Fundraising isn’t fun when it exploits staff and students


Photo credit: Ren Rader

Illustration by Ren Rader

On Sept. 19, in the midst of the day-long 1869 Challenge fundraising event, the official Trinity University Twitter account (@Trinity_U) tweeted an announcement for the student donation challenge: If students gave at least 250 donations, Dining Services employee Yolanda Rangel would receive a day off. The response on Twitter was generally negative; many students, alumni and community members saw the promotional event as exploitative or insensitive. In response to these concerns, the university account repeatedly replied with the same prewritten message:

“Many students and Yolanda are excited to show their appreciation to her with an additional day off and time being pampered at the spa. We understand your concern. Aramark employees are eligible for a variety of benefits including days off. We hope this helps clarify.”

This event, and the subsequent response to student concern, fails to see major issues in the way it was framed and promoted. Not only did this event come across as patronizing and exploitative of Yolanda, it also took advantage of the positive social bonds between students and Dining Services staff to solicit more donations.

The main differences between this year’s student donation challenge and past challenges, such as locking David Tuttle, dean of students, in Murchison Tower, are the inherent power dynamics behind each. Locking Tuttle in the tower was a much more innocent event, since its consequences fell on someone with a relatively large amount of power at Trinity.

This is comparable to those high school fundraising events in which the grand prize was getting to throw a pie at the prinicipal or dropping them into a dunk tank; the joke is on someone who otherwise carries large influence, so the event is “punching up” and in good taste.

According to an email from Tess Coody-Anders, vice president for Strategic Communications and Marketing, the annual giving team decided to feature Yolanda in this challenge in an attempt to recognize a well-known figure on campus.

“This year, the annual giving team was looking to feature a beloved figure on campus for the student challenge. Yolanda’s name was repeatedly offered up as a campus celebrity, someone that all students respected and admired, and therefore would be motivated to recognize,” Coody-Anders wrote. “After talking to Yolanda and her employer, Aramark, it was suggested that the challenge result in Yolanda enjoying an extra day off for pampering and fun.”

Now, while giving someone a day off is objectively a good thing, and not a joke at the expense of Yolanda, it is still exploitative due to the very nature of what the event is aiming to do: collect money for the university.

It is good to know that Yolanda was willing to participate, but this doesn’t mean the event was in good taste. The very fact that the annual giving team and Aramark chose Yolanda for this event means that they recognize her immense value for the Trinity community. This recognition becomes exploitative when it is used to ask for donations from students. The annual giving team took advantage of students’ love for Yolanda’s presence and used the opportunity to raise money.

As seen on Twitter, the university was quick to clarify that the event aimed to give Yolanda a day off in addition to the ones she currently receives.

“According to Aramark, the company’s benefits are highly competitive with the market, and they vary based on a person’s tenure,” Coody-Anders wrote. “Certainly, Yolanda’s performance and seniority mean she receives the maximum benefits possible. For example, a high-performing, long-tenured employee would be eligible to receive several weeks of paid time off and vacation days each year.”

It is important to note that while the event was offering an additional day off, it hardly detracts from the exploitative nature. If Yolanda was chosen as significant enough to be able to draw in at least 250 student donations, she is obviously an invaluable employee and member of the Trinity community. Therefore, if the university or Dining Services truly wished to recognize Yolanda, they would have given her this reward with no strings or conditions attached. Or, as many Twitter responses joked, if they had wanted to give students an opportunity to recognize Yolanda, they would have allowed students to donate directly to her. Instead, it was fairly obvious that Yolanda’s hard work and her close bonds with students were used as a vehicle for raising money for the university.

This entire problematic event relies on a culture of donation that expects students to give to Trinity, almost as if it is their duty. While reaching out to alumni for donations is standard and fairly accepted, it seems much more strange to expect current students to give while they are already paying tuition.

Organizing an event such as this one with Yolanda seems to imply that students should be giving money anyways and that Yolanda’s reward is an innocent way to commemorate such giving. But in reality, current students are not, and should not be, obligated to give in any way, so this event becomes an exploitative way of incentivizing donations. Yes, school spirit is valuable and can be a reason to donate if students want to, but to expect students to donate by using their emotional connection to staff puts students in an awkward position: are we bad people for not donating because it might mean Yolanda doesn’t get an extra day off?

This 1869 Challenge event was an ugly example of how privilege at an elite university can twist our understanding of what is ethically acceptable when it comes to labor and marketing. But we should use it as a lesson and try to improve our school: what exactly do the Dining Services worker benefits look like, and how can we improve them? How can we recognize all the amazing staff who serve us food and clean our dorms, and not just the ones the university sees as marketable?

Answering these questions will allow us to improve the lives of those who are vital to student life, and it will do a lot more good than holding a day at the spa hostage for donations.