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Fisk Turns to Seasoned Fund-raiser to Reverse its Fortunes

Fisk Turns to Seasoned Fund-raiser to Reverse its Fortunes
University no longer pinning its financial future on sale of priceless art.

By Reginald Stuart

Financially troubled Fisk University, plagued for years by weak and inconsistent fund raising, has recruited a seasoned institutional specialist to help reverse its fortunes and help it try to catch up in the all important fund-raising game.

Dr. Sulayman Clark, who quietly joined the Fisk staff in early April as vice president for institutional development, got his start in fund raising in the mid-1980s as a special assistant to the president of Hampton University. He has since helped other schools craft ambitious ideas and raise millions of dollars for their endowments as a member of the executive teams at Morehouse College, Tuskegee University and, most recently, North Carolina Central University.

“[Clark] is a seasoned fund-raiser, somebody the [Fisk] president ought to pay attention to,” says Ted Easler, president and CEO of The Easler Group, a Georgia-based fund-raising consultant to colleges and universities. “I hear a lot about the sale of the artwork, but I don’t hear and read about them raising money by traditional means.”

Easler’s art reference was to a controversial proposal by Fisk to raise some instant cash — about $7 million — by selling two one-of-a-kind works in its priceless 101-piece Stieglitz Collection. The two paintings are “Radiator Building – Night, New York” by Georgia O’Keeffe and “Painting No. 3” by Marsden Hartley (see Diverse, Feb. 22). The collection was given to Fisk by O’Keeffe in the late 1940s to enhance the university’s art education program and to expand its public reach in the city. O’Keeffe imposed strict restrictions on the gift, including a requirement that the collection never be sold.

The paintings are estimated to be worth more than $20 million each. However, the school struck a deal during the winter with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., to sell the O’Keeffe painting to the museum for $7 million. In exchange for the bargain price, the museum would withdraw its court petition to block the school from selling anything else in the collection.

In April, however, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper blocked the sale, asserting that the bargain price would be “an artistic and financial loss for Fisk and would detract from the rich cultural environment of this community.” The issue goes back to court in Nashville in July.

Clark’s arrival is the first bold fund-raising move by President Hazel O’Leary beyond the proposed art sale. Most of her nearly three-year tenure has been focused on containing costs, halting the drain on the school’s endowment and selling the art as a part of Fisk’s long-term revival plan. The small but prestigious historically Black college was once considered one of the “Black Ivy League” universities in the United States.

“There’s no magic formula, and I have no pixie dust,” Clark says. “But I have every confidence we have all the tools we need. Fisk is, has been, and remains, a jewel.”

Clark, a Philadelphia native with a doctorate from Harvard University, says Fisk has pledged to make a “sizeable investment” in its historically underfunded development office, and he plans to have it “fully funded and fully staffed” within several months.

He adds that he has a “pretty aggressive fund-raising plan” to present to the Fisk board. Clark is not involved in the art sale controversy, and he says his work will remain independent of that process.

“Our salvation does not lie in that sale,” says Clark, whose specialty has been capital campaigns and scholarship endowments. “Our salvation is in expanding the resource base. Fisk is worthy of fresh investment, independent of the [art] collection process.”

Playing Catch-up
Seasoned as he is at fund raising, Clark faces myriad challenges in trying to reverse Fisk’s fortunes.

On the home front, Fisk competes with a lengthy list of other colleges in the area, including Vanderbilt University and Belmont University. The two traditionally White private colleges are the primary beneficiaries of the region’s wealthy benefactors, including several who serve as Fisk trustees. Despite its deep roots in Nashville, Fisk has never shared in the city’s largesse.

“It has been unloved for a long time,” says Dr. Walter Leonard, who headed the school from 1977 to 1984, a period when Fisk was near bankruptcy and unable to pay its utility bills. “There’s a pride and proudness in Atlanta of the presence of a Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University, but a disregard, if not hatred, in Nashville for the presence of Fisk.”

His impression of Nashville’s chilly commitment to the university is bolstered by recent history. In March, Cooper called on Tennesseans to come to the aid of Fisk by providing the funds needed to keep the Stieglitz Collection. The appeal fell upon deaf ears. No public officials, corporate executives or civic leaders embraced Cooper’s challenge. The silence revived a question that has been asked about the university for years: Why can’t Fisk raise money?

Nationally, Fisk is in a “catch-up mode” at a time when solicitations for money are skyrocketing.

Fisk’s endowment has shrunk to approximately $8 million, from a high of $30 million in the 1960s. By comparison, Hampton has accumulated an endowment in excess of $200 million. Howard University boasts an endowment of $443 million. Tiny Bennett College for Women has raised $25 million for its endowment since 2002. 

“A school that is trying to catch up is going to have to dig deeply,” says Dr. Robert A. Sevier, the senior vice president for strategy at Stamats, an Iowa-based company that has consulted with colleges on fund raising for more than 50 years. “If you are a small school like Fisk, you’re going to be at a disadvantage. The board is going to have to raise friends and raise dollars.”

Fisk can find solace in a few figures offered by Sevier. “Individual giving is all over the map,” he says. “For private colleges, donors look for a level of alumni giving of upwards of 20 to 25 percent. In the past three years, the average alumni gift has been about $65. More important than the amount is the trend line.” For Fisk, the trend line of late has been on the rebound.

Jack Miller, founder of The Miller Group, a Colorado-based fund-raising consulting firm, suggests that the renewed campaign could be hurt by the art sale.

“If you sell off art, it begins to raise questions,” says Miller, who has worked in higher education development for more than 40 years. “It begins to raise questions in the minds of some donors about why they aren’t raising money [the traditional way.] An O’Keeffe original is priceless. If you sell those, you have no reason to go to people and say ‘will you pitch in?’ Pretty soon you’ve sold all the art and now what do you do to go forward?”

Miller and others say the success of any fund-raising effort will hinge on the work of the school’s trustees and president. Both will need to step up their games, they say.

Clark echoes those opinions. He emphasizes he is not a one-man-band and is confident that O’Leary, the Fisk trustees, faculty and staff will buy into and participate in a well thought out fund-raising plan.

“This is a team sport,” Clark says.

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