Last Saturday, I attended the gala for the launch of the capital campaign, christened “Duke Forward: Partnering for the Future.” It was surreal—Cameron Indoor Stadium was converted into a posh, laser-beam club. But the party atmosphere wasn’t the best part. Throughout the night, I met several Duke alumni who had pledged and donated their money to our University. Some donated because they wanted Duke to blaze a new path forward to the future. Others donated because they wanted to ensure that no financial boundaries prevented qualified students from attending Duke. But most wanted to give back to an institution that had given them (or their children) so much.
Duke alumni have started booming companies, led the most renowned organizations and innovated ideas we take for granted. But none of them did it alone. Whether it was inspirational professors, state-of-the-art facilities, or generous financial aid, all of these alumni got to where they are because of Duke. And by Duke, I mean the collective—the vast contributions of ingenuity, determination, ambition and philanthropy from individuals generations before. They were individuals who didn’t just dare to dream, but built their dreams and who later sought to pay their privilege forward. They built this University together.
I left Cameron in awe, amazed by the philanthropy of those who had come before me. I couldn’t help but think, “I hope I’m successful enough one day to give back.” As I imagined the sorts of gifts alumni of the future might endow (A monorail! Luxurious residence halls! Free tuition for all!), I paused under the Crowell archway. Why did I have to wait for that ‘one day’? Why couldn’t I give back to my University now? I already donate to non-profits, religious organizations and the various student groups that table on the plaza. Why couldn’t I start now, with a $15 pledge to Duke Forward?
I hope every student dreams of giving back to Duke one day. Perhaps most think they can only do it if they’re tremendously wealthy later in life. But why do philanthropists have to be millionaires? Why can’t philanthropy and service to our University start when we’re students? It doesn’t have to wait. Imagine what student philanthropy could look like: something much more than a senior gift, a cause we could all agree with. A mission without the inefficiencies of small-scale movements and the limits of foreign aid. A goal with great intentions and effective, purposeful and tangible results. If we had 100 percent participation from Duke students in Duke Forward, imagine what that would tell the world. Student philanthropy would propel us forward.
I can’t think of any other school that has robust student philanthropy. How could Duke cultivate student philanthropy? One might turn to Duke Student Government to do it. DSG could convene a committee, call a forum or even pass a resolution.
But I don’t think that’s the answer. Philanthropy is rarely top-down—it starts with individuals who care and have the ability to do so. That’s why I think a culture of student philanthropy has to start with individuals. One student could donate $5. Another student could pledge to donate a certain amount in the future. And yet another student might decide to start a new student group, “Dukies for Philanthropy.” Duke Student Government, or the administration, could give student philanthropy a nudge in the right direction. But they can’t do anything without an individual’s spark.
I returned to my room after the gala and went to www.dukeforward.duke.edu. I clicked on the orange “Make a Gift” button. There were options to designate my gift to certain schools. I selected six entities: the Sanford School of Public Policy, need-based financial aid, teaching and mentoring, DukeEngage, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the University Libraries. I entered an amount—$15—but then I deleted what I’d entered. If there was ever a time to be bold, it was now. I doubled my contribution to $30 and submitted the gift. A new window popped up with some information: My $30 contribution had been divided equally among the entities I’d selected. The Sanford School of Public Policy, need-based financial aid, teaching and mentoring, DukeEngage, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the University Libraries were now $4.29 closer to each of their Duke Forward goals, courtesy of Patrick Oathout. That $30 will partially fund a future speaker on international policy, a student’s financial aid, a Global Health professor, a DukeEngage stipend, an orchid in the Duke Gardens and a new book on mollusk shells in Perkins. Duke was moving forward, and I was now part of that movement.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout.