How HBCUs Can Increase Alumni Donation Rates

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Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are known for providing supportive learning environments, strong educational foundations and life lessons African-American students can use long after they graduate. Although many HBCU graduates have mostly positive things to say about their alma maters, they don’t often show their gratitude financially.

For instance, between 2009 and 2010, although some institutions had decent average alumni giving rates, like Alabama A&M University and Morris College, with rates of 50 percent and 42 percent, respectively, most HBCUs had low numbers, like Tennessee State University and Grambling State University, with 3 percent and 1 percent. The University of the District of Columbia had an average of 0.1 percent.

Such numbers are minuscule compared with the national average of 20 percent.

“A Guide to Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: an All Campus Approach,” (2012) by Marybeth Gasman, professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nelson Bowman III, director of development at Prairie View A&M University, list some reasons behind the difference:

  • Many HBCUs have small fundraising infrastructures and lack funds and staff;
  • many HBCU alumni say they haven’t been asked to give back;
  • African Americans have less access to wealth in the U.S.;
  • and some public HBCU alumni think the state funds their alma maters.

Gasman said poor customer service could also affect alumni giving rates.

“For those alumni who are asked but don’t give back, the number one reason is that they had a negative experience with financial aid, the bursar or the registrar,” Gasman said.

Such experiences could explain why alumni giving rates are 5 to 7 percent for public and 9 to 11 percent for private HBCUs.

Despite the reasons as to why HBCU alumni don’t give back as much, there are multiple solutions to increasing fundraising among those former students. Gasman said asking alumni to give back is one major solution.

“My research shows that HBCU alumni do give back when asked, however, they have to be educated about philanthropy,” Gasman said. “African Americans prefer to give to concrete causes, want to be thanked and need to understand where their donations are going. African Americans give more of their discretionary income than any other racial or ethnic group, including whites. Sixty percent of that goes to the church, but a good amount goes to education and youth programs.”

Gasman and Bowman’s book lists many way institutions can reach out to alumni, like focusing on racial uplift, sharing successes, personally interacting, engaging alumni through church membership and spreading the concept of fundraising through giving circles, school organizations and close friends.

The guide also encourages HBCUs to practice both passive and active engagement. Passive engagement includes distributing newsletters and annual reports and conducting surveys.

An example the guide gives of how surveys can make improve alumni relations involves Prairie View A&M University. Its advancement staff surveyed the alumni about why they didn’t give to the most recent capital campaign.

Most of the respondents said they weren’t asked to give. Eighty-four percent said they would support the school using their time, talent and finances.

“Other findings included a willingness to support a future annual fund, to engage in more volunteer opportunities and to be contacted more frequently,” the guide says.

More active engagement includes conducting alumni trainings, encouraging volunteerism and appointing a fundraising ambassador.

In the past, many HBCUs have utilized alumni associations to gain alumni donations. But according to Gasman and Bowman, membership to those associations has decreased in the past 30 years.

They said it’s because alumni don’t think membership has benefits, and HBCUs and their national alumni associations have poor relationships. If the alumni associations aren’t reliable, alumni definitely will neither want to join nor donate.

Another reason alumni associations could deter alumni from donating is the lack of accepting social media. Young alumni are more willing to respond to social networking sites rather than to email and mailboxes. If administrators accept social media, they could use it to solicit friends and funding on behalf of their institutions.

Young alumni aren’t the only people that need to be reached.

“[HBCUs] need to start educating alumni when they are students,” Gasman said.

The guide says, “there are numerous opportunities in which to involve future alumni …”

One way is to get students in the habit of donating their time and talent. The United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) Pre-Alumni Council does a good job of doing that by annually raising money from students to stimulate their interest and participation.

Starting Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) chapters, which educate students about philanthropy and fundraising professions, could also encourage both current student and alumni giving.

Current students can also contact alumni through phone-a-thons and other caller methods in order to reach out to and solicit funds from those alumni. Still, students and institutions can’t do all the work alone.

“The president must be vocal on a national level,” Gasman said. “I also think that private philanthropy and the federal government should invest in infrastructure building in the area of fundraising.”

“The most popular program that encourages fundraising among HBCUs is UNCF.  Although it deals solely with private institutions, its programs and practices can be used as blueprints for all HBCUs.

One such program is the Institute for Capacity Building (ICB), which, according to its website, “strengthens the infrastructure, programs, systems, policies, procedures, practices and human capital that support, sustain and advance an institution’s mission.”

Linda Curiel is the director of the Institutional Advancement Program (IAP) for ICB.

“We’re basically helping to share the best practices in fundraising,” Curiel said.

She said the IAP does an assessment of UNCF members and guides them based on their financial needs.

“It’s really important to meet institutions where they are,” Curiel said. The IAP guides UNCF members who received grants through the ICB and provides strategies, technical support and consultative services for advancement professionals.

Since participating, Bennett College for Women, Huston-Tillotson University, Talladega College and Virginia Union University have shown average increases of 78 percent and 68 percent in alumni giving and participation, respectively.

Another participating institution that has greatly benefitted from its IAP involvement, as well as has received national attention for its alumni giving rates, is Claflin University, which received a $1.5 million grant from UNCF and has a 45 percent alumni giving rate as of 2012.

“We teach our students what it means to be philanthropic,” said Marcus Burgess, director of Alumni Affairs and Annual Funds at Claflin.

Burgess, who early on visited several other HBCUs in fundraising, said much of Claflin’s success is based on its class agent program, which asks members to encourage alumni engagement and participation.

He said the phone-a-thon turning into a fully operating call center that operates eight months a year has also increased alumni giving.

“[Giving back] shows that you are grateful for the education you’ve received,” Burgess said.

Although Claflin has enjoyed much recent success with alumni donations, Burgess said many HBCUs aren’t because they don’t have enough publicity and credibility.

“We’re strong institutions,” Burgess said. “We need credit for producing such great leaders.”

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