How to Donate to Your College Even When You’re Poor

Your phone rings. You look down to see a number you recognize; this call has come dozens of times before. Maybe you answer, and hear the cheerful voice from your alma mater asking once more for money, a request you’ll have to regretfully decline right now. Maybe you ignore it, hoping the caller will understand the message you’re trying to send by not answering: “I’m poor!”

For many young college graduates, making enough money to eat, pay bills and student loans, and stash a little away for a rainy day is a struggle in itself. Unemployment and underemployment, where you’re employed in a job for which you’re significantly overqualified, are both still serious problems for recent grads. Even those in jobs related to the careers they want aren’t necessarily making enough money to easily cover all their necessary expenses, let alone low-priority expenses like charity. While many young people may want to contribute to their universities, monetary donations just aren’t an option available to everyone.

So how do you give back to your university when you’re poor? Turns out there are a lot of ways.


Volunteering may conjure images of roadside crews cleaning up litter or people painting houses, but there are hundreds of ways you can volunteer. Harvard recently made news when it sent out an email to thousands of alumni asking them to volunteer as online mentors and discussion group managers for an online humanities course. While most schools aren’t asking for this kind of volunteers (yet), there are often plenty of options for alumni who want to get involved in some capacity.

The University of Oklahoma Alumni Association Executive Director Dave Hail says they often use the “three Ts” to describe the contributions alumni can make to their schools: time, talent, and treasure. “Of course the financial contributions are important, but in many ways, time and talent can benefit the university just as much,” Hail says.

On the more typical volunteering side, many schools offer programs for community service or event volunteers, which can be ongoing or just take a day of your time. Arizona State University involves alumni in its ASU Cares program where community volunteer projects are organized around the country once a year. Stanford University also hosts a Global Day of Service. Take a look at your alma mater’s website to see if there’s a day you can take part in improving your own community in the name of your school.

There are plenty of unique (and entertaining) opportunities for volunteering across the country.

  • Arizona State alum can help throw tailgates at away games.
  • University of South Florida encourages alumni to advocate on its behalf to the legislature as part of its Council of 100.
  • At the University of Pennsylvania, opportunities range from volunteering at the library, sewing lap quilts for cancer patients at the cancer research institute, or helping out at the annual Homecoming Run.

Volunteering for campus events can be a great way to contribute to the university by making sure current students have the best experience possible. “Alumni involvement in the university community can help ‘pay it forward’ to students by enriching their experiences and keeping traditions alive,” says Dr. Larry Routh, an alumni career specialist at the University of Nebraska.

Most schools have banks of volunteering opportunities for alumni, so no matter where your talents or interests lie, you can find a way to give back to your community and your school.

Off campus, recruitment is a common and important task that alumni can take on such as the case in Alabama, Michigan, and Georgia. University of Alabama alumni can volunteer as recruiters or recommend students for DISCOVERING BAMA, a highly personalized campus visit for high school students interested in the university. The University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, and many colleges across the country also have official programs for alumni to help recruit the next generation. If yours doesn’t, you can still contribute by recommending your school to intelligent and talented high school students in your community. Answer their questions and encourage them to look into your alma mater if you think they’d be a good fit.

“A university is so much more than the physical buildings, facilities, and programs that often get the headlines,” says Hail. “The community created by the people involved really defines a university. We have a tendency to think in terms of student recruit/enrolled student/graduate and have these lines that define our relationship to our alma mater. But the best-case scenario is when those lines are blurred and we think about it as a continuum of experience. When we as alumni continue that relationship, we not only feel like we’re still a part of the university community but a part of a whole new generation’s experience as well.”

Career guidance

With a tough job market that relies largely on who you know and whether you understand how to get your foot in the door, students can benefit greatly from hearing from alumni working in their chosen field. You could even argue that they benefit more, or at least more directly, from contributions to their careers than they do from monetary donations you make to a general fund.

Even if you’re a more recent graduate who has found a job, you have great insight into today’s economic climate. “I’ve found giving career advice to students about to graduate to be a fulfilling, free way to give back to my alma maters,” Zane Schwarzlose, who works in Internet marketing at Fahrenheit Marketing and earned degrees at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas, says. “Since I’m in a very specific field, I let the career advisor (at my alma mater) know that I’m willing to help students. If she hears about a student who wants to go into Internet marketing, she can send them my contact information.”

Just making yourself available like Schwarzlose has can have an impact on students’ career prospects. If you don’t know who to contact, reach out to alumni relations or your specific college within the university and they should be able to put you in touch with the right person.

If you want to be more actively involved in a student’s life, find out if there’s a mentoring program set up. For example, there’s an Alumni Mentor Network for Oklahoma University alumni, according to Hail; current students can contact alumni within their field or in a specific geographic region for advice in leadership, finding contacts, interviewing, and more. Fordham University has a similar mentoring program, helping students get advice on their resumes, visit workplaces, and learn to network. There are often mentoring programs for more specific demographics, such as University of Nebraska’s Cather Circle, a professional development program for women, or the Villanova Law Minority Mentoring Program. Teaming up with an alumnus with first-hand experience in a field or location they’re interested in is an invaluable experience for any student about to face the real world or trying to decide on a career path.

Alumni career events are also excellent opportunities to share your knowledge. They can be a useful option for people who may not have enough time to become a mentor, but want to contribute. Most schools provide chances for alumni to come back for single events, like roundtable discussions, workshops, and mock interviews if their expertise fits the event. If your knowledge is more limited than these events allow, you can always contact a professor or dean from your academic program to see if you might come to a class one day as a guest speaker or even Skype in to chat.

Greek life

If you went Greek during your time in school, your ties to that organization may be just as strong as your ties to the university itself. You don’t have to choose between supporting one or the other. By giving back to your Greek organization, you are also helping to continue traditions and community-building at your school.

Greek alumni can give back in many of the same ways college alumni do. Nicki Meneley, the executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference, suggests serving as mentors to collegiate members, giving advice on job searches, and support in networking. “Especially if a sorority alumna is an ‘expert’ in a specific field or situation, she can serve as a great speaker for a chapter’s programming or meetings,” she says. “If a sorority alumna can provide valuable advice to a collegiate chapter, or even an entire Panhellenic community, she is giving back in a very unique way and it will mean a lot to the organization as a whole.”

Don’t have the expertise? Just represent your organization. “One of the best ways to support sorority life as an alumna is to ‘tell your story’ and to spread the word about the wonderful benefits of sorority life to women who are interested in getting involved,” Meneley says. “For example, Alumnae Panhellenic organizations often host recruitment information events to help educate women in their area who want to join a sorority on how the process works and why sorority life is beneficial to their college experience.”

How to Get Started

  • Do your research: Universities rely on donations and volunteer efforts of alumni and friends to thrive, so most schools include helpful information on their websites. Check out the pages for your alumni relations department, your alumni association, and calendar of events. How do you fit in? Look up alumni events at Homecoming, whether there are mentoring and volunteering programs in place, or if other alumni have previously acted as guest speakers.
  • Get in contact: If you can’t find what you’re looking for on your school’s website, reach out. If you have an idea in mind for how you want to help or if you just want to make yourself available, contact alumni relations or professors in your academic program. They’ll probably be open to your suggestions or put you in contact with someone who can help you put your plan into action.
  • Find a chapter: A disadvantage many alumni face is living far from campus. Volunteering for campus events or ongoing campus projects isn’t possible, especially when you consider the costs of travel and accommodation. But that’s not the only way to get involved. Most schools have alumni chapters in major cities and online communities for those who don’t live near a chapter. Find out what’s available in your community and get involved. Even contributing to discussions or answering potential student questions online can go a long way. And if there’s no chapter in your town, reach out to your school or alumni association to find out about starting one.
  • Consider all of your skills: If you’re a young alumnus, you may not have established yourself in your field yet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have some skills or knowledge to contribute. Are you skilled in graphic design, have great organizational skills, or have created an awesome network for yourself? Ask your university or specific school if they need any posters designed, find out if your local alumni chapter is looking for help planning an event, or offer yourself to students in your field for networking advice and some contacts. Still stumped at what you can offer? At the very least, you have first-hand experience with the current job market as a new grad that you can share, something professors can’t give their students.

“It’s a common and reasonable misconception that alumni can only contribute when they have the financial resources to write a check,” Hail says. “Serving on a local club committee, hosting a table at student recruitment event, volunteering to be a mentor, or offering expertise to students in your academic area are all great ways to stay involved without any financial gift. All of these things can serve to be a part of the continuum of experience with our alma mater, and that lifetime relationship is priceless.”

Even if you don’t have the cash to hand out the next time the university fundraisers call you, don’t ignore the non-monetary contributions you can make to your school. Making a connection with your school and helping create a positive experience for future generations can be just as beneficial. Find out what opportunities your school already offers and don’t be afraid to suggest new ways that you’d like to give back.

Posted on 05/02/13 | by Staff Writers | in Career | No Comments »

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