On the morning of Thursday, January 31, I woke up at 8:00 am for my Princeternship with Stephanie Freeth ’97 and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF). It is usually cold, snowy, and icy in Michigan during the winter, but that Thursday was especially so! Fortunately, I was able to make it to the AAACF without too much difficulty, meeting Edgar Wang ’16 (the other Princetern) and Ms. Freeth soon after. As I walked in, I could tell that the AAACF was a positive, exciting place to be, and my later experiences would prove me correct.
Our first item on the agenda was to learn exactly how the AAACF (and other community foundations) worked. In particular, Ms. Freeth taught us “Fundraising 101.” Of the lessons in Fundraising 101, the one that most stuck with me is the fundraising pyramid. At the top are the most valuable gifts, such as bequests from wealthy donors, while at the bottom are the more numerous, smaller gifts such as annual gifts that might come through direct mailing. As one might expect, the most valuable donations (bequests, from wealthy donors) are also the most difficult to acquire – they require years of cultivating personal relationships, and ensuring the donor that their gift will be managed properly. Interestingly enough, the AAACF prefers to focus their efforts towards gifts at the top of the pyramid, but the reasons might not be the ones you expect. As a community foundation, the AAACF tries to avoid competing with other local non-profits for donations on the bottom of the pyramid (annual gifts that the foundation might get after direct mailing), because that would be counter-productive – their goal is to increase support for local nonprofits, not the opposite! Hence, by focusing on large donors, the AAACF can make everyone better off – the donors are better off because they know their donations are with a trustworthy and responsible caretaker, and the AAACF can support the surrounding area through grants and scholarships without competing with other nonprofits or community organization. The economist in me thought this was a unique real-world case of when the best outcome occurs by NOT competing – because everyone is on the same team!
A little bit past noon, we went to get lunch at Zingerman’s Deli, which is probably one of the best places to eat in the entirety of Ann Arbor. Edgar and I both went with the staff favorite “pork potpie,” and I ordered black cherry soda and a brownie, to which Ms. Freeth was kind enough to treat us. While we waited upstairs for our meal, we were able to talk about our lives, Princeton, Michigan, and society in general. Our meals arrived after ten minutes or so, and the food was as delicious as expected. We continued our discussion, and it was eye opening to see both how little Princeton has changed in some regards, and how it has changed a lot in other regards.
After lunch, we learned about the AAACF’s role in the Youth Council, which was founded in the late 80s. The Youth Council is made up of students from local schools, and supports initiatives helping youths in the Ann Arbor area. In fact, the Youth Council is so important that there is a Youth Council member on the board with the same privileges as any other member! Upon learning about the Youth Council, we headed to a conference to discuss the AAACF’s social media and web presence. Having worked in web design and search engine optimization this summer, I found this discussion particularly engaging. What struck me the most was the question of whether the AAACF even needs a web presence – would a better online presence even help the AAACF with their goals, and if it did, could it possibly harm other nonprofits through excessive competition? The answer to this question seemed both important and difficult to answer, and it made me question some of my beliefs which I took for granted – is it actually necessary for a group to spend time, effort, and money to increase their online presence? At first, I thought the answer was almost certainly yes, but as I have learned repeatedly, the true answer is much more nuanced.
To end the day, we were able to pose some questions to Ms. Freeth and to her colleague, Neel Hajra. Now, it’s not entirely common to have people older and wiser than you give you the explicit opportunity to ask them questions about school and life after it. So, we asked questions of just that nature – do you have any advice for life and school? Simple question, but important as well. Neel’s advice was similarly poignant – “live like a grad student for three years – you don’t want to tie yourself down to a lifestyle” and “Ask: to what end am I doing this?” Neel later expanded on this advice, but as far as I can tell, everyone in the room – Edgar, Ms. Freeth, and me – thought the words were particularly sagely. To my surprise, it was already past 4:30, and our day at the AAACF was over! We gathered our things, took a few pictures with Ms. Freeth, and bid everyone goodbye. I walked out of the AAACF both very thankful to have the opportunity to meet Ms. Freeth and everyone else at the AAACF, and to learn so much in such a short time. I wholeheartedly recommend this experience to anyone who is reading this, and I would like to thank Ms. Freeth again for making the Princeternship experience excellent! Thank you!