A few years ago I worked at the Phone Center of the Iowa State University Foundation. The foundation makes money for the university by securing donations from alumni and sponsorships from businesses. My job as a fundraiser was to convince the alumni that building renovations and study abroad scholarships were causes worthy of their hard-earned money.
We usually relied on the alumnus’ sense of altruism when we explained why they should give to ISU. You can imagine that presenting ISU as a charity was a tough sell considering that there are so many other charities that they could give to such as Oxfam or Save the Children, and post-secondary education for a first-world teenager is no where near as pressing as feeding the hungry in Africa.
(Tough sell or not, the Foundation has been fairly successful at procuring donations from ISU alumni at a clip of roughly $3 million annually in recent years from the Phone Center alone.)
While successful, I always thought that we could do an even better job of getting donations. I noticed that when it came to dealing with businesses, the Foundation did not rely on altruism but rather on the company’s self-interest to secure funding. This is apparent from the Foundation’s webpage for corporations:
“With our knowledge of the breadth and depth of Iowa State’s capabilities, we can help you [the company] connect with the appropriate colleges, programs and faculty on campus to meet your business needs.” (My italics)
What would happen if the university applied this kind of reasoning, appealing to their donors’ egoism rather than altruism, to secure donations from its alumni as well? After all, the university is at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to competing for the money of altruists anyway because those people are more likely to donate to other, more needy charities.
However, Iowa State does have one thing that may be of interest to egoists that the other charities do not have, and that is lots of property and the right to name it.
Iowa State has over 160 buildings on campus. The university already sells the naming rights to the buildings, but what about to individual rooms? The university could sell the right to name each of the rooms in its buildings to alumni (or anyone really) willing to buy that right.
It occurs to me that there are people out there who’d be more likely to donate money to the university if they received some lasting public recognition for it; something to stoke their ego. Why not allow them to name one of the janitor’s closets in the Memorial Union for a few hundred bucks? For the big donors, ISU could emboss their profile on the door complete with an inspiring quote from that person.
What do you say?