In the wake of the nation’s financial crisis and years of prolonged economic instability, college graduates have been slow to give back to their alma maters, forcing development offices to find new and creative ways to reach out to their alumni.
The national average for alumni giving remains remarkably low, at about 9 to 10 percent for private colleges and 5 to 6 percent for public universities. The problem is even more distressing at historically Black colleges and universities, which, at one time, produced the lion’s share of Black college graduates in this country.
But despite the sharp economic decline, Bennett College, the small, Black women’s college headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., has consistently managed to keep its numbers up, garnering annual financial contributions from about 20 percent of its alumni, much higher than the HBCU national average of about 6 percent.
We are one of the smallest HBCUs in the country and yet we’re doing our share,” says Dr. Rosalind Fuse-Hall, who assumed the presidency of Bennett in July and has been barnstorming the country on a mission to raise funds for the liberal arts school. “I applaud our women because they believe in Bennett College, they support Bennett College and they give to Bennett College. Where else would you find that kind of support from the alumnae?”
At a time when many HBCUs are struggling to stay financially afloat as philanthropic efforts have taken a steep downward turn, HBCU leaders might consider looking at the Bennett model to see why so many “Belles” — as they’re affectionately referred to on the day they enroll at the university — have steadily supported the college through the years, despite generational differences and some of the more obvious challenges that confront the school on a day-to-day basis.
For example, Bennett’s four-year graduation rate hovers at about 29 percent and its enrollment numbers are down, forcing administrators to develop a five-year strategy that includes attracting more transfer, non-traditional and international students from Asia and Africa.
“There is still a sizable pot of eligible young women that we have to do a better job attracting to the campus and that will help us get our enrollment numbers up,” says Fuse-Hall. “There are some communities that we have not tapped into that [are] looking for a small, liberal arts, individualized attention-giving campus like Bennett College for their young daughters, sisters [and] aunts who they want to have that kind of experience because they don’t want their person to get lost in a larger institution. And we offer that. That’s been the history of Bennett and we’ve been successful at that.”
Building confidence in Bennett
To Bennett’s benefit, the 140-year-old private college has had several well-known “sister-presidents” who have pursued sizable financial gifts.
After serving a 10-year stint as president of Spelman — the nation’s only other Black college exclusively for women — Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole was recruited in 2002 to lead Bennett. She was replaced in 2007 by Dr. Julianne Malveaux, the well-known author, commentator and economist who stepped down in 2012 after five years on the job. Dr. Esther Terry, a Bennett alum, who served in various administrative posts and helped establish the nation’s second Afro-American Studies doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was appointed interim president for a year after she returned to Bennett to serve as provost during Malveaux’s tenure. Terry was succeeded earlier this year by Fuse-Hall, a North Carolina native.
Despite an $11 million endowment, Fuse-Hall has actively been raising funds by weaving together an impressive narrative for funders that point to Bennett’s accomplishments over the last few years, which includes helping more than 100 young women in the foster care system enroll and graduate from the college.
“We’re building confidence, not just internally, but externally, so people know Bennett College has a story to tell and a purpose to live,” says Fuse-Hall. “Bennett is going to concentrate on what Bennett has done well for the last 10 to 15 years — strong academics, strong public service [and a] strong civic engagement component while emphasizing wellness.”
Fuse-Hall says in addition to helping students refine their communication and leadership skills, a concerted effort is underway to help the students develop an entrepreneurial prowess. “Black women have always augmented their family income with some family business that they’ve run out of their home,” says Fuse-Hall, whose mother-in-law once printed church bulletins in the county where she lived. “Other women have sold Avon or Mary Kay. Our students today call it their ‘side hustle.’ We don’t want it to be their side hustle. We want them to have a good understanding of what entrepreneurship is all about so they can develop the skills and working knowledge around marketing and business plans.”
College officials hope that the investment in teaching practical skills to current students will propel them to give back in the future.
“Many HBCU alumni love their institution, but that does not translate to giving,” says Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert of HBCUs. “HBCUs benefit from trumpeting their story, as they have to show success. Negative stories don’t attract donors. HBCUs need to take hold of their own stories, write opinion pieces, talk to the media, generate more press releases, use social media and talk to everyone about their institutions.”
Looking to Hollywood
Outside of alumni giving, media tycoon Oprah Winfrey and entertainer Bill Cosby have been some of the most visible benefactors to HBCUs. Winfrey donated more than $12 million to Morehouse College, and Cosby and his wife Camille donated $20 million to Spelman in the late 1980s, when Cole was president there.
When Cole arrived to Bennett, she convinced former U.S. Senator Bob Dole to serve as chairman of a $50 million capital campaign that would help raise funds for student scholarships, faculty recruitment and development and deferred physical plant needs. Outside of a one-time fundraiser in 2005 that featured Dole and his former opponent President Bill Clinton, the campaign never got off of the ground.
Other HBCUs have also had their share of challenges when it comes to philanthropy. In 2003, the late John H. Johnson pledged $4 million for the construction of a new building for the School of Communications at Howard University that had been named after him.
But by 2010, Howard dropped his name from the school, after Johnson’s daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, decided to give $2.5 million to her alma mater, University of Southern California’s Annenberg
Fuse-Hall says that if Black colleges are to survive, it’s important for African-Americans to invest in these institutions.
“I don’t know why every Black person in Hollywood doesn’t adopt at least one HBCU and say, ‘You know what? You can count on me for $150,000 annually or a million dollars [for] this period of time,’ because there is not one person of African-American descent who is just one generation away from knowing a HBCU graduate who [has] made a difference in their lives,” says Fuse-Hall. “And for that alone, we should be giving back.”
She adds, “We should challenge entertainers or people of prominence with wealth to think about whom in their lives has touched them, and to honor that HBCU graduate with a contribution.”
Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected].