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Black Colleges Seek More Support From Alumni


Making money, administrators at Virginia State University have learned, takes money.

The historically Black school has spent millions of state dollars renovating buildings, in part, to heighten school pride among alumni they hope will respond with their wallets.

It’s working: Alumni support has risen from 7 percent five years ago to 10 percent, and individual gifts have increased from hundreds of dollars to thousands, said development vice president Robert Turner as he showed off libraries and academic buildings recently.

“This,” Turner said, surveying the hilltop campus, “obviously converts to good will.”

Black colleges are refreshing outdated efforts to solicit former students, adding specialized staff, crafting personalized “asks,” improving campuses and increasingly using Internet outreach to augment shrinking state and private funds with alumni dollars.

They’re targeting a wider base, including and younger alumni who’ve moved into a broader range of careers from what are no longer mostly teachers colleges.

At VSU, efforts as subtle as adding a donor recognition dinner have heartened alumni like Anthony Spence, 41.

“If I’m going to give my money to a university, I want to be sure that it’s used for the very best,” said Spence, a Miramar, Fla., entrepreneur who has given some $60,000.

At Morehouse, administrators plan computer network upgrades allowing for more targeted online giving. Alumni contributions dipped from about $3.1 million in 2006 to $1.3 million last year.

And at Wiley College, in east Texas, officials will use a nearly $840,000 grant from the United Negro College Fund to help scout 200 major gift prospects a year, create new online giving opportunities and beef up staff.

The school, featured in Denzel Washington’s 2007 film, “The Great Debaters,” has nine staffers focused on institutional advancement.

“At some of the larger, predominant institutions, they may have an advancement staff of say 20, 30, 50 people,” said Karen Helton, vice president for institutional advancement. “That’s how the Harvards and the Stanfords and the UCLAs generate billions.”

The measures are commonplace at some mainstream institutions.

But they represent a major investment at the nation’s more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, where resources often are stretched.

It foreshadows an expected slowdown in levels of state higher education funding, which averaged a roughly 8 percent increase nationwide in the past fiscal year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Meanwhile, predominantly White universities are pushing harder to attract high-achieving Black students. Often, it’s with the type of scholarships alumni dollars fund.

“There is an urgency about this as we look at our network of institutions and look at trying to sustain them,” said Elfred Pinkard, executive director of the Institute for Capacity Building, part of the United Negro College Fund that represents 39 private historically black schools.

Since 2006, the institute has granted more than $8.1 million to 29 member schools for projects that include increasing alumni support.

“There was a recognition that alum of these institutions represented a very important constituency that had not been tapped in any systematic way,” Pinkard said.

Founded to serve Blacks amid segregation, the colleges have kept tuition low to help underprivileged students.

That leaves little extra cash for things like fundraising, said University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Marybeth Gasman, author of “Supporting Alma Mater: Successful Strategies for Securing Funds from Black College Alumni.”

When she studied the colleges in 2001, “there were still some small Black colleges that had one person in a room with a card file and that’s how they were keeping track of their alumni.”

The colleges have historically been reluctant to ask former students, already paying off loans, to give more money; Black alumni, meanwhile, haven’t always had the income of graduates from predominantly White schools, Gasman said.

“Their alumni have had more access to income, to assets, and thus could give back,” Gasman said, adding Blacks also tend to give more to churches.

But at Norfolk State University, alumni giving has grown from 2 percent to 8.2 percent since 2000, nudged, officials say, by graduates who are more moneyed at younger ages.

“A lot of folks who may have graduated from Norfolk State in the traditional programs, like education (or) social work went on to practice in those fields,” said Phillip Adams, interim vice president for university advancement.

“As we get some of the majors that we have now, for example the optical engineering, there are individuals leaving college with decent salaries,” he said.

And there are potentially more of them: 142,420 bachelor’s degrees were conferred to Blacks in 2005-2006, up from fewer than 92,000 a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Hampton University is directly targeting the young alumni base.

Last fall, the school launched a Facebook-like online community where alumni can find peers, and later, click to donate to the private school.

Harriet Davis, assistant vice president for development, said officials even tweaked the language of gifting for business-minded young alumni: They’re encouraged to “invest” rather than “give.”

But among Black colleges’ top resources, say some, is the loyalty alumni feel to these schools known for opening their arms to all.

“Many of our alum respond to our institutions as providing an opportunity when many other institutions would not have. So they give back,” Pinkard said.

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