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Howard University sets the bar high for its largest ever capital campaign, and now plans to share the secrets of its success with fellow HBCUs.

In the fall of 2001, top administrators and trustees from Howard University secluded themselves at a retreat at the posh Lansdowne Resort in the rolling Virginia countryside near Washington to discuss the future of their school. There they planted the seeds of what was to become the most successful fundraising campaign ever undertaken by a historically Black university.

For Howard President H. Patrick Swygert, the campaign was the latest in a series of fundraising efforts that he had started since 1995 when he took over as president. At the time, he recalls, “It was clear we needed a change. Only 4 to 5 percent of the alumni were participating. About 90 percent didn’t participate at all.”

The brainstorming at the Lansdowne retreat created an innovative, multifaceted and complex campaign that ended up seeing the school reach its goal of $250 million early and then surpass it by $22 million. The “Campaign for Howard” also serves as a yardstick and an incentive for other HBCUs to improve their own fundraising efforts.

At the retreat, Swygert drew upon old and young blood. Dr. James Cheek, former Howard president and now-president emeritus, and Dr. Roger Estep, a veterinarian who served as vice president for development and university relations, weighed in with their ideas. Sophisticated financial insight came from corporate luminary and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Richard D. Parsons. As the chairman of Time Warner, Parsons is one of the most prominent African-Americans in global business whose exploits have been fodder for many cover stories in national business magazines.

Participants were thinking big, indeed. It was clear that they were creating something broad-based that was to be a break from the past.

“We talked about setting a campaign goal of $100 million, then $125 million,” Swygert remembers. “Then we decided, in a burst of overconfidence that the goal should be $250 million. This would give us a stretch goal,” he says. Even the campaign slogan they came up with was tailored to let alumni know just who they were and how much they had to offer. It read: “Leadership for America and the Global Community.” The campaign kicked off in March 2002 with an end date of Dec. 31, 2007.

Not only was the $250 million goal reached 10 months before the deadline, it was surpassed by $22 million. The funds enriched Howard’s endowment to a total of $532 million, the largest of any HBCU. As many as 81 individuals pledged more than $1 million each. Swygert, who will retire in June, is now laying the foundation for another campaign aimed at $1 billion in donations that would double Howard’s endowment.

Why not? he asks. “There are about 31 university campaigns right now that have goals of more than $1 billion,” he says. Harvard University’s endowment is a whopping $34 billion and No. 2 Yale has $22 billion. Even Georgetown University just across the city from Howard has an endowment of $1 billion.

Setting an Example

Howard’s success offers many examples for its fellow HBCUs. Swygert says he has talked informally to the presidents of other schools about his experience. Meanwhile, Howard officials are taking apart the campaign and are expected to publish a report on lessons learned that will be made available to other HBCUs in coming months.

There’s little doubt that other HBCUs could use some help. Alumni giving typically falls short of other schools. Endowments are comparatively small. While predominately White institutions have giving rates ranging from 20 to 60 percent, HBCUs typically fall below 10 percent, according to a 2006 study by Dr. William Allan Kritsonis, professor of educational leadership at Prairie View A&M University, and Monica G. Williams, a doctoral student at the university. At Howard, campaign leaders achieved their goals by tapping a number of resources. One was hiring Virgil Ecton, vice president for university advancement, a fundraising guru with experience at the United Negro College Fund. Another was upgrading the alumni offices’ information technology so it would make solicitations cheaply and easily. As Swygert notes, of 66,000 or so alumni, they only had the e-mail addresses of 7,000. “Now we have 30,000 addresses,” he says.

Direct, personal community outreach was also essential. Swygert, Parsons and other fundraisers held a series of meet-and-greet sessions with Howard alumni in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Philadelphia. Renee Higginbotham- Brooks, vice chairman of the board of trustees and a Texas lawyer, remembers one alumni outreach meeting in Miami in 2004. “It really surprised everyone. It was the first time Howard had ever done that. By the end of the meeting, we had raised $7 million,” she says.

Another memorable fundraising event, says Higginbotham-Brooks, was held at the gleaming, new corporate headquarters of Time Warner in Manhattan. Trustee head Parsons arranged for the confab among his many contributions to the campaign. Swygert says Parsons played a critical role by staying the course as the head of the campaign throughout its five-year run.

Indeed, Parsons, one of the most prominent business leaders in the United States, may have been the single most important reason for the campaign’s success. At the time he took over the campaign, he was deeply involved in the troubled merger of Time Warner with AOL and was busy rationalizing the acquisition. Parsons has held a number of prominent posts in state and federal government and serves on the boards of such major companies as Citigroup Inc. and Estée Lauder Inc. He has gained plenty of fundraising experience as chairman of the Apollo Theater Foundation and as a board member of The Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

What’s more, Swygert says, Parsons remained as head of the campaign for its entire seven-year duration. Having one person in charge consistently made a major difference.

“There were no revolving chairs, and I can’t stress that enough,” says Swygert.

“The Campaign for Howard was a university- wide effort, involving the entire board, the administration and faculty, and students and alumni,” replied Parsons via e-mail to Diverse. “Its overwhelming success reflects the high regard in which Howard University is held by those constituencies and many other friends throughout the country.”

What’s next for Howard is planning for the next campaign, once a post-mortem is finished on the most recent one. Howard’s endowment has moved up to $532 million, up from $144 million when Swygert took over as president in 1995. He says that the nuts and bolts of the next campaign will be the brainchild of his successor. Fertile grounds for fundraising goals involve using more funds for more student scholarships. Some major universities such as Yale have announced they are wellenough endowed to start giving students from lower- and middle-income families free or cut-rate tuitions. Swygert says that as it is now, Howard’s tuition is highly competitive, but scholarships are a distinct possibility.

“You must aim high to generate energy and enthusiasm,” Swygert says, “If you are in higher education, you are an optimist.”

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