The end of homecoming weekend was near for Spelman College graduate Teri Platt in late October, but she and some former classmates had one more task before they left the Atlanta campus.
They put some cash in envelopes and slipped them underneath the dorm room doors of some students.
Platt’s envelope contained $20.
Platt, a 1997 graduate who teaches political science at Clark Atlanta University, gives money in other ways to Spelman. So, too, does her husband, a Morehouse College graduate.
“It’s always a part of our (family’s) conversation,” Platt said of donating to Spelman and other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
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From individual contributions by alumnae like Platt to celebrities like Beyonce giving scholarships to students and signing big checks, there’s an upsurge in support and donations to the nation’s HBCUs.
Last fiscal year, Spelman raised a record $48 million in donations, more than triple the prior year’s total of $14.5 million, officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The college announced Thursday it received its largest single gift from living donors, trustee Ronda Stryker and her husband, William Johnston: $30 million.
Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) told the AJC the number of million-dollar donations rose from one, between fiscal years 2011-14, to nine, between 2015-18. Morehouse College reported it raised about $3 million at its annual gala this year, surpassing the $1 million raised last year. Clark Atlanta University and Paine College each received its first million-dollar check this year.
Private giving to the nation’s 101 accredited HBCUs increased about 21 percent in the two most recent years of available information, from $265.2 million to $320.6 million, according to federal data. The total, though, is a fraction of giving to all American colleges and universities, which totaled $43.6 billion in 2017, according to an annual study by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. HBCUs received an average of about $1,100 per student in 2016. By contrast, Emory University, Georgia’s largest private university, received an average of about $42,000 per student in gifts in 2017.
HBCUs — with smaller enrollments, generally lower tuition and a greater percentage of low-income students who struggle to pay for college — have historically had smaller budgets and a critical need for donations. The funding challenge has become greater as many public HBCUs have seen steep declines in state funding in recent years as lawmakers were more cautious about spending after the Great Recession a decade ago. Several private HBCUs, such as Paine College in Georgia, have struggled financially amid enrollment declines. The AJC documented some of the challenges in a three-part series earlier this year on HBCUs. Georgia is home to nine accredited HBCUs, and many of its graduates — from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to Dr. Louis Sullivan — are major cogs in metro Atlanta’s political leadership and workforce.
Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell said the increased financial support for HBCUs is critical as non-white Americans are projected to become the majority of the nation’s population by 2045. Most black doctors, lawyers and college professors are HBCU graduates, some research shows.
“We are doing something in higher education that’s not being done elsewhere,” she said of educating black professionals.
HBCU leaders, graduates and students say the increased philanthropic interest stems from a variety of factors. More donors are interested in supporting HBCUs amid national conversations about racially-charged issues such as deadly police encounters with African-Americans.
Also, HBCU’s are getting better at fundraising, with many using social media and other methods to engage potential donors. Also, the troubles faced by some HBCUs have prompted responses by alumni and supporters to give, said Michael Thurmond, Paine College’s board chairman-elect.
“It’s stimulated a response to supporters to engage and becoming more active,” said Thurmond, DeKalb County’s chief executive officer.
Brian Bridges, the United Negro College Fund’s vice president of research and member engagement said: “People realize these are viable institutions. It has helped push HBCUs in a way they haven’t been pushed before.”
And the attention from celebrity donors like Queen Bey hasn’t hurt.
Beyonce, the music megastar, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a scholarship fund that this year supported students from several HBCUs, including Spelman and Morehouse colleges.
In May, Kenya Barris, the television writer and producer of hit shows such as “Black-ish”, and his wife, Rainbow, an anesthesiologist, gave Clark Atlanta University its largest alumni gift ever: $1 million. The couple graduated from the university in 1996.
Comedian and actor Kevin Hart surprised two Atlanta-bred students and seven out-of-staters at Georgia HBCUs in August with scholarships.
“They highlight HBCUs on a global stage, and other folks start to think we need to consider these organizations,” Jessie Brooks, Spelman’s vice president of institutional advancement, said.
Problem solved? Not entirely.
HBCUs and organizations that support them say getting large checks from foundations and philanthropists is still difficult. Several hundred donors have given more than $100 million to various American colleges and universities. Not one of those schools, though, was an HBCU.
Before the announcement last week of Spelman’s $30 million gift, Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough, an Atlanta native, noted one of the the largest gifts to an HBCU was $20 million, also to Spelman, which came from Bill and Camille Cosby 30 years ago. He called the lack of mega-donors a “tragedy.”
“Sadly, philanthropy continues to fund wealthy institutions that rarely serve black or Pell [grant] students,” Kimbrough wrote in November for the AJC’s GetSchooled Blog.
John S. Wilson Jr., former president of Morehouse, noted many HBCUs got their start more than a century ago through the support of financial titans such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller families, but that changed. Spelman, for example, has two buildings with the name Rockefeller.
“We have to convince more people (support for HBCUs) is not about correcting the past,” Wilson said. “It’s about creating the future, and when we do that, we’ll get the support we need.”
Successful big-check hunting for HBCUs takes patience. In September, the Walton Family Foundation donated $5.4 million to Spelman and the Atlanta University Center to create an educational pipeline for art museum leadership to increase diversity in that field. Spelman spent about two years discussing the potential gift with foundation leaders, Campbell recalled.
Spelman and several HBCUs in recent years have restructured their philanthropic teams and thought differently about how they raise money for their schools. Instead of holding a fundraising dinner each year at one of Atlanta’s big hotels, Morehouse School of Medicine now holds an annual event on campus where donors can see how their money is used, said Bennie Harris, its senior vice president of institutional advancement. This year, Harris said MSM raised $1.3 million through the event, nearly twice its 2017 haul.
Harris said they emphasize to donors that their money is not going to the school, but to efforts that help current and future students. HBCUs, he said, must do a better job telling their story.
“What we have to do is show the uniqueness about why they should give to our students,” Harris explained.
Fund-raising officials are also addressing another challenge: getting alumni to give. Morehouse College reports its alumni giving rate was 17 percent, a number its president wants to double. MSM’s alumni giving rate was 10 percent in fiscal year 2007, Harris said. It was 22 percent in fiscal year 2017.
At Spelman, administrators created focus groups to better understand how to engage students, which they hope will result in robust giving once they graduate. They also shared updates with donors about how money is spent. In one case, Campbell said, a donor gave $1 million after being told the results of his investment.
Students are encouraged to give a gift of any kind in their senior year. The most recent senior-year student giving rate was about 80 percent, Brooks said.
Platt said her giving dropped off a few years after graduation, and it bothered her. It improved as her career progressed. Platt said she finds other ways to give, such as paying a Spelman student to babysit or shopping in the campus bookstore. She currently gives about $150 a year to Spelman.
“Still not a lot,” she said, “but I’m proud of it.”