The Right Coast

April 15, 2004
USD's $100,000 Door Prize
By Gail Heriot

My friend Andy Stephens is fond of pointing out that effective philanthropy is not as easy as it looks. The world is full of people who through talent and hard work amassed quite a fortune, only to fritter it away on ill-conceived efforts at charity. Spending money for the public good (or for any purpose) is just like earning money: It requires energy and thought to do it well. Andrew Carnegie was good at it. So was John D. Rockefeller. But many people aren't and countless otherwise savvy people make a complete hash of it. (Maybe some of them will benefit from Andy's new book project, which on famous philanthropists, what they did right and what they did wrong.)

Why am I mentioning this? Next week is the official opening of the University of San Diego's new Degheri Alumni Center--a lovely new building made possible by the generosity of the Theresa and Edward O'Toole Foundation and named for USD alumnus Bert Degheri (Mrs. O'Toole's nephew and foundation trustee). I am confident that USD will make every effort to ensure that this kind gift will be money well spent. I am considerably less enthusiastic about the festivities planned for the dedication.

According to the USD web site and posters across campus, an anonymous donor has put up the money for a drawing to be held at the dedication. One hundred USD students (50 men and 50 women) will win $1000 each. You do the math. That's $100,000 being spent to attract a crowd of students (who are notoriously happy to come to any event in return for a free slice of cold pizza).

I don't know whose idea this was, but it certainly sounds like it was not well thought out. I can hardly imagine a less effective way to spend $100,000. It's not that putting money in someone's pocket is a bad thing. But choosing randomly-selected USD students (many of whom come from fairly prosperous homes) for such a windfall is pretty odd. If you're looking to find people who really need the money, it's probably better to stand outside a pawn shop or an unemployment office. And if you're looking to make a USD education available to someone who otherwise might not be able to afford it, it's probably better to give the money to the students most in need rather than to those who happen to win the lottery. There are hundreds of thousands of excellent ways to spend $100,000 to promote the public good; I've got a long list in mind of things to do at USD in particular. Expensive door prizes for college students shouldn't be high on anybody's list.

That's my rant for today.