Thursday, March 10, 2005

Why is this item important? (A personal deed of gift experience, part 2)

On September 30, I wrote "A personal deed of gift experience." Today is a good day to tell more of that story. I want to talk about context.

In September, I donated 20 items to Elmira College (EC) that had belong to my mother, who had graduated from EC in 1931. In meeting with the Alumni Office, it was important for me to build context about the items. I built the context by connecting everything into a story; a story about my mother. The items taken together told the story of my mother, an African American woman, who was the first African American to graduate from Elmira College (actually its music school). I had her diploma, articles from the newspaper (which documented her status as 'the first'), event programs (and the commencement program) that listed her, and her resume from the 1930s that outlined her entire academic career. Building the entire story was important because the Alumni Office didn't know that there had been a music school, but there in black-and-white was the proof -- diploma and commencement program. The diploma was signed by the school's president at the time and her principle instructor was known to have been at EC. I also gave them a photo of her from that era, so that they could see what she looked like.

The lesson -- It is important for donors to build context, even if they think it's obvious. We know from experience that what is obvious to us may not be obvious to someone else! Documenting the context will help the institution retain the understanding of why the items are important. It also helps to ensure that the institution re-tells the story (rebuilds the context) correctly.

So why tell more of this story today? Today I received the alumni magazine from EC that contained an article about the donation, with photos of my mother and myself (also an EC graduate). I am not sure if my mother, who died in early 2004, would be pleased with the attention she is now getting, but my thought is that the attention is well deserved.

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