In recent years, many historically Black colleges have found themselves in dire financial straits. Memphis’ Lemoyne-Owen College, which faces a debt of $6 million, is the most recent example. Relying heavily on student tuition dollars, government aid and corporate and foundation donations (which typically evaporate during economic downturns), Black colleges have been stretched thin. This heavy reliance on outside funding sources, coupled with an often-weak infrastructure for soliciting alumni contributions, has made for difficult times.
Of course, one can attribute the lack of alumni support to the fact that African-Americans earn less and hold fewer assets than White alumni. However, to be fair, many Black colleges only recently began asking their alumni for contributions. And, many colleges don’t call on their alumni to donate until 10 years after they graduate, thus missing the opportunity to establish a habit of giving on the part of recent graduates.
Black colleges must seek to correct this situation at once. Perhaps these new graduates cannot give back financially during their first few years on the job, but involving them in the institution in other ways can lead to financial payoffs down the road. Young alumni need to be brought into the institutional family right away. In 2003, I co-authored a book entitled Fund-Raising from Black College Alumni: Successful Strategies for Supporting Alma Mater (with Sibby Anderson-Thompkins). In the book, we found that young alumni had very strong feelings about their Black college experience.
In fact, they wanted to make sure that other African-Americans had the same opportunities that they had — and they were willing to give financially and of their time in order to ensure these opportunities. We also found that the idea of “uplifting the race” was central to Black college alumni’s motivation for giving to their alma maters. Young and old alumni were committed to the idea of seeing other African-Americans succeed, and in most cases they knew that their alma mater was helping to foster this kind of success. Unfortunately, many of the Black college alumni with whom we talked had not been asked to give back in any way to their alma mater — and as a result, they did not.
Asking alumni to give entails a risk. Institutions must gamble, focusing their attention toward a group of people who may or may not decide to support the institution.
In addition, Black colleges must implement the proper safeguards for procuring alumni giving and following up once a gift is made. Here the old adage, “it takes money to make money” comes into play. Black colleges must commit to investing money in their fund-raising infrastructure, including databases, stewardship staff, research services, staff training and targeted marketing pieces.
Of course, these ideas are not new — but are they being used at the majority of the nation’s 103 Black colleges? When we did our study in 2003, quite a few small Black colleges were still running their alumni giving programs with one director, a secretary (maybe) and a card file.
Corporate and foundation money has kept our nation’s historically Black colleges alive for decades. While not as great as that given to predominantly White institutions, this money has helped sustain operating budgets, support scholarship funds and build campus infrastructure. However, in many ways, corporate and foundation money has acted as a “quick fix.” It fills an immediate need, but does little to nurture and grow the institution.
But in recent years, several foundations have committed substantial sums to building fund-raising capacity at Black colleges — among them are the Lilly Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Archibald Bush Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust. These foundations have realized that more accomplishment will come from establishing an infrastructure for successful fund raising than from merely giving money to patch holes.
Once alumni feel a firm connection to an institution, they are unlikely to stop giving — even during an economic downturn. A bond can be formed that is every bit as strong as the one many African-Americans feel toward their church. The alma mater commandeers a sense of responsibility. To those who are skeptical of this notion, I offer the following. There is empirical evidence that shows that African-American households give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to philanthropic activities than Whites (The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 2003). As such, with the proper cultivation, it is quite likely that Black college alumni will give at or above the percentage that their White colleagues do.
Pursuing alumni dollars can be expensive and considerably more time consuming than chasing corporate and foundation donations. In addition, in order to successfully secure alumni contributions an institution must have a solid fund-raising infrastructure in place, including strong leadership and up-to-date technology. Nonetheless, spending time and effort on alumni giving can have a lasting impact on an institution.
— Dr. Marybeth Gasman is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently working on a historical project entitled Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund.
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