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A Black College Philanthropist That Exemplifies the Very Essence of Philanthropy


A few years ago, I edited a book titled Uplifting a People: African American Philanthropy and Education. In the book, I argued that the existing definition of philanthropy should be expanded, especially as it relates to African-Americans. For too long, our traditional notions of philanthropy have included only wealthy, White men and their financial contributions. I argued that, when we think about philanthropy, we need to consider monetary contributions and the donation of time and talent. This definition better captures the rich philanthropic work within Black communities throughout the United States. 


On March 11, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published a story about Isabella McIntyre Tobin, a Spelman alumna who had given considerably to the institution throughout her lifetime. On a modest teacher’s salary she gave substantially and regularly year after year to her alma mater. She understood that, “if you graduated from Spelman College, you needed to give back. Pay it forward.” Tobin held a similar attitude to the many other Spelman alumnae that I have interviewed for various research projects over my career. Spelman is a model for instilling a sense of obligation and a commitment to racial uplift in its students. 


What was most interesting about Tobin’s story, however, is not necessarily her monetary contributions, but her way of living. In many ways, her actions and modeling of positive behavior were just as philanthropic as her financial gifts to Spelman. Tobin was committed to uplifting women and, in fact, all people. She did this through her role as an educator. She also avoided “conspicuous consumption” and chose instead to live a more simple life dedicated to making her community better.


Tobin is a wonderful example for alumni of Black colleges and, for that matter, alumni of all colleges and universities. Too often, graduates forget how their educational experiences have shaped their lives and their livelihood. They don’t always see the power in providing those experiences for future students. Often, younger alumni don’t think they make enough money to give back to their alma mater.


However, even on a small salary one can contribute as Tobin demonstrates. In fact, alumni participation rates often are more significant than how much alumni give because corporate and foundations tend to give more to colleges and universities when alumni participation rates are higher. And, even if one does not have the ability to contribute monetarily, it is easy enough to engage in nonmonetary ways, such as helping to recruit students for one’s alma mater or helping students with career placement.


Lastly, one can follow Tobin’s example and work to uplift others, giving them opportunities and a sense of empowerment.


An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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