Illustration of silhouettes helping each other, petting dog.
Illustration by Mark Allen Miller

Mary Moule ’91 still remembers the frustration. As a student receiving financial aid, she was able to borrow textbooks for her courses each semester from Williams’ 1914 Library. But she wasn’t allowed to write in them. “While reading Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, I finally gave up and started writing angry notes in the margins,” she stated in a letter earlier this fall to members of the Williams Black Alumni Network (WBAN). “I hope the next borrower added her own marginalia.”

The purpose of the letter was to ask WBAN members to support the college’s financial aid book grant through a new appeal called Buy the Book. The grant covers the costs of all required texts and course materials for financial aid students, who make up nearly 50 percent of the student body. Last year alone, Ephs funded the purchase of 17,700 textbooks for more than 1,000 students in courses across the curriculum.

“I was a financial aid student,” says Laura Day ’04, Williams’ director of annual giving. “I remember the stress of figuring out how to pay for books that weren’t available from the 1914 Library. Buy the Book shows donors that even a $4 gift makes a difference.”

Buy the Book is just one innovation attracting national attention to Williams as it enters the last year of its $650 million campaign with a record number of donors. One priority of Teach It Forward: The Campaign For Williams (TIF) is supporting the Alumni Fund, which provides 5 percent of the college’s annual operating expenses. Ninety-five percent of campaign donors make gifts through the Alumni Fund each year, and, of that number, 57 percent make contributions of $100 or less.

17K textbooks were funded by Ephs last year and distributed to 1K students in courses across the curriculum

Over the summer, the Illinois-based Schuler Family Foundation recognized Williams’ efforts to boost participation, inviting the college to take part in a new, three-year initiative. Noting that young alumni giving is on the decline nationally, the initiative is aimed at helping liberal arts colleges reverse the trend. The program brings together Williams, Bates, Carleton, Middlebury and Wellesley to research the philanthropic interests and goals of Millennial and Generation Z alumni (defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between roughly 1981 and 2010). The colleges will also work collaboratively to develop new programs and share best practices. Each college will receive $500,000 in grant money and be eligible for additional financial incentives for meeting certain milestones.

“Alumni of my age and younger now make up a full third of the alumni body,” Day says. “We’ve been focusing on young alumni philanthropy for several years, and we’ve seen that the initiatives we create with them in mind also lead to increased engagement for all generations of alumni. This is our chance to take that work to the next level.”

Young alumni often lack the financial resources to make substantial gifts to the college right after graduation. But Nick Brownrigg ’16 and Jace Forbes-Cockell ’16, who volunteer as fundraisers for their class, recognized an opportunity to tap into the value their peers place on community service. Their idea became the basis of another program, the TIF: Impact Challenge, which launched in January 2017.

Alumni participate in the challenge by making a gift to the Alumni Fund and then performing community service during a designated 10-day period. They log the amount of their gift and the number of hours, which are then multiplied together and matched by a challenge grant. So if an alumna gives $25 to the Alumni Fund and volunteers for four hours, her gift is matched by an additional $100.

In the challenge’s first year, 325 alumni all over the world logged more than 2,500 hours of volunteer work, resulting in $212,190 in challenge funds. In 2018, 400 alumni completed more than 4,000 hours of service, matched by $322,486. Participants have cared for homeless dogs in Chicago, sung a cappella in Connecticut nursing homes and distributed surplus food from Hong Kong Disneyland.

Another $350,000 in matching funds is available for 2019, with the challenge scheduled to run from Jan. 18-28 to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, widely recognized as a national day of service.

“Nick and Jace understood that some alumni are able to contribute more time and talent than treasure,” says Day. “The Impact Challenge recognizes the ways in which our alumni make an outsized impact in their communities and shows how much Williams values that service.”

Alumni priorities inspired yet another new program, the TIF: WBAN Challenge. Several years ago, the college observed that black alumni were outpacing every demographic when it came to measures of engagement such as volunteering for Williams, attending college events and connecting online. Yet there was a disconnect when it came to fundraising.

Sharifa Wright ’03, Williams’ director for alumni diversity and inclusion, and Janine Hetherington, director of Alumni Fund leadership giving, worked with WBAN volunteers to host frank discussions with black alumni around the country about what influenced their decision to give—or not—to Williams.

400 alumni recognized for 4K hours last year volunteering at nursing homes and distributing food, among other service

Those conversations ultimately shaped the WBAN Challenge, which seeks to raise $500,000 from 750 individual donors, each giving what they can through the Alumni Fund, to support Bolin Fellowships. Named for Williams’ first black graduate, Gaius Charles Bolin, Class of 1889, the postdoc fellowships seek to diversify the academy by encouraging students from underrepresented groups to become professors themselves.

WBAN volunteers are reaching out to members across all class years to support the challenge and other initiatives designed to boost participation. Alex Deaderick ’15, an associate with BlackRock investment management company, sent an appeal for Buy the Book this year reflecting on his experience as a financial aid student. “The support I received from the book grant was invaluable,” he wrote. “As a sociology major and Africana studies concentrator and a pre-med student (who wasn’t?), my textbook expenses were quite high. Williams eliminated the stress and anxiety I would have no doubt felt each semester.”

Understanding the experiences alumni had as students as well as their philanthropic goals is central to these and other fundraising efforts, says Megan Morey, vice president for college relations. “Pilots like Buy the Book, the TIF: Impact Challenge and the TIF: WBAN Challenge show that we can grow the Alumni Fund by engaging individual alumni in ways that feel relevant to them,” she says. “With passionate volunteers and staff, and with support from the Schuler Family Foundation, Williams is equipped to continue its tradition of remarkable participation.”