In a recent article in Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Bill Cosby was reported to have chastised HBCU leaders for their failures to attract alumni contributions. Specifically, he stated, that HBCU administrators should make their alumni “feel bad” about not giving back. I have a lot of respect for Cosby’s dedication to HBCUs and I agree that HBCUs need to be more proactive in garnering alumni support. However, shaming alumni or making them “feel bad” does not work. Research shows that the best way to increase alumni giving across institutional type is to educate alumni while they are students about the importance of giving back.
Beginning during new student orientation, the presidents of HBCUs need to remind students on whose shoulders they stand. As the majority of HBCU students receive scholarships, it is easy to convince them that they are benefiting from the contributions of others and have an obligation to do the same for students of the future. The trick communicate this message early and often. HBCUs need to make sure that students understand how a college or university works, the sources of income that keep an institution working, and their role in sustaining their alma mater.
How can this be done? HBCUs need to set up student advancement councils focused on raising money and educating about philanthropy in a peer to peer way. The United Negro College Fund has been doing this for decades through their campus-based pre-alumni councils. BUT presidents and other administrators need to better communicate the “giving back” message through multiple means. And, presidents have ample opportunity to do this — at homecoming, at weekly convocations, at social and academic events, and of course, at graduation. Student should know from the moment that they step on campus that as soon as they receive their diploma, they need to give back to the institution that launched them into society.
Education and a true understanding of the worth and benefits of an HBCU education leads people to give, not shame!
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).