Pictured above: Jesse F. Brown, the sole HBCU donor to give a donation of $1M or above in 2013. Courtesy of Morgan Magazine.
By William A. Foster, IV
The highest use of capital is not to make more money, but to make money do more for the betterment of life.— Henry Ford
Wealth is an arms race. The more you have the more you can control others. The less you have the more dependent you are on others. This adage is as true as anywhere in higher education institutions who can end up being beholden socially, economically, and political to major donors and their agendas if they do not have endowments that allow for autonomy. How much is enough? Well, if you use Godfather (the movie) logic, there is never enough and the moment you slow down others are catching up. Otherwise, how do you explain Harvard’s $6.5 billion capital campaign it launched last year. This from a university that already has the world’s – yes the world’s – largest higher education institutional endowment of over $30 billion. An amount fifteen times the size of all 100 HBCU endowments combined. More importantly, what does it say about HBCU development offices that they can not land high-quality and transformative donors? Instead, some HBCU development offices lean on students and faculty to pick up the slack. The very people who are suppose to benefit from strong development work.
HBCU capital campaigns are quite frankly bland, boring, and leave little in the way for young or old alumni to feel compelled to give assuming they are even asked. More times than not a mimic of their HWCU counterparts and not culturally designed to an African American philanthropy point of view. Most students and alumni of HBCUs I talk to rarely know what an endowment is let alone what their school’s is – assuming it has one. Six years ago pre-recession while doing some research on HBCU endowments there were 20 percent of HBCUs who I could not verify or account for having an endowment, period. Wait, Harvard is trying to raise $6.5 billion and we have schools with no endowment? Maybe HBCU development offices need to take a page from John F. Kennedy’s speech where he gallantly said, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” That is how HBCU development offices need to think. I would love for an HBCU to come out and say “WE WILL BE THE FIRST BILLION DOLLAR HBCU ENDOWMENT” and communicate to alumni their role of how and why it will happen. How bold would that be? People would start finding pennies in their seat cushion to give because HBCU alumni are competitive if they are nothing else. Something to consider is also HBCU conferences taking a more active role in development. HBCUs could consolidate their development resources under one banner and possibly could leverage more marketing and outreach to high-quality and transformative donors.
In light of the recent donation to Paul Quinn, an HBCU located in Dallas, donations of $1 million plus to HBCUs are as rare as lightning striking someone. When HBCUs do get donations that are $1 million plus they tend to be from an alum’s estate meaning the person might have waited an entire lifetime to make one grand donation. An indication of just how long it is taking for HBCU graduates to accumulate wealth, which can be attributed to a number of different issues, but at the forefront tend to be weak financial literacy and lack of entrepreneurship or asset ownership. Demographics are also constantly pushing against HBCUs. Despite a recent study by Boston Consulting Group that reports there are now 7.1 million American households that are millionaires and almost 4 800 households worth more than $100 million, the development of wealth has not taken root in African America. Only 1 of the 400 richest Americans are African American or the equivalent of 0.25 percent. It is hard not to suspect the aforementioned numbers are vastly better.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy tracks a database of annual giving to different causes that exceed $1 million. In 2013, 559 donations went to colleges and universities with only 1 going to an HBCU or an equivalent of 0.18 percent. This despite HBCUs constituting 3 percent of all American colleges and universities. Fourteen of the donations exceeded $100 million or more with Phil Knight, owner of Nike, and his wife giving $500 million to the University of Oregon’s hospital topping the list. Not much of a problem for a man who has $5.4 billion of his wealth in cash alone. Yes, Phil Knight has almost twice as much in cash as Oprah Winfrey has in total wealth. The lone HBCU donation exceeding $1 million was to Morgan State University from alum Jesse F. Brown who bequested $1.2 million for their medical technology program.
So why are more HBCUs not receiving transformative and high-quality donations? There are after all a number of millionaires scattered throughout the African Diaspora. My belief is that as many HBCUs have moved away from being considered African American colleges to just wanting to be recognized as American colleges creating a psychological disconnect that would prompt those of African descent here in America and elsewhere to have any reason to support them. Carl and Ruth Shapiro never attended Brandeis University, but have been noted on record for their giving to the school because they want it to be a good representation of the Jewish community and therefore gets their support. HBCU development offices have refused seemingly to blow that same horn to African American and Diaspora non-alumni potential donors. There is also the mixed relationship between actually asking and being image conscious about who is giving. Wilberforce and Central State University in Ohio should be at LeBron James front door trying to build a relationship with him. Morris Brown and the AUC schools should be at T.I.’s front door trying to build a relationship with him. I could go on and on, but the reality is USC was not afraid to develop a relationship with Dr. Dre because of his image in gangster rap. HBCUs also have to look abroad for donors, which is part of why recruiting donations as a conference may be more cost effective. Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga, Isabel dos Santos, and Patrice Motsepe have a combined net worth of $31.5 billion. They may be down for the cause, but if you do not want to be a part of the cause, then why should they choose you over schools more widely recognized globally. Connecting the African American and African Diaspora experience could go a long way into an exchange that helps all parties.
What does it say to African America that the only money we can raise is from everyone, but our own community? The most recent major donations to HBCUs have come from the Koch brothers to UNCF and from Trammel Crow to Paul Quinn. As usual, it will not be until others tell us that our institutions are worthy that we will think so ourselves. I dare say we still continue to be the only group who has to be convinced that having institutions that represent our social, economic, and political interest are important, but vital to community success. This is where courting the likes of the aforementioned young African American millionaires and African billionaires can have an impact. They can not only bring major donations, but the press they bring can create a domino effect from other African Americans and Diasporans to consider giving to our institutions. What do you have to lose? After all, when you shoot for the moon, even if you miss you will land amongst the stars.