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Colleges and Universities Must Engage Alumni of Color


Note: Nelson Bowman III, director of development at Prairie View A & M University, coauthored this blog post.

Unless you haven’t picked up a newspaper, read an online publication, watched TV or been on Facebook in the last couple of years, you have heard that the demographics in the United States are changing — by 2050, minorities will be the majority.  Despite this fact, many traditionally White colleges (TWIs) and universities have yet to engage their alumni of color. Students of color have been attending TWIs for decades so engaging alumni should not be a new initiative. There are several reasons for this lack of engagement:


1.     A dearth of knowledge on the part of fundraisers — they don’t know how to engage alumni of color.

2.     A lack of fundraisers of color — although it’s not the job of fundraisers of color to be the only ones engaging alumni of color, they are more likely to keep the issue on the table.

3.     An assumption that people of color are recipients of philanthropy rather than givers.

So, let’s look at these reasons a bit more closely. Most fundraisers lack knowledge as to why alumni of color give or how to approach these populations. Of course, some of the same strategies that are used with majority populations can be employed. However, there are many cultural differences among racial and ethnic groups and these differences play out in the fundraising relationship. 

It’s important that fundraisers, especially White fundraisers, educate themselves on these issues. There are several books available on diversity in fundraising. However, the onus is really on those organizations that train fundraisers, to provide this education. These organizations include: the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

For too long, theses associations have pushed issues of diversity to the sidelines. Things are changing but not quickly enough to keep up with the shifting demographics. Likewise, professional development programs, such as those offered by the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and Vanderbilt University’s Professional Institute, also need to place more of an emphasis on engaging and soliciting alumni of color.

Another issue relates to the lack of fundraisers of color in the field. We need to do more to interest young people of color in the fundraising profession. Fundraising offers a great career option, with an above-average salary. Having more fundraisers of color will serve as a constant and visible reminder that it is important to engage alumni of color.

Lastly, through education and the addition of more fundraisers of color, it might be possible to curtail the assumption that alumni of color don’t give back to their alma maters. The problem is that alumni of color are typically not asked to give and are not engaged in meaningful ways. There is plenty of research that shows that people of color give and in fact, tend to give a higher percentage of their discretionary income than the majority population. This giving needs to be directed toward higher education intentionally by development officers.

There are some colleges and universities that are doing better than others when it comes to engaging alumni of color. We would advise those interested in increasing engagement and giving among people of color to look toward the University of Ma ryland as well as the University of North Carolina. Both of these institutions are ahead of the pack in terms of their efforts to reach out to alumni of color, to involve them in important and essential work, and to solicit their contributions.

Engaging alumni of color is necessary given the changing demographics of TWIs.

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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