Dear Fellow HBCU Graduates

Dear Fellow HBCU Graduates:

As many of you may know, for the past decade, I have been a columnist, blogger, and commentator on a range of topics, including the status and future of HBCUs. In fact, one national media outlet entrusted me with the privilege of writing and posting articles on any topic and at any time I wished, without prior approval. My most widely-read blogs and articles resulted in the publication of my second book, Having My Say: Reflections of a Black Baby Boomer, in 2018. All royalties from the sale of this book have been contributed to HBCUs for scholarships and to nonprofit organizations in support of their mission.

Recognizing that many readers might take exception to the views expressed in this letter, I reflected deeply—and even conferred with several close professional colleagues before writing it. I concluded that I needed to write this letter and that those who know me will respect my views whether they agree with me or not. They know that my advocacy and support of HBCUs is neither recent nor contrived.Dr. Charlie NelmsDr. Charlie Nelms

With more than five decades in various teaching and leadership positions in the academy, I have witnessed first-hand more than my share of efforts to increase philanthropic support at HBCUs. As an HBCU graduate and former administrator, I have been asked to purchase everything from popcorn and candy, to raffle tickets for cars and luxury ship cruises. One time, I was even asked to purchase a ticket to win a lottery with a $10,000 prize! I have never participated in any of these fundraising schemes because in observing and studying them, I have found them to be inefficient and ineffective in building a sustainable base of financial support for HBCUs.

In 2009, Home Depot, America’s largest home improvement retailer specializing in construction products, appliances, and services, launched Retool Your School, an initiative designed to update, upgrade, and uplift HBCUs. The Depot, as it is known in some circles, has contributed more than $4 million to HBCUs since launching this initiative a little more than a decade ago. According to the Depot’s website, this year 59 HBCUs participated in Retool Your School and more than 9 million votes were cast. On April 26, 2022, the final top 10 HBCUs will be announced in each cluster, and grants will range between $20,000 to $75,000.

Although I served as chancellor of an HBCU awarded a Retool Your School grant in 2011, I am not a proponent of the competition due to the amount of free advertising received by Home Depot, and my belief that the entire process trivializes the significance of HBCUs with respect to corporate and philanthropic investments. Have you ever wondered whether Home Depot’s support of Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) is contingent on a popularity contest? Before casting a vote for your favorite HBCU in the retool your school contest, I strongly encourage you to ascertain the racial composition of Home Depot’s executive leadership team and its board of directors. Additionally, ascertain how much the company spends for sponsorship of the ESPN Game Day and athletic sponsorships at PWIs, as well as support of non-athletic activities.

Did you know that in 2021, Home Depot had revenue of more than $15 billion and they spent less than $2 million on their popular HBCU Retool Your School initiative? The next time you attend an HBCU athletic event, review the program booklet to see whether Home Depot or any other major corporation is a sponsor or supporter. Equally important, inquire about the level of their sponsorship. Do not get me wrong: I appreciate the importance of every dollar invested by corporate entities in HBCUs. However, my concern is that HBCUs do not receive a level of support commensurate with other institutions, nor does that support approach the amount that Blacks spend with corporate America. According to a recent report by the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, meeting the real needs of Black consumers is a $300 billion opportunity!

Lest you conclude that I have singled out Home Depot for castigation, I encourage you to explore the HBCU sponsorship level of the top 100 American corporations and seriously rethink where and with whom you spend your hard-earned money. Does Apple, Verizon, Xfinity, Comcast, IBM, Microsoft, MasterCard, FedEx, and UPS, for example, sponsor HBCU activities at a level commensurate with PWIs? This is an excellent empirical question worthy of analysis by MBA students at HBCUs.

Fellow HBCU graduates, the moral imbedded in this missive is threefold. Primarily, the most effective way for us to support our alma mater is by including them in our monthly budget—at a level commensurate with our earnings. Secondly, collectively we can and must hold American corporations with whom we do business accountable for investing in HBCUs and within the Black community. Third, to ensure that HBCUs thrive rather than simply survive, we must include them in our estate plans.

Finally, until and unless we become completely vested in the sustainability of HBCUs, they will become relics of the past. These are the same institutions that educated you and me in their classrooms and beyond, and thousands of others who comprise the Black middle class. The next time you are requested to vote in the Retool Your School competition, to buy popcorn or candy, or a raffle ticket, please think seriously about who the beneficiaries of your patronage are. Think before you act!

Warm regards,

Charlie Nelms