Like many HBCU graduates and supporters, I am thrilled whenever I read that an HBCU has received a multimillion-dollar gift, whether or not it is my alma mater. While it is not always readily apparent what criteria was used by the donor in selecting which institution to invest in, three things are clear to me. First, the institutions selected tend to enjoy strong brand recognition and a reputation for graduating students who consistently excel professionally. Second, large publicly announced gifts to HBCUs serve as a validation of the contemporary significance of the HBCU sector writ large. Third, in their messaging, those institutions receiving large philanthropic or corporate investments can use this as evidence of the recognition of their responsiveness to societal needs.
Let’s be honest: the majority of the 107 HBCUs in America are not likely to get these potentially transformative mega-gifts. So my question is, “What can and must HBCUs do to increase alumni engagement and giving?” For sure, there is no single “right” answer. However, as a former HBCU chief executive, I fervently believe the following strategies, if employed consistently, can lead to increased philanthropic support from HBCU alumni.
Start early. Beginning with New Student Orientation, before students attend a single class, orientation leaders should review with new students the institution’s history, as well as its contemporary relevance in transforming the lives of its graduates. Whether public or private in origin, philanthropic support has always played a critically important role in nurturing the growth, impact, and sustainability of HBCUs. New students must be made aware of this history and encouraged to do their part to continue the legacy by becoming active investors at levels consistent with their capacity to do so as students, and when they graduate, as alumni. The most important time to begin the philanthropy conversation with students is when they enter the institution, not when they graduate!
Include all alumni. Continuous communication with graduates, whether they are dues paying members of the Alumni Association or not, is the sine qua non of establishing, nurturing, and sustaining positive relationships with alumni. The days of costly and colorful quarterly or annual reports and magazines are behind us. Welcome to the world of social media, where communication is continuous, personalized, and comprehensive. Equally important, communication can be tailored to the activities and needs of departments and programs not only on a daily basis, but also an hourly basis.
Create and sustain a culture of giving. Crowdfunding has been a major influence on young alumni, who often give to their alma maters based on specific projects. To create a culture of giving, many higher education institutions are courting smaller donations. They are challenging the customary rule that 80 percent of their time is spent on 20 percent of their donors. Within this context, it is crucial to debunk the myth that Blacks do not donate financially to causes in which they believe. Research provides ample evidence to the contrary. According to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, Blacks give 25 percent more of their income per year than whites to organizations and causes, with two-thirds of Black households donating 11 billion dollars a year. HBCUs must publicly acknowledge the contributions of not only their alumni, but also their students, faculty, and staff. This kind of engagement—of time, talent, and treasure—is vital to sustaining a culture of giving.
Treat every gift as a major gift. While I understand the public attention accorded those who make multi-million-dollar gifts with naming rights to colleges, schools, and buildings, one of the lessons I learned nearly four decades ago as chancellor of a small regional campus affiliated with a large public university, is this: the true measure of philanthropy is not the size of one’s gift, but the spirit in which it is given, in proportion to the capacity of the giver. A genuine, personal thank-you note to the person who makes a $10 gift is just as important to that donor as a plaque or star in a sidewalk is to the person who makes a $100,000 gift. My first gift of $25 to my alma mater over forty years ago, along with subsequent gifts, has blossomed into the university’s second largest endowed alumni scholarship, providing financial support to from six to eight students annually. Equally important, the university is included in our estate plan! The moral of this story is simple: small gifts can morph into major gifts.
Lead by giving. Except for some Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) with Division I athletic programs, the president or chancellor is the highest paid university employee. Therefore, by my reasoning, it follows that the president should be the university’s largest donor! Being the university’s largest donor gives the credibility the president needs to make the case with cabinet members, deans, department chairs, faculty, and staff for making an annual financial contribution to the college or university. On my fundraising journey as a university CEO, I found it enormously helpful to be able to say to a prospective donor that 100% of the trustees, cabinet, faculty, and staff were vested in the mission and the vision of the university. Even when it did not result in an immediate gift, my spirit was buoyed by the confidence that those affiliated with the university had in me.
Thank-You. While sending a thank-you may seem like a no-brainier and an easy thing to do, I have been surprised by two revelations from alumni and others who donate to HBCUs. First, many allege they never received a timely acknowledgement of their gifts. Second, many allege they were never asked to make subsequent gifts. From my own experience, one of the greatest joys I have had as a philanthropist is receiving a thank-you note from a recipient of the scholarships my spouse and I endowed at our alma mater and three other universities. While few donors will have buildings named in their honor, every single donor should have the courtesy of receiving a thank-you note in a timely manner.
Kudos to all those HBCUs fortunate enough to be included on MacKenzie Scott’s mega gift list, along with lesser-known donors and corporate grant makers. For those institutions that were not among the recipients of such largesse, I challenge you to focus on transforming your alumni into consistent givers who may someday become mega givers. Treat every gift as a major gift, and thank every donor in that spirit. Lead by example to create and sustain a culture of giving. You may be pleasantly surprised, and indeed shocked, by the extent to which your alumni will give.
Dr. Charlie Nelms is chancellor emeritus at North Carolina Central University.