In Paula Tavrow’s book, $26 billion is a lot of money.
So much that the Harvard University alumna, class of ’81, who has worked on international development issues, wasn’t exactly inspired by the idea of donating more money for such traditional uses as renovating a building or endowing a new chair. Nonetheless, with her 25th reunion -- an occasion that can net Harvard tens of millions from the celebrating class -- in the offing, Tavrow saw an opportunity too good to pass up.
She started contacting classmates who supported the idea of giving money for scholarships for graduate students from Africa who would not otherwise be able to attend Harvard, and to form a partnership with a university in Tanzania.
It began as the most base of grassroots efforts. In September of last year, Tavrow started Googling classmates and contacting those for whom she found e-mail addresses. By November, she had 37 classmates publicly supporting the establishment of her proposed fund. By December, she had 100, a few of them with deep pockets. Now, there are 358 members of Harvard Alumni for Social Action,  all from the about 1,500 alums from the class of 1981, and Harvard has officially joined forces with them on the part of the fund that goes toward scholarships for African students. To the dismay of some HASA members, Harvard refused to be a partner on the fund to support Dar es Salaam University’s College of Education, so contributions for that cause will not be counted as official contributions to Harvard.
Organizers of the new approach to alumni giving cited Harvard's extreme wealth. In his farewell address  as president, Lawrence Summers said that the endowment has grown by billions more than predicted just a few years ago -- and that with great wealth, comes great responsibility that extends beyond Cambridge.
John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, said that the push at Harvard for helping African students reflects a “growing interest among donors in not simply making the gift and feeling good about it, but wanting to have some ongoing engagement so they feel they really are making a difference with their contribution.”
Tavrow, who has worked in Africa and is director of the Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health at the University of California at Los Angeles, said her initial attempts to work with Harvard were rebuffed. In January, William Kirby, outgoing dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote Tavrow an e-mail that said that “while I admire your efforts, I cannot approve your proposal.” He added that money “that we raise each year from our reunion campaigns are critical for Harvard to continue to fulfill its mission, and raising money for anything else would be an inappropriate use of our fundraising efforts.”
He might have given it a second thought when Marco M. Elser, class of ’81 and CEO of an investment banking firm, threatened to donate $100,000 less than his planned $100,000 donation.
Elser, president of the Harvard Club in Italy, said that his father – “he was much wealthier,” Elser said – donated $500,000 to Harvard in the 1950s and 60s to aid poor black students from Manhattan, where he lived. Elser said he feels “a very strong umbilical affiliation to Harvard,” but told Kirby that “if Harvard doesn’t let us do this, I’m not going to give any donation.”
In February, Harvard approved the part of the fund for graduate student aid, and Elser contributed $250,000.
“That put us on the map,” Tavrow said, “and endowed the scholarship.” To date, HASA has raised about $315,000, about $300,000 of which has gone to the scholarship fund.
Harvard’s official approval of the scholarship allowed donations to be tax deductible, and for gifts to be counted as official donations to Harvard.
Elser said that he’s disappointed that Harvard didn’t approve the partnership fund with Dar es Salaam. “That shows Harvard’s unfortunate, myopic stance in charitable contributions,” he said. (Harvard officials did not respond to questions about their decision.)
The Carnegie Corporation of New York has agreed to work with HASA to manage that fund.
With the class of 1981’s reunion coming up this month, HASA members hope that efforts like theirs will become a tradition for 25th reunions at Harvard, and that the university will set a precedent for how institutions with more money than they can shake a laser pointer at should behave.
“The question I ask is: has Harvard’s contribution to the world increased in proportion to its wealth,” said Joe McDonough, a member of the HASA steering committee. “Otherwise, they’re not using their endowment sufficiently.”
McDonough, a venture capitalist turned photographer, said that with Harvard’s resources and modern technology, the university should be thinking bigger than the planned expansion into the Allston section of Boston. “Here’s a situation where they could expand Harvard learning into Siberia,” McDonough said, “and the vision is to cross the Charles River into Boston?”
Some alumni have been inspired by the project. David Rothman, who is a member of the HASA steering committee and has managed nonprofit groups, said that he’s “not particularly wealthy,” and didn’t feel like his relatively small gift “to Harvard, to an unrestricted fund, would make the slightest bit of difference in such a big pot,” he said.
In his parting remarks, Summers said that history will judge Harvard by whether with “all of our wealth, did we do all we could to blaze new paths for higher education and change the world … or did we continue to do traditional things in traditional ways, enjoying the greater comfort that increased resources provide?”
“I’m not a big fan of Larry Summers,” McDonough said. “But I agree with him on that one.”