At Historically Black Schools, Needs To Go Mainstream

February 1, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

Nelson Bowman was attending a fundraising training program when a question came from the audience: What to do when one college at a university is courting a $1 million donor but another college on campus has an affinity that’s more in line with that donor? The instructor, according to Bowman, suggested finding another $1 million donor.

The director of development at Prairie View A&M University, Bowman said he doesn’t have any $1 million donors he can spare, and neither do other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — or most nonprofits for that matter.

That’s just one of several vital differences he sees when directing fundraising appeals toward minority groups. Bowman recently co-authored a book with Marybeth Gasman, A Guide to Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An All Campus Approach. A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, Gasman has been researching giving at HBCUs for more than a decade. The duo plan to publish another book later this year, a guide focused on engaging and soliciting alumni of color at majority institutions.

There are more than 100 HBCUs in the United States, enrolling 300,000 undergraduate students, about 80 percent of whom are black. Many HBCUs are small, with fewer than 15,000 students; almost a quarter have enrollments of less than 1,000 students, and half have less than 3,000 students.

The book was borne out of a simple question from Gasman, who asked Bowman what he would have liked to have known when he started his fundraising career. “I built the book around that outline: Me complaining to MaryBeth,” Bowman joked.

Many of the recommendations and lessons offered aren’t applicable only to HBCUs, Bowman said, but can be adapted to any charity seeking to branch out to appeal to minority donors.

“As the nation’s demographics are changing, there are lots of nonprofits struggling how to figure out how to raise money from these populations, because typically they’re raising money from white populations,” said Gasman. “For organizations that don’t have lots of money, there are very inexpensive ways of raising money, increasing your profile, and telling a better story,” said Gasman, who used to work at a small African-American community center in Texas.

Bowman said institutions that teach philanthropy and train professionals for the field have only started to realize that fundraising among minority groups — and at HBCUs — is a different conversation. “The establishment, in my opinion, has been slow to recognize and to adopt; they have this one size fits all. You don’t have to be a black person to work in development at an HBCU but the approach has to be different,” Bowman said.

“African-Americans and other people of color are often seen as recipients of philanthropy, not as givers,” said Bowman. He recalled the story of a donor who was looking to “pay it forward,” so he was invited for a campus visit after months of discussions. The donor decided to focus all his resources on Prairie View, according to Bowman, because it was the only organization to reach out. He donated $2 million.

“The lesson there is, at any institution, people fail to look at African-Americans and people of color as givers,” said Bowman.

“It’s a good lesson for any fundraiser: Make sure you see everyone as a potential giver, instead of crossing people off your list,” said Gasman. Sometimes there’s not enough attention paid to the differences among racial, ethnic populations when it comes to philanthropy. “By and large, there are some commonalities, but there are special things you need to know, if you’re going to be doing fundraising among African-Americans,” he said.

Bowman offers practical recommendations after each chapter. They address topics such as engaging affinity groups, endowment building and examples of innovative fundraising and engagement programs.

Not unlike the situation at many nonprofits, the challenge at most HBCUs is resources. “You have to honestly do a makeshift development office,” said Bowman. “It might not be on the same scale as a larger university, but you have to build it.” Bowman described fundraising as almost a bucket that sat outside the office and “whatever fell in it was our development. It wasn’t a proactive approach because the office was so small.” The office usually consisted of the head of development, an administrative assistant and a “do-everything person.”

At most mainstream institutions development “is a pretty well-oiled machine,” Gasman said, while at HBCUs, there aren’t as many resources or staff specifically devoted to it. With some exceptions, alumni giving is traditionally lower at HBCUs – and especially low at public black colleges, according to Gasman. Historically, black colleges are not asking alumni for money, often focusing more on corporate or foundation support.

African-Americans also give differently. Individuals give to something concrete, such as a scholarship fund that helps the people who come after them. It’s much more difficult to get African-American alumni to give to endowment funds, Gasman said, mostly because it’s sort of nebulous. “You do different things to educate your alumni,” she said.

At places such as the University of Pennsylvania, — where legacies are affluent and students or alumni are schooled by family in giving at high levels – development offices might not have to explain endowments to potential donors, she said. “Sometimes, we forget that — that there are lots of people who have no idea what these terms are, what these things are – at a majority of places, like small liberal arts universities, than large, prestigious universities,” Gasman said.

With 47,000 alumni at Prairie View, Bowman said development can’t be left to just his staff of three but must be a collective effort of all the deans. Not only do they “know their alumni better than I do,” Bowman said, HBCUs just don’t have the resources to go out and hire a New York marketing firm to blitz the nation.

“The president of the university or college is really the chief fundraiser,” Bowman said. “We highlight presidents who are nationally known, even at small colleges, who are vocal, out in front on issues, and have found ways to create an institutional niche and a name for the institution despite scarce and smaller resources,” he said.

Getting the school’s president — and all parts of the university — on board the fundraising train is a big part of the overall effort, but especially telling the story better. A big difference at HBCUs is the entire institution is not engaged in the fundraising effort, Bowman said, from the president to rank and file staff, but especially student services.

One of the things HBCUs have to do is tell their story better. “There’s always negative stuff – about graduation rates, retention rates – but it’s not the only thing that HBCUs are known for,” Bowman said. A recent piece written by a college president for The Huffington Post highlighted 10 great successes for HBCUs during 2011. “As a whole, we don’t do enough of that on a consistent basis,” he said, adding that a majority of the news media will focus on the negative aspects or stories.

“You have to tell a better story in order to get people to give to you,” Bowman said. “There are great stories, we just don’t know about them,” he said. NPT