That said, we thought that the recent New York Times feature on Unithrive.org warranted some comment. Unithrive is a new organization that allows alumni of certain universities to make interest-free loans ranging from $50 to $2000 to students who attend their alma mater. As the Times points out, Unithrive's potential appeal derives from the fact that "alumni will have a personal connection to current students." That whole "personal connection" thing is all the rave in the non-profit world these days--check out, for example, Kiva.org, or this really cool educational charity that gives you complete creative control over your donation dollars.
What makes Unithrive different--and what I believe will ultimately make it so attractive--is that lenders through their site essentially have a double layer of personal connections. Not only are Unithrive lenders helping out unique, discrete human beings, they are helping out a unique, discrete human beings who attend their alma mater. And people already give money to their alma maters in droves. Acccording to Giving USA, the vast majority of education-related charitable giving in the United States is earmarked for colleges and universities. Because personal connections are such a magnetic force in charitable giving, I have no doubt that Unithrive will be a great success.
I do hope, though, that Unithrive will rethink its model slightly, and allow its lenders to give to students regardless of whether they attend their alma mater. Although I'd imagine that most lenders will still earmark loans for students that attended their college or university, Unithrive could also potentially serve as a site for, say, a Harvard-educated lender to make a personal connection with a struggling student at Berea College. Personal connections are the driving force of philanthropy, but innovative organizations like Unithrive should seek to boldly forge new connections, not simply piggyback upon those that already exist. My sneaking suspicion is that people with money often give to their alma maters precisely because they are the only charitable organizations to which they feel a personal connections, but perhaps people can find a more meaningful experience--and get more bang for their their philanthropic bucks--if they are aware of the many worthy causes out there.
On a related note, Greg Easterbrook--whose Tuesday Morning Quarterback column is one of the great pleasures of football season--has written great stuff on the absurdity of people giving to universities that have massive endowments, while many smaller, languishing colleges and universities struggle for adequate funding. I'll simply close this post with a link to his thoughts on the matter, provocatively titled: Rich people, stop giving to Harvard!