Springfield College Triangle Magazine "Why We Give" Feature Story Writing

"Why We Give" examined charitable giving from physiological, sociological, psychological, historical and religious viewpoints. Gregor & Co. interviewed a range of experts, faculty,  alumni, donors and friends of Springfield College to get their varying insights on this fascinating subject.


Why We Give

By Chris Gregor

Why do people feel a need to give? How do we convince people to give? What motivates us to give (or not give) to Springfield College? And what do we get back? Triangle spoke with alumni, faculty, administrators, and donors to get insights and answers.

The Science and History of Giving

Physiology tells us that tendencies to generosity and giving could be generated in the same parts of the brain that also control bonding and trust. Oxytocin, a hormone produced in the pituitary gland, might play a large part in the process. The amygdala and subgenual cortex have receptors that are activated by oxytocin.*

Social scientists point to the religious and moral underpinnings of giving. “Virtually every major religious group, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, all have a major tenet of their beliefs dedicated to contributing to society through charity and giving. This common principle is for the good of society but also so people can feel a part of the society and have a sacred connection to other peoples’ lives. Ancient philosophers said we are not separate atoms, but part of a whole. Because of that connection we owe a debt to society for what it provides for in the forms of culture, identity, psychological and moral support. That debt needs to be repaid through giving,” says Dan Russell, professor of social science at Springfield College.

The importance of the need for humans to connect is also seen in psychological research. Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” theory of developmental psychology is often portrayed as a pyramid with the most basic human needs at the bottom and the need for “self-actualization” at the top. “Maslow says that once basic human needs for food and shelter are met, there is a higher level need for altruism, a desire for self-actualization that is met through the feeling of belonging. We find it through being contributing members of society and connecting to others by giving,” Allison Cumming-McCann, professor of psychology says.

Marian Heard G’78, former president and CEO of the United Way in Boston and founding president and CEO of the Points of Light Foundation sees cultural currents playing a huge part, particularly in the American tradition of giving. “I have found that giving is a cultural thing. I work with a lot of people who were not born here, so they don’t understand our tradition of people going into a community and becoming part of an extended family, participating in a barn-raising for instance. When French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in the early 19th century he was astonished to see that kind of community spirit. I find that people who were not raised in our culture of volunteerism and giving back sometimes just don’t understand it. If it is not a part of your culture, it is not readily implemented,” she says.

Dan Russell concurs with Heard’s reference to the American tradition of community spirit and giving. “In his book “Democracy in America” de Tocqueville chronicles incredible inclinations among Americans in the 1820s to form organizations to address problems. This was not true in Europe at that time and it is not true in Europe now to the degree it is in the U.S. This culture that we created emanates from the needs of pioneers and immigrants to bond together to take on problems and survive,” he says.

“It could be argued that the concept of philanthropy has been one of the major factors in the development of America,” says Francine Vecchiolla, dean of the Springfield College School of Social Work. “This idea of philanthropy or social justice in America extends back to the 17th century with the enactment of the statute of charitable uses,” she says.

“One arena that has continued to devote energy to philanthropy has been the discipline of social work,” says Vecchiolla, who explains that the concept of charity has long been associated with social work due to its roots in dealing with poverty and the other struggles that plague society.

Debby Dwyer ’69 who has worked in college admissions, high school administration, and is a life-long proponent of giving and volunteerism sees the development of those virtues nurtured by family: “I grew up in a family that was very active in community service. We were active in a church and went into Boston to the projects with our youth group helping kids by bringing food, books, and clothing to families—it was our normal way of life and it became part of my adult life,” she says.

Giving: It’s Personal

Whatever the scientific, cultural or historical foundations, there is also a very personal aspect to giving. No matter what the cause or charity, people have distinct reasons for giving. According to several people we interviewed there are as many reasons people give as there are people.

“I think giving is as personalized as anything you will ever find,” says Julius Jones H’07, member of the YMCA Hall of Fame, honorary degree recipient, past commencement speaker, and donor to Springfield College. “Personally, my prime motivation in giving has always been helping young people college age and younger. I accomplish that by donating to Springfield College and other worthy causes like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I also subscribe to the old cliché ‘you can’t take it with you.’”

Phil Dwyer ’69 former CEO of the YMCA of Central Connecticut Coast has his own personal reasons for giving in general and to Springfield College in particular. It has to do with his own background growing up in a single-parent family after his father died when Phil was young. The YMCA became his home away from home and his impetus for attending Springfield College to pursue a career working for the YMCA. “Springfield College for me was my coming out party, I was just an average kid in high school and it was only through the YMCA, and then Springfield College, that I learned leadership, and that I could be ‘better than I thought I could be.’ So I owe the generous and nurturing atmosphere of Springfield College a great deal for the life I had, for the opportunities for service and community,” he says.

Of course personal history and circumstances may also be reasons people don’t give. For some, there is an innate sense of self-preservation and survival that can work against charitable giving. Marian Heard: “I know very wealthy people raised during the Depression or in poor conditions who can not bring themselves to give because of a residual fear that they could be poor again. There is something that will not let them let go and give. You can’t get around what your history is—it’s personal. Children learn what they live.”

The Art of Getting People to Give

So, theoretically people have a psychological, sociological and maybe even a physiological need to give. And, we also have seen that it can be very personal, but from a practical standpoint, how does one put all those things together to get people to give? A tough question, best answered by people who go out and ask people for their money, either professionally or on a volunteer basis.

In her experience with the United Way, Heard found that fundraisers can be more successful by helping donors understand the impact of their giving. “People want to see the results of their giving and, in most instances, they want some specificity rather than something just going into a big basket of giving. Most people want to feel like they have directed their money. At one time it was unheard of for the United Way to allow donors to designate gifts. But it changed from ‘We want you to help the elderly,’ to ‘We want you to help the elderly stay in their homes’ and then to, ‘We want you to help the elderly stay in their homes with someone to read to them, keep them company, maintain their health, and get them out to socialize.’ Making the cause more specific made us more successful,” she says.

Julius Jones says the “trick” is getting people to give for the first time. “If they do it once, you usually will get a lifetime of support. And another thought, there are very few people who give below a high level that need to see their names on a plaque or a building. They give because they think it is right to do. They do not need recognition. They only need to know they gave to something that was worth supporting.”

Laraine Robison G’99, director of the Annual Fund for Springfield College, solicits donations with a range of strategies including direct mail, reunion class appeals, and peer-to-peer solicitations. “People tell me they couldn’t do my job - asking people for money. I say it’s simply talking with people and offering them an opportunity to which they can say yes or no. It’s always up to them. It’s about building relationships and letting the giving follow. Some people are philanthropic by nature, having grown up with it. Some you have to get to know a bit and do some educating about what they are giving to and what the impact will be. Others you really have to sell to—but, ultimately, it is the choice of the donor. So for us, it is making a case on how they can make a difference,” she says.

Karl Zacker ’78, G’83, who works in alumni development at Indiana University and was a former assistant director of giving at the College in the 1980s, saw success in personal appeals. “Here at Indiana, and I know at Springfield College as well, we instill in donors that every gift is important. At Springfield College, I know that when we reached out to a classmate with a personal phone call the person was more likely to give because someone he was connected to asked. Post cards, letters or other non-personal contacts become very hard to react to,” he points out.

There is a belief that educating students early on, even those who are paying full tuition, about the need to give is a key because it can be argued that they, too, benefit from a college’s endowment and from alumni support. Robert Mosca ’97 who works in university relations at Wesleyan University says students need to understand the importance of giving, even small gifts: “One of the things we say here at Wesleyan is the power of your gift is 20 times what you give. A five percent return on a gift of $100 is worth $2,000 over time. So, cumulative gifts of $100 add up to something substantial over time. We also illustrate to them that high participation rates encourage bigger donors who like to see involvement. We try to show them that they have a stake in the future. Springfield College graduates have student loans, and I still do, too, but a good way to meet that objection for putting off giving is by telling them that they are helping the value of their diploma by keeping the College in good fiscal and physical shape. Professional fundraisers talk of a pyramid, in business they say you spend 80 percent of your time on 20 percent of your customers. In fund raising they say you spend 95 percent of your time on five percent of your donors. We should probably try to build more at the middle and bottom because eventually that is where the bigger donors come from,” he notes.

The strategies for approaching donors have changed at Springfield College. Phil Dwyer notes that the College’s apologetic mindset about asking for money began to change in the 1980s. “Karl Zacker had a lot to do with setting the bar higher and meeting higher expectations; the College began do better when they changed the approach,” Phil remembers. Karl recalls that a partnership with business was the impetus: “There was a feeling that we should not be asking alumni who just paid a lot to go to school for donations, but we changed the thinking process by deciding to go after every gift we possibly could for the good of the College. I worked with Rocky Allen ’69, G’70, still a very active alumnus, who was then with Cigna Corporation. He was phenomenal at opening the doors of Cigna corporate offices all over the east coast for use by Springfield College alumni volunteers to call local alumni for gifts. We really focused on a percentage of giving and had an incredible run, boosting our numbers significantly because alumni were touching alumni. We were unapologetic about asking for gifts of any size, and I think it was a real turning point for the donation process at Springfield College.

“It appears there are as many ‘selling propositions’ to get people to give as there are reasons people give. And fundraising is also changing from the standpoint of how people want to feel about their gifts. Thirty years ago people would be asked to fund a building or a facility; it was more about ‘bricks and mortar.’ It’s different now. They want to hear that the kids who gather at the church and need a safe place to be are going to have that place,” says Phil Dwyer. “Today I’ve got to sell the human need, not the bricks and mortar. There is also a more hands-on motivation in giving.

It used to be more prestigious to sit on a board of a charitable organization, today just washing dishes in the local soup kitchen resonates with people,” he adds.

Why People Give to Springfield College

In general, the reasons people give to Springfield College center around a personal connection they have with the College. The motivations can be a sense of family and community, the Humanics philosophy, personal experiences or the culture of tradition that shaped them as people. Some think that the type of people attracted to attend Springfield College in the helping professions, teaching, coaching, training, and counseling easily and naturally gravitate toward giving and volunteering.

The sense that Springfield College is an extended family is motivation to give. In the case of Ellen Demos Bletsos ’83, G’87—the family ties are very real; Ellen’s mother Florence Demos was bursar in the business office for about 37 years and Ellen’s children participated in many activities and programs at the College. Bletsos works in the accounts payable department at Springfield College and gives to the College because of its warm and upbeat environment. “When something is this positive you want to keep it going. I come from a family that always served the community and I think we are put here to serve each other, at Springfield College and in general. Our true treasures are family, friends, and the people around us,” she tells Triangle. In addition to donating, Ellen serves on the Administrative Committee, and volunteers on Humanics Day, the Relay for Life, and on the Accreditation Committee. She has also been active with the International Center, taking an interest in international students and helping them adjust to life here. As a spokesperson for the College’s annual campaign, Bletsos urged her co-workers to give to Springfield College: “My family and I stand very proud to support Springfield College in all that we say and do while on and off campus. We assist where we can during working hours and after hours and have fond memories and lasting friendships both here and abroad. We continue to support Springfield College with our monetary donations, which represent for us a token of the pride and faith we have in Springfield College and also in our college family which consists of all of you and your families.” For Bletsos, Springfield College people are “all in this together.”

The Humanics philosophy and the size of the school contribute to a special kind of community that makes Springfield College a place worthy of giving. “It’s not just a question of people coming here to get a degree so they can succeed in the workplace, it’s about coming to be in a community in a formative period in their lives and then taking that enriched experience with them into the rest of their lives. It’s hard for some young people to appreciate that until they’ve had time to experience life. So a year or two out from graduation they realize what a wonderful opportunity and experience they had and giving follows,” says Dan Russell.

The virtues of character and integrity that are taught at Springfield College also motivate alumni to give back to the school. “When graduates leave campus, get jobs and are influenced by a new culture—it is then that they understand what Springfield College gave them by way of preparation. These alums possess those virtues and start living them more as they mature. There is an appreciation for what they were taught and they know they have a responsibility to make sure it is maintained,” says Heard.

Non-graduate donors such as Julius Jones have similar reasons for giving: “I’m a graduate of Morehead College, did graduate work at Tennessee State, but only took courses at Springfield College. So why do I gravitate towards giving to Springfield College? Because I liked what I saw them doing with young people—particularly in preparing them for a life of service to others through the Humanics philosophy. That is what draws me to give to Springfield College and to call on others to do the same.”

Allison Cumming-McCann sees a profile in students attracted to Springfield College that enhances giving. “I think we attract unique students. An overwhelming number are the first generation from their families to attend college and have middle-class, hard-working values. We help develop these incredible young people into adults who go out and do good and are very willing to give back, it’s just part of who they are,” she explains.

Laraine Robison agrees. “I think Springfield College attracts students, faculty, and staff who come here because of our whole culture of giving back. A compassionate type person is attracted to Springfield College. They naturally and instinctively want to help and give back to make things better. There’s an ‘I’ll do anything. What do you need?’ mentality. We hear a lot of ‘I am the person I am today because of Springfield College and I want someone else to benefit from the same experience I had.’ Like Bletsos says, it’s kind of a family—it’s special, and you want others to have it too. For us that translates into ‘I can give to the annual fund, the College, and students that are there now.’”

Kelly Thompson ’02, Roger Williams University Head Women’s Basketball Coach, sees her reason for giving back to the College in having been part of a community that had a formative influence. “So much of who I am, how I view the world, my approach to personal relationships, and how I do my job is from Springfield College. It was a great foundation for me as a person and for my profession in college athletics. I will always be connected to it and I give back so future Springfield College students will have the same and better opportunities to get the same kind of jumpstart on life,” she explained. Thompson also notes that Springfield College alumni seem to be especially connected due to the tradition in every aspect of the College—teams, clubs, a class—all across the culture of Springfield College. “That strong tradition carries over to make a great experience and it has staying power after you graduate. It’s why Springfield College people love it and give back,” Thompson adds.

Phil Dwyer sees his very personally motivated desire to give coming to life in two phrases: “pay it back” and “pay it forward.” “I pay it back because I was at Springfield College with the help of people who donated to make the school affordable to my single parent mother. And I pay it forward, because I want to help some future student who may need the same help I did,” he says.

Personal ties and bonds are important for Robert Mosca, too: “I met my wife there, as well some of my best friends and great mentors. I had meaningful experiences in and out of the classroom. The idea that Springfield College produces good people and good citizens who are balanced in the mind, body, spirit principles no matter what field they enter—that resonates with most people. Those personal connections and the fact that I could not have attended Springfield College without financial aid motivates me to want to pay it back, too.”

What Do We Get Back from Giving?

There is definitely a feel-good essence to giving and an innate sense that we are rewarded in kind for the good we do by giving and volunteering. Of course there are the less lofty motivations such as tax breaks and adding value to your own diploma too. But the very real need to continue to be a part of Springfield College even after graduation is very strong.

“It makes you feel good, that you are still a part of the College, and that we are giving opportunities to others. For instance, they have a new gym and workout facility and I helped with that, it feels great. That increases my pride. I had not seen all the changes on campus until coming back for a reunion last June, and seeing the new Student Union and upgrades to the athletic facilities in person was incredible.

I am not an emotional person, but I was moved to tears by all I saw. It was powerful to see that goals set when I was still a student here have been met. Whenever you see tangible results, people are going to be more inclined to give again,” says Thompson.

Physiological and psychological research shows the health benefits of giving, for instance, elder care programs promote volunteerism among that group to increase longevity and bolster psychological and physical health. It points back to Maslow’s finding that giving is part of the pyramid of basic needs and when the need is met, we are more healthy people. There can be immediate benefits too: “In our Humanics seminar, I oversee freshman who volunteer with underprivileged children at the White Street School in Springfield and see the students lives forever changed by connections they’ve made—they tell me how much they learned and got back, it’s amazing to see their faces,” says Allison Cumming-McCann.

Ellen Demos Bletsos describes a physical, mental, and emotional, sense of accomplishment and the feeling that you are in a better place. “If I can help one person on a given day, it’s important. My volunteering with our international students has meant so much to me. We’ve had graduate students here from Greece, and my family has made some really good friendships that have held up over the years. It’s just an example of people needing people, and these are the true treasures. It’s not always just material giving that makes an impact,” she says.

Getting over the reasons for not giving

As discussed above, there are personal reasons people give; conversely there are also personal reasons people do not give. According to Laraine Robison, potential donors have a personal need to have their gift meet a level of expectation. “We run into a lot people saying ‘I don’t want to give until I can give the amount I want to. If I can’t give a thousand dollars it would be embarrassing to give only 10, 20 or 100.’ It’s a pride thing, even if we argue that it’s about participation not the amount, we don’t always succeed. Some donors give at a high level and then a circumstance comes up and they can’t continue at that level. They stop giving all together because they can’t live up to their personal expectations.

I try to get them to understand the importance of any gift to the College, no matter what amount or what expectation.”

Karl Zacker agrees that pride gets in the way of giving: “I’m not a big fan of recognizing people by name with the amounts given. I agree with Laraine, because people feel a need to measure up to others and if they can’t, they may not want to give anything. I just wish people could send us checks and we would send the same thank you note to everyone. All gifts add up to a large sum of money,” he says

Phil Dwyer thinks people may not give because they are not asked, or not asked in the right way. “The financial development people at the YMCA of the USA have done studies showing that if you simply ask if someone would donate more money, or volunteer more, 35% say they would if asked. Most people however do not like to ask others to give money. I think the tired old phrase is apt ‘There are plenty of givers, just not enough askers,” he explains.
So there are many reasons to give, and even a few not to give. While we’ve seen how personal connections, College traditions, and gratitude play a role in giving back to Springfield College, sometimes giving is motivated by something as simple as a powerful belief. Take Gerry Backlund; while he is not an alumnus, he has a son who is, Doug ‘84, a K-3 physical educator in Duxbury, Mass. Gerry still donates on a regular basis even though his son graduated more than 25 years ago. Why? “Doug had a great experience.

As a parent I saw the Humanics philosophy really translating into service, and this is a very important and unique benefit Springfield College offers its students and society. And, at Springfield College, it is more than talk, it is also lived. That’s why I continue to give after all these years—simply because
I have great faith in the College and continue to believe in
its philosophy.”

* From “Unraveling the mystery of why we give, or don’t” by Judy Keen, USA Today, Dec. 1, 2010.

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