not make any contribution this year unless a bromine helps me out.

Very unruly yours…

“Fortunately our correspondent left us one metal which he did not use,” was McCord’s envoi. “So we wrote him simply: ‘Iron stand you.’”

A master of the limerick, McCord cherished this specimen of the genre, sent in by W. Chesley Worthington, then editor of the Brown Alumni Monthly:

A Harvard explorer named Swift
By a head-hunting native was biffed.
The head was sent for’rd
To David McCor’rd.

It upped the per-capita gift.

McCord left Wadsworth House in 1963. The latter years of his watch had seen the triumphant conclusion of the Program for Harvard College, a capital campaign that brought in $81.5 million—more than five times as much as any institution of higher education had ever raised. Success of that order prompted McCor’rd’s successors to seek new ways to up the per-capita gift.

 

The McCord era put in place a durable organizational structure, gave the fund its special cachet, and showed that the first million is the hardest to make. After the Program for Harvard College, two alumni committees, conferring with McCord, studied ways to boost annual giving. In the 1960s and 70s, four executive directors—James A. Rousmaniere ’40, LL.B. ’43, Henry F. Colt ’46, Schuyler Hollingsworth ’40, J.D. ’43, and Peter F. Clifton ’49—made tactical changes aimed at promoting larger gifts and extending the reach of the fund (rechristened the Harvard College Fund in 1964). For most of this time, participation rates remained in the 35-to-40 percent range, but annual giving increased sevenfold.

Reunion gifts got more emphasis. Organized giving at the time of the twenty-fifth reunion had begun in 1902, when the class of 1877 raised almost $300,000 to help build Harvard Stadium. Later classes made unrestricted twenty-fifth reunion gifts, and the practice became a Harvard custom. Such class gifts were not included in the fund’s annual totals until 1949, but in the yeasty economy of the 1950s they began to account for an ever larger share of unrestricted giving. The catalytic effect of reunions on fundraising made it inevitable that they would become increasingly elaborate and expensive productions. In 1963, McCord’s valedictory year, the class of ’38 spent $200,000 on its five-day frolic; its $325,000 gift made it the first class to exceed $1 million in total giving since graduation. Reunion bills and class gifts would continue to grow in size.

David McCord
David McCord
Harvard University Archives

 

If a twenty-fifth reunion could elicit so much generosity, might not the same spirit be evoked by the thirty-fifth? The fiftieth? Or any five-year reunion? Under Rousmaniere and Colt, the fund cultivated non-twenty-fifth reunion giving, extended its organizational efforts to three post-fiftieth classes, and even set goals for non-reunion classes. Corporate matching gifts were encouraged, and appeals were directed to parents and widows.

The annual-giving strategists of the early 1960s had set a goal of $4 million by the end of the decade, but they could not have foreseen the turbulent times that lay ahead. After reaching a new high-water mark with more than 20,000 givers—a participation rate of 40 percent—in 1968, the fund suffered a 12 percent decline in donors over the next two years. It would take another decade to regather as many as 20,000 contributors, but the annual giving total rebounded after a single off year. In a parting salute to retiring president Nathan M. Pusey, the fund broke $4 million in 1971. In McCord’s view, Pusey had been the first Harvard president to perceive the fund’s potential.

Subsequent years brought uninterrupted increases in dollar amounts, reunion records, and participation rates. The 1970s, when Hollingsworth and Clifton ran the fund, also saw the start of a Class Endowment Program—which gave prospective donors the relatively new estate-planning option of making retained life-income gifts to Harvard—and the formation of “associates” groups as a means of recognizing larger donors. The multi-tiered associates program was the brainchild of fundraising stalwart Albert H. Gordon ’23, M.B.A. ’25, LL.D. ’77, who chaired the fund in 1970-71.

Thanks in part to an upswing in larger gifts, the fund realized more than $5 million in 1976, its fiftieth year. The highlight of a gala anniversary banquet was a long poem read by David McCord, reprising the history of the fund and composed in the challenging metrical form of Greek Sapphics. Harvard is Harvard, after all.

With the advent of the five-year, $250 million Harvard Campaign in 1979, the fund’s operations were suspended for the duration of the drive. Annual giving had reached a record $7.7 million. Since McCord’s retirement, the fund had raised a total of $65 million. The steep inflation rate of the time heightened the contrast with the $15 million raised during McCord’s years, but both figures would be dwarfed by the eight-digit yields of the fund’s breakout era.

 

Thoughts on Annual Manual Giving
Alumni who must raise you money
Rarely see the side that’s funny:
Which is that A, a millionaire,
Grabs some poor pauper by the hair
And makes him cough up ten percent
Of what he hasn’t got for rent;
While Mr. B, suburban man,
Out emptying his garbage can,
Is thinking, How on earth can he
Shake down the man named A for thee,
Dear Alma Mater, Mother Mine!
From grapes of wrath out on the vine
Alumni brew the heady stuff
Of which you never have enough;
But rarely do they play the game
As though Adventure were its name,
As though with laughter, not with tears,
They contemplated your arrears;
As though the pleasure of the gift
Gave them, not you, the bigger lift.

 

~DAVID MCCORD

 

While the Fund itself had a five-year hiatus, its workers were far from dormant. Harvard College Fund agents became agents of the Harvard Campaign, which topped out at $358 million and successfully tapped 65 percent of College alumni. Once again the fundraising strategists raised their sights. This time they agreed that a change in crediting rules was in order. While continuing to emphasize the need for unrestricted gifts to help meet annual operating costs, the reactivated fund would also seek capital gifts for FAS endowment, building needs, libraries, professorships, and financial aid. This meant that some of the fund’s volunteers would do the kind of solicitation that had formerly been left to development officers. The change in crediting rules also made it virtually certain that when the next big capital campaign rolled around—and it would roll around surprisingly soon—the fund, instead of hibernating, would be an integral part of the campaign mechanism. This would constitute a departure from the original mandate, which had stated that “under no circumstances shall the Harvard Fund be used as a vehicle for special money-raising drives.”

In a passage tracing the fund’s inception, McCord’s anniversary poem had mused:

Thus, one can say, back fifty clobbered years that,
Viewed by an optimist, most undertakings
Given a chance, grow fast as
Jack’s tall beanstalk.
Why shouldn’t this one?

In its last pre-campaign year, the fund had reaped almost $8 million. Under the new crediting rules, it took in $19 million when it resumed operations in 1985. Jack’s beanstalk had turned into a redwood. And in less than a decade, the annual total would rise to more than $56 million.

William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Ed.D. ’71, a former admissions officer, took over in 1985 as the fund’s new executive director. In a round of administrative changes a year later, he returned to Byerly Hall as dean of admissions. Richard Boardman, a Boston University graduate who had overseen FAS fundraising during the Harvard Campaign, succeeded him. Boardman, a stocky, affable man of 57, is now in his sixteenth year as the fund’s major-domo. He has seen the fund’s rolls of volunteers grow to more than 5,000, including increased numbers of women and undergraduates. An expanded associates program has set new standards for larger gifts, and average per-capita giving for current use has risen from $220 to $625. Reunion gift records are shattered each year. The fund’s total receipts during Boardman’s years—including almost $400 million raised during the University Campaign—now exceed $700 million.

“What is especially desired is a large number of contributors,” the Alumni Bulletin had reminded its readers in 1930. “Even if the individual offerings are small, in the aggregate they rise to a substantial amount.” Seventy years later, associate-level gifts of $1,000 and over—$250 and $500 for donors prior to their fifth and tenth reunions—make up as much as 90 percent of total giving. (One can imagine Lawrence Lowell’s relief.) But Boardman emphasizes that the fund seeks gifts at all levels. “I’m personally committed to McCord’s principle of proportional giving,” he says. “It’s the way the tax system and church tithing work—you’re expected to do your fair share. To the Harvard College Fund, a gift of $50 or $100 is as important as one of $100,000.” In an effort to keep the magnitude of its annual totals from intimidating the $50-or-$100 donor, the fund omits gifts of more than a million from the aggregate income it reports (though those gifts do show up in class-by-class breakdowns).

Its 50-person administrative staff and banks of computerized records may be a far cry from the tiny office and handwritten ledgers of McCord’s day, but the fund remains an organization in touch with its past. Among its awards for outstanding volunteer and staff work are prizes honoring Joseph Hamlen, McCord, and Marion Anderson. Paul Weissman ’52, who chaired the fund Council from 1991 to 1998, remembers that as a tyro class agent he sought out McCord in the spring of his senior year. “Whatever the great man said, it stuck,” says Boardman. “Paul became a stellar class agent, and went on to oversee a rise in participation and dollars to their highest level in the history of the fund.”

Boardman resists the suggestion that the fund reached record-setting levels simply by riding a booming economy and a bull market of unmatched duration. “No one doubts the impact of those factors,” he says, “but it has been our alumni, working in all parts of the University Campaign and the fund organization, who have continued to turn out for reunion class events, class meetings, face-to-face solicitation, and phonathons. People give huge amounts of time as volunteers—2,500 of them are active each year—and it’s very hard work. To me, that stands out as the most enduring factor that keeps us moving ahead year after year.”

 

Why does Harvard need money?

 

…is the question that Harvard College Fund volunteers hear most often.

It’s not new. In the 1950s, the Program for Harvard College circulated a pamphlet designed to combat the perception that Harvard was so rich that it didn’t need further funding. “A college or university is rich or poor not in terms of its visible resources,” President Nathan M. Pusey wrote at the time, “but only as these are set against the variety and extent of its full program and activity, and against its demonstrated capacity and ambitions.”


The Harvard College Fund has addressed the issue with this short statement:

The mission of the Harvard College Fund is to secure from alumni, alumnae, and friends the resources needed by Harvard College to sustain its commitment to the life of the mind and to excellence in teaching, learning, and research.

The College uses these resources to:

— bring the most promising young people in the world together as students;

— create an environment in which the transforming spirit of discovery can flourish;

— and prepare Harvard graduates for a lifetime of service to society.

 

Volunteer activities tend to cement relationships—Boardman describes the fund as “a web of friendships”—and none more so than the phonathon program, which puts more than 1,500 volunteer callers on the horn with classmates each year. Most calling evenings take place in Cambridge, Boston, or New York, with regional versions in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. To exploit the competitive instincts of its phoners, the fund keeps tallies of the most productive callers and awards modest prizes—fund T-shirts, pens, beer steins, Harvard Band CDs—to top pledge-getters. The phonework of Roger Flather ’54, who has reeled in as many as 500 pledges a year, is legendary. Boardman’s “Crimson Callers”—a team of 60 work-study students—support the volunteers by making follow-up calls. Last year they reached more than 25,000 alumni and raised $1.3 million, a program record. Volunteers and Crimson Callers combined to secure more than 19,000 pledges worth $3.5 million. “We contact about 51 percent of all alumni by telephone,” says Boardman, “and while we raise money for Harvard from about half of them, we also manage to talk about Harvard with many more. And I think that helps everything.”

The telephone ups the participation rate, but when a big gift is at stake, the face-to-face meeting is usually the clincher. Here the ablest volunteers blend bonhomie with boldness. Boardman remembers making a call with the late Louis Kane ’53, a cochair of the fund before his death last June. “The prospect was a youngish alumnus,” says Boardman. “The plan was to ask him to consider doing $250,000. Riding up in the elevator, Louis told me he was going to ask for $10 million, ‘because he could do it.’ And he did it. In the end, of course, we only need optimism to succeed. Louis had that and more.”

The deeds of the fund’s volunteers, staff members, and donors are well documented. In his first year, Boardman revived the fund’s annual report, a feature of the McCord years. Supplementary publications include the Harvard College Fund Report, issued two or three times a year, and Yard Line, a sort of house organ that comes out four times yearly. During the University Campaign, fund and FAS updates went out under the nameplate The Yard, first used in the early McCord days.

The fund remained active throughout the five-year campaign. All told, gifts earmarked for FAS came to $1.1 billion, or 114 percent of its original goal of $965 million. Almost $400 million, or an average of $80 million a year, was credited to the Harvard College Fund. In 1999, the great drive’s final year, the fund officially brought in $93.9 million, its all-time high.

 

All fundraising is subject to “externalities,” and if the economy tailspins or the estate-tax laws are revised, the Harvard College Fund will know it. But as the fund begins its seventy-sixth year, still feeling the updraft created by the campaign, its leaders and volunteers are bullish about its prospects.

They enter the postcampaign era with a newly installed pair of cochairs: Charles J. Egan Jr. ’54, a fund veteran from Kansas City, and Diana L. Nelson ’84, a New Yorker. The fund’s first woman cochair, she too is a seasoned money-raiser. Nelson began soliciting for the fund as a Harvard senior, became its first woman vice chair in 1996, and cochaired a class committee that posted a record fifteenth-reunion gift in 1999. (Like father, like daughter: Nelson’s dad, Glen Nelson ’59, is a longtime cochair of his class gift committee.)

Diana L. Nelson
Diana L. Nelson
Harvard College Fund

 

Last summer Nelson worked with the fund’s executive committee and staff to set priorities for the current year. The overarching goals, she says, will be “to maintain the sense of connection and momentum that were generated during the campaign, and to broaden our base of leaders and donors, in terms of age diversity, gender diversity, ethnic and racial diversity.” Nelson speaks of “creating a bridge between the fund’s veteran leaders and a new generation of leaders and supporters,” and of amplifying the role of women in the fund’s infrastructure. The Harvard-Radcliffe fund, set up in 1976 after the Colleges’ “non-merger merger,” brought alumnae into Harvard fundraising. Today every post-1976 class has at least one woman cochair.

Though the number of minority graduates in the College alumni body has doubled during the past quarter-century, ethnic and racial minorities are underrepresented in the fund’s leadership cadre, says Nelson. “Harvard’s admissions staff has done so well in this area,” she says. “We have to see that the fundraising universe more closely mirrors the student universe.”

The fund must also raise its participation goals, says Nelson. In the course of the University Campaign, 76 percent of College alumni contributed, compared with 65 percent for the Harvard Campaign and 59 percent for the Program for Harvard College. But the campaign was expected to lower the fund’s annual participation rate, and it did. The rate had been going up for almost a decade, rising from 31 percent after the Harvard Campaign to a record 52.9 percent in 1994. At the midpoint of the campaign it dropped to 45 percent, but it’s now moving upward again. This year’s likely goal is 50 percent.

The low participation rates of the dozen most recent classes are worrisome to the fund’s officers. About 30 percent of these younger graduates, who make up very nearly a quarter of the College alumni body, contribute each year. They move a lot, and tracking them is a perennial problem. Here—and elsewhere—the Internet may be of help. Harvard now has an on-line alumni directory, which users can update themselves, as well as on-line class newsletters, chat rooms, and an e-mail forwarding service with more than 36,000 subscribers. “The Internet is completely embedded in the daily life of younger alumni,” says Nelson, “and it offers us a wonderful tool for communicating with them.” The fund has a Web page on Harvard’s Internet site (www [dot] haa[at]harvard [dot] edu) and is currently testing e-mail solicitation, e-mail follow-up reminders, and on-line giving.

The fund seeks to form firm connections with future alumni before they graduate. Its senior gift program dates from 1961, when Charles D. Ravenel, class marshal and gridiron god, led a drive that enlisted 31 percent of his classmates. Intensive door-to-door and telephone solicitation now begets senior-class participation rates of 60 percent or more. The class of ’96 set the current record of 70 percent. Recruiting can’t start too soon, says Dick Boardman. Last year, adopting a plan he’d observed at Stanford, he assembled more than a hundred freshman volunteers, fed them endless helpings of pizza and ice cream, and set them to writing thank-you notes to almost a thousand first-time donors. “In all, about 400 undergraduates came through our office last year,” says Boardman. “Educating them about what the fund really does is the key. We’ve found that 80 percent of our Crimson Callers become donors after they graduate.”

 

If the relatively low input of younger alumni is troubling, the high-end performance of the oldest alumni should console the fund’s leaders. In the last year of the University Campaign, alumni over the traditional retirement age—comprising just under 30 percent of the alumni body, and representing classes from the early 1920s to the mid 1950s—accounted for well over half the fund’s dollar total. Participation rates for most of those classes ranged from 51 to 84 percent. The fiftieth-reunion class gift, not much more than a lagniappe in the McCord days, now overshadows the twenty-fifth gift. The outsize class of 1950, reuning last June, ponied up more than $50 million, by far the largest sum any class has ever raised. (The class of ’75 mustered a hefty $27 million, eclipsing the twenty-fifth reunion record of $16.9 million.) Collectively, post-fiftieth reunion classes now raise upwards of $30 million each year. The class of ’32’s sixty-fifth reunion gift of $21.7 million almost tripled the size of that year’s twenty-fifth gift. Even seventieth reunioners now get into the act. The class of ’23, led by the indefatigable Albert Gordon, was the first to attempt a formal gift drive for its seventieth, raising $557,120 from 47 donors. Recent seventieths have upped the ante to $3 million or more. Like the rest of the population, Harvard and Radcliffe alumni are enjoying extended longevity. The Harvard College Fund enjoys it, too.

Fund leaders can also remind themselves that as classes age, participation rates rise. They’ve fretted about younger classes before. In 1975, when Harvard was emerging from a period of profound unrest, the fund commissioned a telephone survey of 600 College alumni. It indicated that members of the five most recent classes were only half as willing to give as were alumni in the classes of 1926 to 1969. Only 64 percent of the youngest cohort described themselves as favorably disposed toward Harvard.

Dismaying as that seemed, the fund’s leaders must have hoped that time would heal feelings of disaffection. And indeed, when the class of 1970 made its twenty-fifth reunion gift, the participation rate was a reasonably robust 73 percent. The class of ’71 went on to set a twenty-fifth reunion record of $10.5 million; the class of ’73 wiped it out with a $16.9 million gift. Those showings had to be “on the side of encouragement,” in David McCord’s phrase, and they may help to explain why Harvard fundraisers remain, by and large, such incurable optimists.