The time is now for improving advancement at HBCUs

Insights Article - Improving advancement at hbcus

Key takeaways 

  • Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have struggled to adapt their fundraising strategies 
  • Institutions must engage with alumni—that helps advancement 
  • Figure out the passions of alumni and match to fundraising needs

For some institutions, giving has never been stronger. These institutions run massive, billion-dollar fundraising campaigns. But for many others, current streams of donations have largely dried up and there just isn’t room in the budget to establish the kind of giving programs that keep institutions running. 

For a number of reasons, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have largely struggled to adapt their fundraising strategies. If minority institutions don’t build development strategies to engage alumni in giving even small donations, it will be practically impossible to cultivate the relationships that, over time, yield transformational gifts. 

The problem is many HBCUs (who aren’t alone in this) lack advancement programs altogether. This is especially troubling when they’re also running out of major gift donors and the pipeline of potential donors is not nearly as engaged with the institution as generations past. Engaged, meaning, do alumni hear about the new buildings, latest programs, and great student successes on campus? Do they know if the campus is thriving, or if it needs help?  

Institutions aren’t always adept at communicating the latest news and successes, because it happens in a busy swirl that can be hard to appreciate when you’re not enrolled and on campus every day. HBCUs, in some ways, are even less adept at this than “majority” universities. 

So, let’s take a look at the biggest challenges in advancement at HBCUs and discuss ways to overcome them. 

How did HBCUs successfully raise funds in the past? 

Historically, the majority of fundraising targeted private corporations and philanthropic foundations. This led to a relatively simple fundraising relationship where institutions only needed to work with one person or team in charge of giving at a corporation or foundation. And while it isn’t necessarily easy to cultivate organizational donations, it was easier than gaining many donations from a large pool of individuals. 

Many HBCUs have also relied on funds that are earmarked for minorities (funding just for minority students, minority faculty, and minority research), but that money has been whittled away. Those corporate and philanthropic foundation sources have dried up since the recession in 2008, just as federal or state funding for minorities has been cut or diminished since then. 

What’s holding back advancement at HBCUs? 

HBCUs have had a longstanding culture of proud alums. But they’re not engaging those alumni in a way that helps with advancement. They’re asking them to come back for a homecoming event, but they’re not telling them what’s going on at the campus. They’re not saying, “We have three Rhodes Scholars this year, somebody was just named to the HBCU hall of fame, and we just opened a new cancer research lab.” 

Nor are they sharing facts like “74% of our students are on financial aid.” HBCUs are historically very high in financial aid, especially in federal aid and grants. Their students are more likely to be in need of scholarships, and it’s critical for advancement efforts to communicate this need to their alumni. 

Top institutions like Howard University and Spelman College have strong development offices. But some HBCUs don’t even have development offices, can’t afford full-time or even part-time staff who can focus on building alumni donor relationships, or simply don’t ask alumni for individual donations. 

They haven’t kept their alumni truly engaged, and the institutions are on such tight budgets. They don’t have the funding for it, and their efforts to restructure budgets have left out investments for building a strong development office. 

Furthermore, the baby boomer generation can’t give donations forever. Alumni engagement has to adapt in order to connect to younger, tech-savvy generations that may not have the same connection to their school that previous generations did. That connection has to be cultivated differently. Ultimately, engagement is the key—communicating, listening, asking, sharing, knowing, and building relationships with students and alumni. 

Much like every other institution, HBCUs have got to figure out what engages their students and alumni. For example, it’s not enough to say, “We’re having a networking session. Join us!” Millennials will not go to your networking event unless you tell them, “Interested in working at Wachovia, Bank of America, or PNC? Come network with our alums who are senior VPs at these banks, and bring your résumé!” 

Where does improved alumni engagement begin? 

Many schools just aren’t asking people to give. It’s time to start relying on individual donations and prioritizing advancement: Hire full-time advancement and alumni engagement personnel.. 

Figure out how to connect with students before they graduate and leave campus. Students should hear about how the institution runs, and they should learn how philanthropy is improving the institution. It’s even better when students are engaged with alumni—through mentoring, events, LinkedIn groups, and webinars, where students can learn from alumni in their desired career fields. 

Show how, with as little or as much as you can give, a passionate belief in the institution can make a difference. Truly engaged alumni believe that they are obligated to support the opportunities the institution represents to students and communities. Alumni often think, the institution will be fine, they don’t need donations. This is what tuition covers, this is what federal funding covers. This is what corporate funding covers. 

Alums should understand the value of their investment. So, lay it out. Lay out the funding shortfall. Let alumni know where funding is needed, and why. And demonstrate the value of giving—giving any amount. And don’t wait to start building that relationship until after graduation. 

What’s the most important thing strong advancement programs do? 

They figure out the passion of their donors. And they match the passion to the funding opportunity. Discover those passions, and match them to fundraising needs. 

Of course, this takes time and people. It requires dedicated staff who have the time to ask, engage, and also listen. Advancement staff share what’s going on and explain what funding is needed for. Strong relationships in advancement are where alumni feel like their institution knows them, and they feel strongly connected to the programs and projects they’re donating to. 

For example, when you reach out to someone and learn that he or she has attended every orchestra performance for the past three years, acknowledge that passion, and then tell them the music department really needs help with buying new music stands. By engaging them based on their passion, you’ll develop a relationship with them that will eventually lead to a donation. 

The best way is to track all this data in a constituent resource management (CRM) system specifically designed for higher education. Advancement professionals can't have a relationship with each and every alumnus, but they also can't inspire giving with vague or generic asks that are sent to everyone on their list. 

An alumni management or CRM solution can foster personal connections while conveniently storing and organizing meaningful student and alumni data. Over time, alumni relationships will get stronger, your data will dive deeper, and individual gifts will grow. 

But what if the institution just doesn’t have the people or the time? 

Again, find alumni management software that makes the effort easy, integrated, and cost-effective. And try to find one or two students who can intern and do a little bit of the legwork that takes more time than skill. Maybe you need to stretch the budget to buy a pair of iPads and some new software up front, and find a student who can intern for a few hours each week—but you have to do something

There aren’t quick fixes. Engagement and development is a long, dedicated process that yields stronger relationships and stronger giving the longer it’s maintained. 

Institutions need to figure out and prioritize what information they want, what’s most critical in order to discover and connect passions. And then figure out how to get that information. 

HBCUs are not so different from majority institutions. They need to rethink how they ask for money, start asking for it, and show how giving matters.

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