As I was perusing the Facebook statuses of some of my “friends” today, I came across one who posted the following: “Did you attend an HBCU? If you had a great time and appreciate all that your HBCU did to make you who you are today, then put your money where your mouth is and contribute financially and volunteer with your alma mater.” Of course, this friend is a fundraiser for an HBCU, but, regardless, this is an important message and one that needs to be reiterated from time to time.
Once students graduate, they often look to the next phase of their lives, leaving behind their alma mater and forgetting what it took to get them to graduation. It took the contributions of many, many people who attended HBCUs in the past: the alumni. Alumni can play an enormous role in an institution. They can support scholarships, give monies toward the operating budget, fund innovative retention programs, and volunteer in helpful ways.
Unfortunately, alumni giving rates at HBCUs are significantly lower than those at many historically White institutions (HWIs). There are several reasons for these lower rates, but none of them should be used as an excuse for not giving. First, it takes money to make money, and many HBCUs (not all) have small fundraising infrastructures and insufficient funds to aggressively go after alumni dollars. If you don’t ask, you don’t receive. Second, African-Americans have less access to wealth in the United States. This is true, but, compared with their White counterparts, African-Americans give more of their discretionary income to charity. And, in 2008, African-Americans had $890 billion in buying power. Third, some alumni of public HBCUs are under the impression that the state fully funds their alma mater (an impression held by alumni of public HWIs as well). The truth is that most public HBCUs don’t receive anywhere near enough funds from the state to educate their students.
Often when HBCUs are facing a crisis, alumni come home and support their alma maters. This is noble, but it’s not enough and reinforces a survival mentality. Alumni must give on a regular basis— changing the HBCU mentality from survive to thrive (as the new White House director on HBCUs, Dr. John S. Wilson, recently stated). Consistent giving along the same lines as tithing to the church or paying the cable bill is what is needed to support HBCUs and raise them to new levels.
As a Spelman alumna once told me, “You need to reach back and pull a sister up. It’s your obligation, and it was done for you.” As alumni, if you want to see the next generation of HBCU students succeed, or, even for more self-serving reasons, if you want the value of your HBCU degree to increase, it’s important to give back and do so regularly. If alumni don’t provide support to HBCUs, it is nearly impossible for HBCU fundraisers to convince outsiders — individuals, foundations and corporations— to give. Why would an outsider support an institution that isn’t supported by the students it educated?
If you are an alumnus who has a beef with your alma mater, give them a call to see if the problem has been fixed. Or, better yet, get involved and help to make the institution a better place for current and future students — volunteering is just as important as giving financially and is usually a first step in feeling deeply committed to your alma mater.
And, no, I am not an HBCU alumnus but I do give regularly to HBCUs — especially those with significant alumni giving rates.