In what appears to be the most successful fundraising effort ever among a single graduating class of Berkeley High School alumni, the class of 1951 has raised $70,000 to endow a scholarship fund for graduates.
The group hopes to raise $100,000 by the time its 50th reunion rolls around this September – enough to provide college scholarship money for one or two students a year.
Tom Taylor, a co-chair of the class of 1951’s reunion committee, said the class has held together over the years. They used an annual letter circulated among the more than 400 members of the class to ask people to contribute to the scholarship fund.
Taylor said many of the 1951 graduates have reached that stage in their life where they want to give away money. It’s just a matter of finding a good local cause to which to direct their money.
“You either do it this way or you give it to Uncle Sam,” Taylor said. “Why send it back to Washington when you can do probably better in your own home environment?”
Getting alumni of public high schools to contribute money to their alma maters is often difficult work, even for the most prestigious of institutions.
San Francisco’s Lowell High School circulates a newsletter among 29,000 alumni.
“We mail the news letter for every living alumni for whom we have a valid address,” said Lowell Alumni Association Secretary Terry Abad.
But the Lowell Alumni Association only raises about $30,000 a year in donations for the school. Around 9 percent of alumni respond to the association’s annual giving request, Abad said, mailing in an average of $50 each.
Lowell has other fundraising groups. The schools Parent Teacher Student Association pulls in about $100,000 a year. The Lowell Sports Foundation brought in $40,000-$50,000 with it’s first annual celebrity athlete banquet (a similar banquet run by Berkeley High supporters raised around $12,000 this spring).
“As much as this sounds like a lot of money, its really just a drop in the bucket. The needs are just enormous,” said Abad.
One obstacle to getting alumni to give more, Abad said, is the level of pessimism about public school funding in general. People might gladly give money to add an thrilling new program or a facility to the school, Abad said, but it is harder for them to get excited when they realize the money they give is more likely to be spent on, say, text books.
“Too much of [the money people give] has to go to what most people see as basic,” Abad said. “People ask things like, ‘Gee, why is it that we’re being asked by the math department to pay for a dry erase board. Isn’t that what the school district is supposed to do?’ And we say, yeah, you’re right. The school district should pay for a lot of things. But the money isn’t there to do it.”
In Berkeley, fundraising among the high school’s alumni is even harder. The Berkeley schools alumni association only have around 600 members. And other than reunions, the groups activities have been limited in recent years.
Fundraising among Berkeley High has been limited to the occasional small gift given by one graduating class or another on their occasional reunion. But nothing is on the level of the class of 1951’s proposed gift.
Of course, Berkeley High has long enjoyed broad community support: From the voters who approve bond measures by overwhelming margins; from the parents who give up hours of free time to clean the grounds, tutor students in need, and raise money for extra activities; and from numerous individual donors who’ve given donations of $10 to $1000 to the Berkeley High School Development Group. That group gave $221,754 to the school in 1999-2000 which was directed to the health center, the school library, academic department and arts programs, among other things.
Some observers said they hoped the class of 1951s generosity could act as a model to get other alumni groups to join in giving to the school. Toni Sweet, Berkeley High class of 1954, is already working to get her class to commit to giving the school a gift on the occasion of their 50th reunion.
“The most important things I learned in my life I learned at Berkeley High School,” Sweet said.
Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, who also graduated from Berkeley High in the ’50s, said she though alumni could be persuaded to give more if they were presented with concrete and appealing proposals for how the money would be spent at the school.
“People like to donate to a specific thing,” Dean said. “Citizens, when informed about a school need, will generally step up to it. But we don’t know exactly what we need to rally around.”
Berkeley High principal Frank Lynch said scholarship money is a great place to start.
“That has the greatest impact, scholarship money, because it goes directly into the hands of students,” Lynch said.
Lynch also said he’s like to see “as much money as possible” directed towards the school’s new library, which will be completed in the next couple years as part of a $30 million construction project at the school.
“When you go to a school, the first thing you want to do is go to the library and see what it’s like,” Lynch said. “because it’s usually a pretty good indication of what’s going on the rest of the campus.”