'All-Campus' Approach to Black College Fund Raising

September 14, 2010

ARLINGTON, VA. -- She still hasn’t forgotten.

When Marybeth Gasman -- a scholar of historically black colleges -- wanted, with her husband, to endow a scholarship at one such institution, she called. She didn’t hear back.

So she called again. And the outcome – or lack thereof – suggested a problem. “Nobody ever called me back!” she said. “Nobody ever called me back!”

Gasman, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, remains aghast. “And let me tell you, that institution is looking for money like crazy right now,” she said.

She shared the anecdote Monday here at the annual meeting of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The incident illustrated two issues discussed at the meeting: black colleges need to be more active in fund-raising, and they need to know that a single bad experience can turn off a donor. Speakers stressed that black colleges face disadvantages in fund-raising because they educate many students from low-income families and they don't have large development operations. But the theme here -- consistent with a push by the Obama administration's black college initiative -- was that an "all-campus approach" can counter those factors.

“Development officers – we can’t do it by ourselves,” said Nelson Bowman, III, director of development at Prairie View A&M University. "There has to be an HBCU community thought process change. There has to be more than one avenue” for fund-raising.

Hence the all-campus approach: Every person who is part of a campus can contribute to fund-raising efforts, panelists said. They urged the audience to include students, faculty, staff and administrators in the process. “We have to do things differently if we want to keep this ship afloat,” Bowman said.

At Prairie View, Bowman oversaw the university’s first fund-raising campaign, which garnered $30 million. He stressed the biggest reason African-Americans give – because they are asked – and the biggest reason they don’t give – because they aren’t asked.

And while asking is key, Bowman said, “a connected student is more likely to give than one that you contact 10 years later.” An all-campus approach means keeping track of and in touch with students. “It’s really important that everyone participate in this,” Gasman said.

The panelists offered multiple ways for multiple campus groups to contribute. Student services such as financial aid and the registrar’s office can “package the product differently” to attract black students who would once have been likely to enroll at black colleges, but are now recruited by other institutions. They can help students understand all of their financial aid options; they can cultivate students early to become donors, “show them what it means to give back to the institution,” Bowman said.

Faculty members can provide students with a positive experience through teaching, nurturing and mentoring that will stay with students, and they can remain in touch through Facebook and alumni events or conferences, said Bowman and Gasman in a list of ideas. Public relations officers can issue press releases, keeping track of numbers and economic impact, to tell a college's story and shape the conversation. The president and executive officers must be unafraid to ask for money, and should speak out on national issues and write editorials to get the word out about their institution. Rounding out the all-campus approach, development officers can ask students to commit to giving right when they graduate, follow through on alumni donations by extending thanks and communicating changes on campus, and train students and educators on the fund-raising process.

The panelists acknowledged that these goals may seem intimidating to the typical black college, whose endowments are a fraction of those of wealthier institutions. But most of these ideas don’t require a lot of money, and if everyone participates, “a lot of these goals don’t seem that far-fetched or unattainable,” Gasman said.

“Take a look at yourself in the mirror,” Bowman said, “and ask what you can begin to do differently.”

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