The Art of Circular Giving

February 3, 2022

Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,

As we leap into February, a major winter storm is sugar-coating our beautiful campus with a layer of fresh snow—and with it a fresh outlook on an old story. Yes, the Omicron variant continues to dominate the coronavirus landscape, and we started this semester with some trepidation. In the first two weeks, we saw more COVID-19 positives than in the entire first semester. But as quickly as cases rose, they then fell, and as we watch a steep plunge in the caseload, we are praying that our current numbers are a harbinger of things to come. For many of us, the new mantra is “Let Omicron be Omega”—we all want to see the end of COVID-19 and its variants. What a fresh start that will be—and what a gift!

Although the theme of this message may seem like it could belong to Christmas, it’s in this snowy season—this month, February—that I find myself thinking about the meaning of gifts. Many years ago, I read a wonderful book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. In it, Hyde launches his exploration of the meaning of gifts with a description of the gift exchange culture in a group of South Sea Islands. In Kula culture, people risked their lives to travel across a ring of islands in order to exchange artistic gifts. Studying their customs helped Hyde establish his distinction between reciprocal giving cultures and circular giving cultures.

”Reciprocal giving,” Hyde explains, “is a form of gift exchange, but it is the simplest. The gift moves in a circle, and two people do not make much of a circle.” Thus, he introduces the concept of “circular giving,” which “differs from reciprocal giving in several ways. . . [W]hen the gift moves in a circle, no one ever receives it from the same person he gives it to.” In many ways, I believe gifts that are offered in philanthropy are part of a circular giving network.

In fact, this idea of circular giving perfectly describes what we have accomplished on campus thanks to a particular gift and challenge. Just over a year ago, Saint Mary’s received a transformative gift from the Wilson Sheehan Foundation to establish the Office for Student Equity—a campus asset that assists under-resourced students in realizing the full Saint Mary’s experience. Students who have specific economic challenges are eligible for assistance with laptop computers, interview clothing, academic regalia for Commencement, Notre Dame football tickets, programming aimed at academic and career success, and much more. Through the Foundation, Lorraine Sheehan Wilson ’85 and Chris Wilson (ND ’85) made a gift of $3 million, with the promise of an additional gift of $2 million if Saint Mary’s could raise $2 million in matching funds.

Today I am thrilled to announce that through the extraordinary philanthropy of more than 100 individuals, we have not only met but exceeded the challenge! We are so grateful to Lorraine and Chris and to all the challenge donors for setting the $7 million cornerstone for these efforts, and we will continue fundraising to ensure we can meet the ongoing needs of our students. Clearly, our donors trust that we will make their gifts matter; they know the promise of the prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi: It is in giving that we receive.

 And I believe all of them are participating in both the letter and the spirit of Hyde’s circular giving. So much of what Hyde describes in his book seems applicable to the ways I have observed philanthropy working at Saint Mary’s College, but perhaps no aspect more than this: “When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”

Each donation is an act of social faith. What a perfect description of the gifts of time, talent, and treasure we receive from all of you—alumnae, students, parents and family, faculty and staff, trustees, and friends of the College! And in this cold and dark month, I invite you to join me in making a warm and bright act of social faith for Saint Mary’s College.

Our Donor Challenge Day is Thursday, February 24, 2022! Our challenge is to rally 4,500 donors in one day to secure $100,000 in challenge gifts for the Saint Mary’s Fund. If 1,844 donors give by noon ET, we will receive $30,000 more for the Saint Mary’s Fund through an additional challenge.

Be on the lookout for even more challenges in the coming weeks to celebrate our 10th annual 24-hour Donor Challenge at Saint Mary’s. We will live-stream several events from across campus on the day of Donor Challenge to engage donors and friends near and far. If you’d like to help, you can sign up to be a Donor Challenge Ambassador today by visiting Once you register, you will receive a link to set up your fundraiser profile, which will allow you to track your fundraising progress in real time and see your personal impact on the day of Donor Challenge. You will also have access to our official ambassador toolkit and receive special communications from us on the day of Donor Challenge.

Last year was my first Donor Challenge Day, and even in the midst of our global Covid concerns, I saw first-hand the remarkable love you all have for this College! I saw the principle of circular giving in action. I saw acts of social faith. I saw a deep and enduring commitment to Saint Mary’s as a Catholic, women’s, liberal arts college. All these things fill me with faith, gratitude, and humility—and with the confidence that what we are doing today will make a real contribution toward the great future that lies ahead for our College.

Warm regards,

Katie Conboy, Ph.D.

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