Thursday, August 25, 2016

Sweet Briar College - The Long, Lingering Twilight

You have to applaud the folks who have worked so hard over the past year+ to keep Sweet Briar College alive. When a previous administration and board thought they saw the writing on the wall and tried to close the institution with some dignity, a group of alumni and other supporters banded together, raised $22 million, hired a new administration and a new board, and vowed to bring the honorable but ailing school back to life.

Now comes this news:
Sweet Briar Budgets $20M in Donations for 2017
Note that their budget for this next year calls for $20 million in donated money to help fund a $33 million budget. That's right - roughly 2/3 of the budget will have to be donated by outsiders.

This comes a year after the enthusiastic backers of the school pulled out all the stops to raise $22 million in donated funding. There is a finite pool of people who have a connection to Sweet Briar or who would otherwise be interested in helping it stay alive, and those people have a finite pool of resources. Looking for another $20 million from the same pool from which you pulled $22 million just a year before is a nearly impossible task.

And if they manage to pull off the impossible, what then? Do they raise yet another $20 million the following year, and the year after that? The college has yet to hit enrollment targets since it reopened, and its discount rate remains a staggering 64%. None of this is surprising - parents and students are understandably reluctant to commit time and resources to a place that could very well cease to exist within the next four years. That same concern is even stronger for donors, who have many requests for their philanthropy and who generally want to make a lasting difference in the world.

I understand and appreciate the emotion that drives efforts like this. For those most committed to the cause, it is a labor of love. But sometimes, love is not enough. Passion is not a business model. I'm afraid that in another year or two, Sweet Briar will see yet another closure - the next one less dignified and graceful than the first.

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