Have you ever been to Carmine’s, the legendary family-style restaurant in NYC?  They serve everything in extra-large dishes, designed for sharing. Sharing big, delicious dishes can be wonderful, but too much of anything – be it Italian food or family – can have consequences.

The Penn State football program has been described as a “family unit” – and I’m sure many of us have a similar connection with an institution like that. Higher education, especially, can be a place where careers are lifelong commitments, and where the intimacy created by daily labor toward shared goals can lead to fierce loyalties.

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education got me thinking about how that family dynamic surfaces in fund raising solicitations. Fundraising staff at cultural organizations have been known to envy the education sector for their deeply-connected constituents.  Art museums have members and dedicated supporters, but is there anywhere but higher ed where the roots run this deep?

And in light of the Penn State situation, I wonder that perceived fundraising advantage really exists.

In a previous job, I sent alumni an annual appeal authored by someone who had those deep connections – a man whose father who had worked for the institution, and who had grown up playing hide-and-seek among the ivy-covered campus buildings. He was, and is, a wonderful person with a sterling reputation. That all came out in his letter, and yes, it was a successful fund raising piece.

But I wonder – especially in light of this darker, Penn State-revealed picture of family-style institutional loyalty – is this really the best way to appeal to donors? Do we run the risk of alienating constituents who don’t consider our institutions family, but wish to give for other reasons?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And a hat tip to Jeff Brooks for his donor-centered fundraising blog, in my last link.

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