“Philanthropy without scale and sustainability is like any other bad business that will simply wither and die on the vine.” – Naveen Jain
Since 1837 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have played a vital role educating students. Prominent activists and scholars including Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison and Thurgood Marshall benefited from attending HBCUs with supportive environments. The emphasis on cultural pride, scholarship and political acumen transform the lives of students from underserved communities. In comparison to predominantly White institutions (PWIs), HBCUs enroll more underserved, first generation and minority students. Upon their arrival on campus students are surrounded by majestic trees, serene suburban landscapes or colorful urban enclaves. However, despite their idyllic settings HBCUs are at a crossroads. The closing of Saint Paul’s College in 2013, Morris Brown College’s bankruptcy filing in 2012, Lewis College of Business uncertain status, and nine other HBCU closings over the years highlight the fragility of HBCUs in through the years into the present. Ensuring our institutions remain viable is predicated on the financial support of alumni, administrators, faculty, stakeholders, students and trustees.
Dramatically increasing donations to HBCUs would alleviate the financial strain that has plagued prominent institutions including South Carolina State and Grambling State University. Unfortunately several factors have contributed to the financial crisis at HBCUs including: inequitable funding, shifting federal and state policies and limited alumni contributions. To the last point, HBCU Money found that only 1 out of the 559 $1 million or over donations to colleges in 2013 and 9 out of the 517 $1 million or over donations in 2014 to colleges went to HBCUs. Although HBCU alumni are among the most dedicated graduates they are more likely to come from underserved communities and leave with more loan debt in comparison to students from larger PWIs. The stark difference between HBCUs and PWIs regarding alumni contributions and endowments is problematic. For example, Harvard University’s estimated $30 billion endowment far exceeds Howard University’s estimated $586 million endowment. Pundits would argue that comparing Harvard and Howard is unfair; however, the funding gap reflects the uphill battle HBCUs have encountered since their inception.
While HBCUs face challenges overcoming fiscal crisis, the Black community has always worked together collectively to avert financial disaster. For instance, the efforts of alumni and students at South Carolina State highlight the importance of exerting political pressure to ensure our institutions remain open – political capital that is a lot easier to build and exert if the community wielded more economic power. Despite the trials and tribulations HBCUs are allying with supporters to challenge the non-HBCU owned media’s deficit orientated focus. Increasingly administrators and alumni are taking steps to change the narrative regarding HBCUs focusing on their history fighting for Civil Rights. The renewed emphasis on social justice and growth of social media could become a rallying point for stakeholders. Recently, HBCU alumni have raised money to increase institutional aid for students from underserved communities.
The I Love Howard campaign is an example how HBCU graduates are using social media and grassroots efforts to galvanize graduates. Led by Howard University alumnae Michelle Jayne, Jessica Neal and Rochee Jeffrey the campaign is making strides engaging alumni and supporters to protect Howard’s legacy. Ensuring post-secondary institutions including Howard have networks that are fighting for increased funding could turn the tide for HBCUs. For instance, fundraisers, online telethons, social media campaigns, after work mixers and private/public partnerships are practical options for alumni.
Encouraging students to identify conventional or unconventional methods to increase donations should begin freshman year. Campaigns that urge students to give as little as $1 highlight the important role donations play in sustaining critical programs. Without support from alumni HBCUs are susceptible to cuts in federal and state funding that hamper efforts to recruit talented students. Schools including Claflin University recognize increasing donations is linked to the institutions future success.
Claflin, 2015’s HBCU of the Year, received funding from the Kresge Foundation and the United Negro College Fund to strengthen fundraising efforts. Claflin designed a campaign encouraging alumni, faculty, parents and students to donate. In 2013, the alumni giving rate increased nearly 10% from 43% to 52%. This year the university announced they raised nearly $90 million for phase one of the capital campaign. The success of Claflin underscores the commitment from supporters. HBCUs with a low alumni giving rate should use Claflin as a template to increase overall support. Strengthening HBCUs through campaigns can fund endowments, repair and renovate dilapidated facilities and recruit students.
Ensuring HBCUs continue their mission educating African American students is linked to financial support from alumni and students. Although HBCUs enroll more students from underserved communities in comparison to PWIs they are equipped to encourage alumni to provide critical funding. For example, Black greek letter organizations, concerts, football classics, homecoming and regional alumni events present opportunities to reach out to newly minted graduates. In addition, developing partnerships with African American (and African if they are really ambitious) corporations and philanthropic organizations are important for institutions dependent on external funding. The future for HBCUs is bright, but increased donations will ensure they develop a new cadre of entrepreneurs, Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners.