Imagine American higher education without Harvard, Economics without Chicago, the women's right movement without Smith, the Black middle class without Spelman and Morehouse, or more generally college access without scholarships. Without philanthropy, what we know, the rights we have, who we have in our classrooms, and even our ability to be in the classroom would be drastically different.  According to the Council for Aid to Education, unrestricted annual giving programs make up more than 10% of current operations at the nation’s colleges and universities. However, when combined with restricted gifts and interest from endowment—a result of prior philanthropy—the percentage of annual budgets stemming from giving increases dramatically. Private and public colleges would not be able to reach their fiscal obligations or curricular goals without the voluntary dollars that donors provide to supplement tuition and other sources of institutional income. The importance of philanthropic giving is especially heightened by the decrease in external support of higher education from state governments and the increased dependency in tuition. Simply put, philanthropy has and continues to be central to American higher education. With the growing focus on philanthropic needs and search for new donors, institutions require more research on philanthropic giving patterns in order to be successful.


Brittingham and Pezzulo (1990) argue that higher education fundraising is often “thinly informed by research” (p. 1); this has not changed much in the nearly 25 years since it was written. While existing research offers some guidance for practitioners, the implications are limited by the failure to ground the research in any theoretical or conceptual framework (Drezner, 2011; 2013). By grounding my explorations of alumni giving in theory, I attempt to further develop and refine theories of donor motivations and prosocial behavior development. Yet, I strive to create practitioner-relevant research that informs both research and practice. My work, using an interdisciplinary approach, in particular, sociological and historical frameworks, attempts to address the theoretical gap in the literature. More specifically, I focus on individuals who have historically been excluded from philanthropic giving and scholarship in order to understand the cultural context in which they engage in prosocial behaviors.


Primary Line of Research: Philanthropy in Higher Education


Identity-Based Philanthropy: One aspect of my research focuses on philanthropy in non-traditional donor communities. Philanthropy is often defined by the literature through a wealth-White-male monetary lens. An emerging area of study, both within the more general philanthropic studies literature and within the subfield exploring giving towards higher education, is identity-based fundraising. The authors of a 2012 Cultures of Giving report by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and funded by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors found that:


…identity-based philanthropy is a growing movement to democratize philanthropy from the grassroots up by activating and organizing its practice in marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. Simply described, it is the practice of raising and leveraging resources by and from a community on its own behalf, where “community” is defined not by geography but by race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. (p. 2)


My scholarship has explored the importance of identity within philanthropy towards higher education; having engaged research along the lines of race and ethnicity, gender, ability, religion, and sexuality.



Highlights of Current Research Agenda:


The National Alumni Giving Experiment:

Social Base of Philanthropic Fundraising in Higher Education:

How Frames and Identity Matter


Winner of the 2015 John Grenzebach Award for Outstanding Research in Philanthropy for Educational Advancement from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE)


The vast majority of identity-based philanthropic studies research uses qualitative methods to detail rich descriptive motivations. Building off of my identity-based philanthropy work, I recently ran a general population experiment that evaluates college graduates’ willingness to donate to their alma mater through different solicitation vignettes. These vignettes highlight different possible donor identities and motivations that have emerged in prior scholarship.  The survey experiment evaluated attitudes toward two randomly assigned fictitious solicitation letters. The letters describe an individual student: (1) who is meritorious, (2) has general financial need, (3) is a first-generation college student, (4) is gay or lesbian with lack of parental support. Three additional conditions are varied randomly across respondents: gender, race/ethnicity, and name of the student. The experiment allows us to understand how solicitations that mirror donor identity effect philanthropic giving. The survey experiment includes over 1600 respondents. In my initial analysis, I find that those who share higher number of social identities with the student profiled in the solicitation letter are more likely than others to assign more importance to the causes described in the letters. I also find that women and those with marginalized identities (race and sexual orientation) showed greater interest in solicitations in supporting other marginalized individuals, even if it was not a direct shared identity.


Prosocial Behavior Development in College Students:

A Longitudinal Study on Impact of the Undergraduate Philanthropy Course on Future Prosocial Behaviors


I am about to launch a longitudinal study that follows students’ development of prosocial behaviors. College and university mission statements often espouse ideals such as creating active and engaged citizens. One form of citizenship is prosocial behavior, or voluntary actions towards others. I am interested in better understanding how the study of and participation in philanthropy can influence students’ prosocial behavior development. Therefore, I will compare undergraduate students who have taken philanthropy courses in college with similar students who have not taken philanthropy courses. Using surveys, interviews, and observations, I will follow participants beyond college to observe the long-term impacts of these discussions and opportunities.


National LGBT Alumni Study (co-PI with Jason C. Garvey, Asst. Professor, University of Alabama)


In order to understand why and how people in the LGBTQ communities engage in philanthropic behaviors, the National LGBT Alumni Study aims to examine this phenomenon, specifically within the context of giving to higher education. Until this project, no empirical research existed on LGBTQ communities’ involvement in and motivation to be philanthropic towards higher education.


The study employs mixed methods including a multi-institutional case study with eight institutions of diverse types and over 135 participants.  Qualitative data collection involved a two-tier approach: (1) interviews with advancement officers from both alumni relations and fundraising/development positions across all job functions and position levels; and (2) focus groups with LGBTQ alumni with varying social identities, levels of involvement with their alma mater, and giving history. Stemming from the qualitative portion of the study, we administered a survey to a national sample of LGBTQ alumni. Using the theoretical constructs that emerged from our multi-institutional case study, we created a survey instrument that operationalizes philanthropic involvement and motivation concepts germane to LGBTQ alumni. The survey database includes nearly 3500 respondents.



Secondary Line of Research: Minority-Serving Institutions


Beyond my work on philanthropy and fundraising, and aligning with my interest in social justice, equity, and inclusion and identity-based philanthropy, my research has included a greater understanding of minority-serving institutions (MSIs). Some of my work on HBCUs intersects with my interest in philanthropy.


My research agenda is gaining recognition. In 2012, The ACPA-College Student Educators International granted me its coveted Emerging Scholar Award in recognition of my contributions to the fields of higher education. In 2014, I was named the inaugural recipient of the Association for Fundraising Professional’s Early Career – Emerging Scholar award.