When It Comes to HBCU Philanthropy, We Cannot Reap Where We Have Not Sown
I must say from the outset that I maintain a profound and genuine respect for the visionary leadership of Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, as one of the nation’s leading and preeminent voices in the persistent plight of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Indeed, as a younger member of the “hip-hop generation” who also heeded the call to serve the HBCU community as an executive administrator, I was actually in part personally inspired by Dr. Kimbrough’s leadership having known him personally as a student during my matriculation as an undergraduate at Albany State University where he served as a vice president a decade ago.
However, after reading Dr. Kimbrough’s May 22, 2013 Los Angeles Times article titled, “Why USC and not a black college, Dr. Dre?” concerning his angst and disappointment regarding hip-hop super producer Dr. Dre’s recent $35 million dollar gift to the University of Southern California, I pensively ruminated whether Dr. Kimbrough or other HBCU leaders were sincerely ready to hear and fully appreciate the rather inconvenient truth that belies the unfortunate answer to his retort with respect to HBCUs often not being the beneficiaries of multi-million dollar gifts.
Unfortunately, as a higher education advancement/development professional and state legislative liaison/lobbyist for a state sponsored HBCU, it sadly is of little surprise nor is it much of a perplexing reality that these kinds of gifts and investments continuously escape the needful grips of a great majority of our institutions. To put it bluntly, and at the risk of taking too much of a literary liberty with a sacred Biblical principle, “Dr. Kimbrough, HBCUs cannot reap where HBCUs have not sown.”
An increasingly volatile economic and political climate has created a formidable and frightening reality for the future of state and federal funding of higher education (especially at HBCUs). Now more than ever, HBCU leaders must be bold and audacious in making their institution’s philanthropic function as the institution’s highest budgetary priority.
As an HBCU advancement executive, it’s often unsettlingly ironic to me that a great majority of our institutions often cite their lack of financial resources as the primary impediment towards reaching the desired level of institutional and programmatic success. And yet, when glancing across the HBCU landscape to examine the advancement/development units whose primary function it is to seek, solicit, cultivate and secure resources for our institutions, in many cases we find that these units are often the LEAST professionally staffed, LEAST resourced, and LEAST developed comparative to other institutional units. And yet they are looked upon to be the deliverers for our institution’s GREATEST need!
How can HBCUs justifiably expect multi-million dollar beneficence, when many of our institutions financially invest only a fraction of what is necessary and needed in the way of sufficient advancement/development staffing, fundraising expertise and training, and professional fundraising development?
Earlier this past spring during a session for HBCU fundraising professionals at the regional meeting of CASE (Council on the Advancement and Support of Education) in Atlanta, Ga., an informal survey taken amongst the HBCU representatives revealed that a number of institutions were currently operating with advancement/development units that were severely understaffed and under resourced. Some institutions were operating with scarcely a total of 2-3 dedicated fundraisers. Show me an institution of higher education (whether HBCU, MSI or PWI) that routinely closes multi-million dollar gifts and I’ll show you an institution whose leadership has made its advancement/development function THE priority through an intentional investment of institutional dollars representative of such a commitment.
If HBCUs are to ever realize the kinds of gifts and investments that they need and so richly deserve, the paradigm of HBCU leadership must evolve into a more robust appreciation and understanding of the methodical science and practice of fundraising. The days of development/advancement units being the dumping ground for faculty or staff who have long since needed to have been retired should be over. And it’s indeed exceedingly past time for these units’ primary yearlong roles to encompass more than being saddled with the planning and facilitating of mundane non-fundraising focused “feel good” institutional activities, as is so often the case at many HBCUs.
Any seasoned and learned fundraiser well knows that $35 million dollar gifts don’t come to fruition over night and they aren’t realized through the hiring of some singular, “Ms./Mr. Magic Fundraising” guru who mysteriously and magically waives a wand and closes million dollar gifts. These kinds of gifted investments are strategically solicited and stewarded by professional advancement/development “fundraising teams” each with a strategic function and role after sometimes years of relationship building predicated upon sustainability, stability and trust. Donors typically don’t just wake up and decide, “Hey, I think I’m going to give away $35 million dollars today.” Quite to the contrary, high leveled investment gifts of this sort are painstakingly cultivated through best fundraising practices which reflect the implementation of time tested processes which include the right person asking the right prospect for the right gift for the right program at the right time in the right way. Indeed, there IS a tried and true method to the fundraising madness.
HBCUs must begin to proactively invest to a much greater measure in their own institutional philanthropic infrastructures. Otherwise, while some of us may experience fleeting tokens of large scale fundraising success, as a collective HBCUs will continue to find themselves as panhandling members of the philanthropic community left waving a jangling near empty cup begging for more loose change.
In 2013, all donors, even and including renowned millionaire hip-hop music producers have become increasingly selective and discriminating with regard to how and where they make such sizeable financial investments. HBCU leaders should invariably conduct institutional analysis and self examinations with regard to their own institutional capacity for soliciting and stewarding such investments. Does your institution or affiliated 501(c)(3) foundation/organization have the professional staff with the requisite expertise and experience to effectively manage such an investment? What about certain legal and tax implications? How about specific opportunities for tax benefits and sheltering that are concerns for donors at this level? Is your institution’s philanthropic infrastructure (foundation and institutional actuarial audits) sound? Are the advancement/development staff professionals in your organization trained and knowledgeable enough in these areas to ably engender the trust required to secure a gift from a potential multi-million dollar donor?
Maybe? Maybe not? We’d better be ready.
There is credence for the argument that Dr. Dre and other artists, athletes and entertainers should look favorably upon reinvesting in the very communities that represent the economic engine under girding their own individual and personal pecuniary success (including untold scores of HBCU student and alumni consumers). But HBCU leaders must simultaneously accept a share of responsibility for a prevailing impotence towards engendering and perpetuating an institutional culture that is not conducive for realizing critical large scale philanthropic success.
While the urgency of our needs are beyond prodigious, and while our institutions remain highly relevant examples of rich educational reservoirs in which others should assuredly invest, we must first make an intentional decision to redirect, reallocate and reinvest in the philanthropic exploits of our own institutions. Any inaction or action to the contrary will continue to leave us asking why others always seem to be thriving beneficiaries, much to our continued philanthropic detriment.
Dr. A. Zachary Faison Jr., serves as Chief of Staff & Interim Vice President for University Advancement at Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU) in Itta Bena Miss.