What Have You Done for HBCUs Lately?
By Kyra M. Robinson
On May 3, 2018, my relationship with my alma mater reached a milestone. I became a “Silver Daughter Ever on the Altar” (my fellow Fiskites understand that turn of a phrase). While this was a momentous and celebratory occasion, it was also a contemplative one.
It just so happened that my 25th Reunion coincided with the final push for the 2018 Fisk to Fifty Challenge, in which university officials encouraged at least 50 percent of our alumni to give to our institution. Our class agent asked us to give whatever we could to this fundraising campaign on behalf of the Class of 1993. Though my class didn’t quite make its goal, the university as a whole saw the highest alumni giving percentage in its history, and this was the second consecutive year that we shattered previous fundraising records. Though this was an awesome, challenging feat, it still gave me pause and made me reflect on HBCU alumni philanthropic giving. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me (or has read some of my previous LinkedIn articles) that I am an ardent, staunch HBCU advocate. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the troubled financial health of many of our institutions.
As alumni, we’re often eager to show up for Homecomings and Reunions and love to recount our nostalgic memories. Are we present, though, on matters that really count? Do we demonstrate our “HBCU Pride” in longer lasting ways? Do we strengthen HBCUs with our gifts — financial or otherwise? We look to external entities — African-American celebrities, governmental agencies, charitable foundations and corporations — to assist, but why should they contribute if we don’t?
Indeed, we are grateful for the BeyGOOD Initiative Homecoming Scholars Award Program that Beyonce’s foundation and Google are funding for student scholarships at eight HBCUs. And, while artist Common’s work with The Tom Joyner Foundation and Allstate as well as comedian Kevin Hart’s Help From the Hart Charity’s partnership with UNCF and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Public Schools are inspiring, we can not rest on their laurels alone. It is imperative that we invest in our institutions and the young people they serve. So, my question to all HBCU alumni is quite simply this: what have you done for HBCUs lately? In my experience with my collegemates and friends, there are many reasons why HBCU alumni don’t contribute financially, and current research, such as that cited in Larisa Robinson’s article “How HBCUs Can Increase Alumni Donation Rates,” expounds on them. Some of the following most common factors include:
- Alumni contend that they “contributed” enough in tuition dollars when they matriculated and are still in debt due to student loans.
- Many African-American HBCU graduates don’t have generational familial wealth, limiting their disposable income and ability to give. In fact, many of them were first-generation college students.
- Some continue to nurse old grudges caused by a negative campus or not-so-great customer service experience.
- Institutions don’t engage their alumni base effectively and give them a stake in the school’s future.
- There is insufficient education on philanthropy and ways to give.
According to Robinson, HBCU alumni giving rates range between “5 to 7 percent for public and 9 to 11 percent for private HBCUs.” There are some rays of hope, however. Jordan Friedman’s 2017 U.S. News & World Report article “Historically Black Colleges Where Alumni Donate the Most” lists the top 10 HBCUs with the highest alumni giving rates that managed to overcome some of the aforementioned barriers. We still have quite a ways to go, but I am convinced that all of us can give something — no matter how big or small. And, while financial donations must remain a top priority, contributions don’t always need to fit in to that traditional model of giving.
So, how do we move forward? We must heal wounds, forgive, and pledge to “pay it forward” to those students who have come behind us and our HBCUs that serve them on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that we don’t hold our institutions accountable. It asserts just the opposite. I submit that HBCU alumni are brilliant and adept enough to do both in tandem. This is putting the Kwanzaa principle of Ujima, collective work and responsibility, into practice. We can achieve success if all constituents make a concerted effort. Below, find but a few of my observations and recommendations on what HBCU administrators, graduates and friends can do to increase alumni charitable giving.
Suggestions for HBCU Administrators to Encourage Alumni Giving:
- Embrace transparency! Keep alumni in the loop — let us know how funds are being utilized. Ask for our thoughts and opinions on what we deem as crucial improvements needed.
- Request help — and not just financial assistance. We have diverse, incredible talents!
- Start educating the freshman class on what it means to give back and how to give back. Plant that seed from the time they arrive on campus, and continue to nurture and cultivate a giving spirit throughout a student’s tenure at your institution. If you encourage a giving mindset from the onset, alumni will be more amenable to giving in the years to come.
- Learn from and study other universities that have had success in raising money and increasing their endowments. What are their best practices?
- Use social media platforms as well as traditional methods to communicate with your alumni of all ages.
- Beware of public relations and how you treat your various publics — students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and community members. This is not about optics, but rather relationship-building (and maintaining) with these critical stakeholders! It is how you genuinely treat others. If you demonstrate that you truly care and are willing to take praise and criticism — the bitter and the sweet — with grace, and above all, course correct when necessitated, you’ll be surprised at the return on your investment.
Suggestions on How HBCU Alumni and Friends Can Give:
- Get active in a local alumni association if one exists where you reside. If not, consider starting one.
- Mentor current and prospective students. This could include assisting them with admission and scholarship applications or securing internships. Maybe it is connecting them with a campus resource.
- Recruit students. Host a local HBCU College Fair. If school officials are not available to participate, ask local alumni to represent their alma maters at this event. In my hometown, an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated chapter has sponsored a college fair with alumni manning tables for their respective universities. Establish an HBCU ministry or club at your church. Chaperone or spearhead an HBCU College Tour.
- Give financially. Sponsor a local student. Start a scholarship fund at your institution, or collaborate with a group of your college friends or family members to establish a fund or give a collective gift annually. My husband is a Howardite, and for the last couple of years, Howard University administrators have asked alumni to help defray student bills in arrears for seniors so that they can graduate. Without substantial aid, students can’t attend our schools, stay enrolled, graduate, and become HBCU philanthropists in their own right. Set the sterling example!
- Provide in-kind donations. Contact your university to see how you can share your time, talents and efforts to help them meet pressing needs. It could be as simple as taking a weekend periodically to beautify the campus, composing a grant or assisting with a research project. The ideas are limitless.
- Contribute to HBCU-affiliated organizations such as: the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), UNCF Inter-Alumni Council, and The Tom Joyner Foundation. Get active in these groups and ask them for ways to support and advocate for HBCUs.
- Demand that your institution keeps you abreast of its financial and academic status. Make sure your alma mater has recent contact information for you so that they can communicate with you.
- Strongly consider sending your children to your college or another HBCU. I’m not sure where my children will attend, but we’re already educating them on HBCUs as a viable option.
By coupling creativity with ingenuity, alumni can be the catalyst for philanthropic innovation at HBCUs. We can each play a role!
This article was originally published August 10, 2018 on LinkedIn.