Like many HBCU graduates and supporters, I am thrilled whenever I read that an HBCU has received a multimillion-dollar gift, whether or not it is my alma mater. While it is not always readily apparent what criteria was used by the donor in selecting which institution to invest in, three things are clear to me. First, the institutions selected tend to enjoy strong brand recognition and a reputation for graduating students who consistently excel professionally. Second, large publicly announced gifts to HBCUs serve as a validation of the contemporary significance of the HBCU sector writ large. Third, in their messaging, those institutions receiving large philanthropic or corporate investments can use this as evidence of the recognition of their responsiveness to societal needs.
Let’s be honest: the majority of the 107 HBCUs in America are not likely to get these potentially transformative mega-gifts. So my question is, “What can and must HBCUs do to increase alumni engagement and giving?” For sure, there is no single “right” answer. However, as a former HBCU chief executive, I fervently believe the following strategies, if employed consistently, can lead to increased philanthropic support from HBCU alumni.
Dr. Charlie Nelms
Include all alumni. Continuous communication with graduates, whether they are dues paying members of the Alumni Association or not, is the sine qua non of establishing, nurturing, and sustaining positive relationships with alumni. The days of costly and colorful quarterly or annual reports and magazines are behind us. Welcome to the world of social media, where communication is continuous, personalized, and comprehensive. Equally important, communication can be tailored to the activities and needs of departments and programs not only on a daily basis, but also an hourly basis.
Kudos to all those HBCUs fortunate enough to be included on MacKenzie Scott’s mega gift list, along with lesser-known donors and corporate grant makers. For those institutions that were not among the recipients of such largesse, I challenge you to focus on transforming your alumni into consistent givers who may someday become mega givers. Treat every gift as a major gift, and thank every donor in that spirit. Lead by example to create and sustain a culture of giving. You may be pleasantly surprised, and indeed shocked, by the extent to which your alumni will give.
Dr. Charlie Nelms is chancellor emeritus at North Carolina Central University.