Sunday, February 17, 2013

My $500 hamburger

This is the story of what my wife, Nancy, likes to call our $500 hamburger.

In early January, I received an email from Sven, the fellow who is in charge of development -- a more refined term for "raising cash" -- at the undergraduate college I attended. Sven was going to be in my city and wanted to know if we would have time for him to take us to dinner. We agreed to meet at 6:30 p.m., at a restaurant in our neighborhood.

Sven was waiting for us when we got to the restaurant. The three of us talked for a bit about news of the college since we'd last seen him. We ordered our food. Nancy chose what, at $12.50, seemed to me a slightly overpriced hamburger from the menu.

As we waited for our food, talk turned to various efforts under way at the college. I mentioned that years earlier I thought I had given to a fund that Sven mentioned. He told me he could check if I wanted and then took out his smartphone to consult an application that allowed him to see what every alumni had given annually to the college for at least the past two decades.

Sure enough, I'd given to that fund in honor of a former professor. But just underneath that entry was an indication that in 1999, I had pledged $500. Next to it was the notation "not fulfilled." In other words, this deadbeat sitting across from Sven hadn't paid up on the pledge.

"That can't be right," I said.

Sven showed me the phone again.

I'm among those people in the U.S. who try to give regularly to education and other not-for-profits without a political agenda. (I don't give to candidates or elected officials.) According to the Giving USA Foundation, the amount individuals gave in 2011 was $217.79 billion, up 4 percent from 2010. Giving to education, the second-largest recipient of donations, increased by 4 percent to a total of $38.87 billion that same year.

I don't like to be called out as someone who reneges on a pledge. As I again told Sven that I couldn't possibly have missed the mark 14 years ago, I noticed that every other donation we made over the years was carefully noted with precise detail.

Sven wasn't trying to shake me down for the cash. He wasn't even making a big deal over it. I got the sense that he found it somewhat amusing that it bugged me so much to have discovered a blemish someone noted on my record.

But before I could continue arguing how this couldn't be, Nancy had slipped our checkbook in front of me. "Make good on that $500 pledge you made," she said. "It's the right thing to do."

Clearly, she was right. The pledge had been made whether I remembered making it or not. Sven quickly loaned me his pen.

Within a week I received a nice note from Sven thanking me for my donation of $500 in 1999. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, my admiration to you for going back and making good on this contribution, although I'd question the ethics of Sven in bringing this up this many years later.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

I am a UMass Grad and donated every year until they started asking several times each year and phone calls and so etc.
It got stupid.

So I got sick of it and stopped. Once a year is OK (actually too much) but who are they? So they lost $100 a year for eternity.

I paid in full for my degree and why should they mooch from me??

No offense but too much is too much.

A Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

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