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Perspectives: AME-affiliated Colleges Need To Band Together in Cluster Endowment Trusts

Most development officers in the field of higher education would agree that the early years of the 21 century has brought about complex challenges regarding these officers’ primary task: acquiring private resources in a race against the rising cost of higher education in this country.  One has only to attend a conference session where the topic is executive leadership in higher education or listen to a college or university president speak on the complexities facing their institutions to know that development officers at these institutions are tasked with strategic philanthropic fund raising.

This brings me to this article, an attempt to unlock our creative brain trusts as we seek to “make a way out of no way” in obtaining resources for our colleges and universities.  I am excited about the potential for success if we as development professionals continue to think outside of the box in assisting smaller colleges and universities.  As a development officer at a pubic university, I know all too well the current trend of state legislatures repeatedly cutting back in annual appropriation allocations earmarked for institutions of higher education. This is unfortunate as one could argue that this country’s public-based higher education systems have historically provided college education to this nation’s poor and middle-class citizens and those educations have helped this nation develop into the world’s sole superpower.    

In an article in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education (December 14, 2006), Dr. Bernard E. Powers suggests a “survival of the fittest strategy” for African Methodist Episcopal Colleges experiencing dire financial problems. He also suggests  the African-American community must started to think about different ways of fundraising for regarding these institutions. Although 12 AME schools were all founded well over a hundred years ago they have but a small amount of available capital that can be drawn upon.

 I propose that small religious-based colleges and universities within the same denomination or affiliation begin to focus on vertical integration of their strategic planning and fundraising operations to build endowment growth. As the late Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, often stated when encouraging African-American students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities during the ‘50s and ‘60s, we should “always think big.”  If development officers are to ensure the existence of AME schools and other religious-based small colleges and universities that contribute to this nation’s human-capital productivity, we must come up with a Strategic Philanthropic Marshall Plan.       

The vertical integration that I propose is that of a transformational effort made by small schools to form a coalition within the same denominations thereby creating a strategic capital campaign to build financial capacity. Of course, the devil is in the details: each of these small colleges and universities would have to come to the realization that in order to survive, their schools’ boards of trustees will have to place strategic private dollars into a larger investment vehicle to ensure endowment growth potential over the course of a predetermined period of years.

 I realize that this kind of coalition-building is complex and intricate, and time must be given to the critical issues and interests of the potential “power centers” (each school) that agrees to join this endeavor.  A shared strategic vision of building robust institutional endowments over a prolonged period of years must have complete buy-in from all power centers involved in the cluster. Next, each school within the cluster would appoint a trustee from their individual boards to sit on the newly formed endowment trust management board of directors. 

Following that would be what I call Phase Two, during which each of the schools would transfer half of their existing endowment into the start-up endowment trust.  It should be agreed upon that dividends will not be available for at least 200 years, after which the endowment trust would be broken up into equity shares and returned to the participating schools. One might think that to place a 200 hundred year restriction, before monies are available, is too much of a stretch for schools in need of capital right now.  I disagree. Just look at historical case studies of some of this nation’s most renowned institution of higher education. For example, Mr. Johns Hopkins stated that his gifted block of railroad stock, which played a significant role in the start-up of the Johns Hopkins University, was never to be sold.

Finally, the schools will need to develop an intensive, integrated public relation campaign plan to educate parishioners and the external constituents about the new effort. Keep in mind that I am not advocating such colleges and universities discontinue their fundraising operations. This proposal would be for strategic long-range planning, providing for the survival of these schools for centuries to come. 

We must dare to think big concerning these smaller but equally important institutions. By doing so, we preserve the legacy of these important institutions, and everyone involved in the process will have the knowledge that their gifts have contributed a significant part in that insurance.

Dr. John M. Berry is the Assistant Vice President for Development at South Carolina State University.

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