Alumni and Friends Continue a Tradition of Generosity on GivingTuesday
December 7, 2021 | By Eve Tolpa
The 2021 St. John’s College GivingTuesday effort exceeded its goals for the third year in a row. The college aimed for 500 participating donors, and by the end of the day on November 30, 660 donors—encompassing alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends—had stepped forward, collectively raising $215,880.
“This kind of community support has empowered the college to slash tuition, raise enrollment, and help 95 percent of our students with financial aid while also balancing our budget,” says Spencer Windes (SF99), collegewide director of annual giving and strategic engagement.
St. John’s has been involved in the national day of giving since 2017, and participation has increased significantly since then. The college’s first GivingTuesday fundraiser yielded $10,000; tallies for the following year, 2018, were 10 times that amount.
This year, parents of current students were especially active donors, often encouraging participation from others. According to the online platform GiveCampus, St. John’s parent participation for 2021 was 17 percent, up from 14 percent in 2020.
Put another way: Of the 660 people who gave this year, more than 100 were Johnnie parents. “I think that’s pretty impressive, since parents are in a position to see firsthand the difference St. John’s makes in a student’s life,” says Kerri Braly, senior development writer for the college.
Lesley Culver, whose son Avery (A24) is a sophomore, made a gift specifically to honor the incoming Annapolis president, Nora Demleitner.
Her connection to Demleitner extends beyond their mutual relationship with St. John’s: Culver is a graduate of Washington and Lee University School of Law, where Demleitner is currently finishing up her final semester as Roy L. Steinheimer Jr. Professor of Law.
“When I read that she had been chosen, I was thrilled, as I knew she would be a perfect fit for St. John’s,” Culver says, adding that similarities between the two institutions include student body size and a pedagogical approach that embraces a spirit of collaboration.
“Washington and Lee, like St. John’s, focuses on the importance of really listening to one’s peers, challenging your own point of view, engaging fully in your learning community, and understanding that when working together you achieve a deeper understanding of the material,” Culver continues.
“To have someone leading St. John’s who understands and embraces this style of learning is critical to the ongoing success of the college,” she says, noting that “there is, of course, the additional excitement of St. John’s having its first female president!”
According to Culver, St. John’s is singular in its dedication to “critical thinking and the art of listening to and hearing other points of view. [In] my own professional life, I have seen students graduate from ‘top’ universities with very little of these vital skills required for any profession and for simply engaging fully in the world around you.”
That type of engagement is precisely what inspired her son Avery to enroll in the college. “He once said to me during high school, ‘Mom, if you aren’t into video games or sports stats, it’s really hard to make conversation with kids.’ The joy he has found in like-minded students really shows,” Culver says.
“The college really takes an interest in the success of its students on a very personal level,” she adds. “I can already see the impact St. John’s has had on the way he views the world and the developing complexity of his thought processes.”
Culver says she was also inspired by the generosity of the Winiarski Family Foundation, which launched a $50 million challenge grant in 2017: an unprecedented call to action for the St. John’s community. Meeting that challenge in the spring of 2021 was a game-changer for the college’s culture of giving—one that is having a profound effect on the lives of students. From Culver’s point of view, GivingTuesday presents the ideal opportunity for people to help perpetuate those results.
Similarly, fellow Johnnie parent donor Andy Reeher sees GivingTuesday as “a day for the community to make a commitment, for us to say, ‘We’re here. We’re out here.’”
Reeher has plenty of firsthand experience with all aspects of educational philanthropy. As the founder and former CEO of Reeher LLC, he pioneered a predictive modeling system that helped more than 150 colleges and universities improve their own fundraising practices. (The company was acquired by technology firm Blackbaud in 2018.)
Reeher’s relationship with St. John’s began about a decade ago, when his daughter Mary (A15) enrolled at the Annapolis campus; his son James (A25) is a now freshman there. “Our daughter was a pretty natural fit for the college,” he recalls. “She liked reading and having in-depth conversations.”
By the same token, he characterizes James as someone who “loves to turn over ideas,” adding: “He admires his tutors, he admires his fellow students.” Echoing Culver’s description of her son Avery’s experience, Reeher describes James as being “in with a set of like-minded people.”
As for Reeher, he is particularly impressed by the tuition cut that St. John’s enacted in 2018. The decrease from $60,000 to $35,000 corresponded with a shift in the college’s financial model; rather than being tuition-based, it is now philanthropy-based. That means the college aims to derive an increasingly larger percentage of annual revenue from gifts rather than students.
In fiscal year 2021, which ended in June, approximately 40 percent of St. John’s revenue came from either direct gifts of support or from the St. John’s Endowment, both of which depend on philanthropy.
Reeher applauds this bold move. In its approach to tuition, he says, the college “is very comfortable standing on its own. They stepped out and did a thing that a lot of people talked about but didn’t do.”
The initiative is characteristic of the iconoclasm that Reeher sees consistently at the school—not only in terms of its financial structure but also in its pedagogy. “They have been very comfortable being out of step with the rest of higher education,” he says. “It’s not a marketing slogan. They walk the walk.”
For Reeher, the view of education as a mere stepping stone to a job reflects a limited perspective. “Most people I know didn’t need to go to college to do what they are doing professionally,” he says. “St. John’s offers so much more.”
While he recognizes and respects the trend in academia toward ever-increasing separation and specialization, he posits that “it’s hard to relate to the world that way. It doesn’t equip you for the kind of rich life that’s possible. I’m really pleased with Mary’s experience, and I’m excited for James as well. They are going to experience things in life that few people will. I really admire the administration and the faculty’s commitment to the Program, [and] I want to make sure the college is successful.”
He envisions himself—and all other St. John’s parents—existing on a sort of “outer circle” surrounding the students, faculty, staff, and administration. But that physical distance does not equate to mental or emotional distance.
Instead, he says, “We are deeply invested in the institution. While our kids are in school we think about it every day. We’re all grateful that the college is there. St. John’s is a well-distinguished school; there are very few colleges or universities in the United State that are really committed to the liberal arts. [GivingTuesday] is an opportunity for all of us to cheer from the sidelines and to help it accomplish its mission, which takes money.”
Culver concurs. From her point of view, the spirit of community that animates St. John’s is on full display on GivingTuesday.
“[It’s] in keeping with the Johnnie tradition of working together for a more meaningful experience,” she says. “It’s a great feeling to be a part of a collective giving effort where every donation, no matter how big or small, really makes a difference.”