Earlier this month U.S. News & World Report released The Short List: College, which is a regular series that assesses specific areas of our nation’s colleges and universities. One of the reports within the series focused on the top 10 HBCUs Where Alumni Give the Most and it got me to thinking, “What can the remaining 95 HBCUs do to get on this list? Are they doing something wrong or not doing enough? And the Top 10 schools, do they just have better alumni?”
Well certainly, no one HBCU has better alumni than the next and all one need do is ask a Bison, Jaguar or Tiger and they will emphatically proclaim their loyalty and pride for their institutions. However, beyond the annual pilgrimage to homecoming each year, in which throngs of graduates return to the yard for two to three days of festivities, the majority of HBCUs and their graduates are not engaging on a regular basis.
In recent years U.S. News has taken some criticism for its annual ranking of colleges and universities as many in education feel their rating system is skewed and does not take into account the huge disparities that exist between majority institutions and Black colleges. Whereas there may be some truth in this criticism, there is no disputing the fact that overall, 89 percent of HBCU graduates do not give back. Whose fault is that? Much of the existing research as well as recent op-eds suggest it’s the graduate’s responsibility. Let’s go back to my original question, what can the HBCUs do to increase participation and get on the list?
1. HBCUs can inform alumni on an on-going basis about new initiatives, triumphs and institutional direction through social media, electronic mail and the USPS.
Conducting surveys periodically will also provide insight and feedback on their views of the school as well as a clearer understanding of how to approach them.
2. HBCUs can host alumni gatherings in cities where there is an established chapter or a densely populated group of alumni.
Another idea is to invite specific alumni groups to campus for an event or a half-day interaction with the president. These types of events help to build or, in some cases, re-build trust between alumni and the institution. Begin by partnering with a few influential alumni in the area and gain their buy-in for galvanizing the support of others.
3. HBCUs need to avoid crisis fundraising.
The “Give us money now or we’ll have to drop the program, go out of business or fail to provide for the people that need us – and it’s going to be your fault” approach is not a good idea. Consistent education of alumni on the needs of the institution and the importance of giving will create regular supporters rather than “crisis givers.”
4. HBCUs can work on building strong relationships with the National Alumni Association.
Persistently working at strengthening the typically on-again, off-again relationships that exist between many institutions and their affiliate National Alumni Associations is vital. Note: the average alumnus attempting to re-connect through the NAA door sees the two entities as one rather than separate from the institution.
5. HBCUs need to create future alumni.
“Alumni giving start with students and teaching them to give now will create givers for life…” Research shows that institutions that engage students in philanthropic activities while they are on campus (e.g., student giving programs, fundraising phon-a-thons and service learning projects) garner much larger alumni giving percentages than those schools that do not.
6. HBCUs should invest in themselves.
It takes money to make money so an investment in professional development for advancement and alumni staff is an investment in the HBCU as well.
When all is said and done, HBCU alumni are absolutely vital to the continued existence of our colleges and universities. They are the one constituent group that benefits the most from the educational experience and their allegiance and loyalty rarely wane. However, like any constituent group, alumni must be courted, nurtured and cultivated before any significant yields will be realized.
Note: The recommendations in this article are offered in A Guide to Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An All Campus Approach (2012), by Marybeth Gasman, Nelson Bowman III.
About the Authors
Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth is an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black leadership, fundraising and philanthropy in communities of color and Minority Serving Institutions. She is the author of 18 books in these subject areas and many articles.