Giving can be deeply rooted.
On the cusp of becoming a third generation college graduate, it was a bit of a shake up when I told my grandmother that I planned to attend Elon University, then called Elon College, in the summer of 1990. After all, since about the time I was born, I had been lectured to, preached at, read to, and even written about my family’s long lineage of Historically Black College and University (HBCU) graduates and because many of them were a part of raising me as a little girl, I heard the stories first hand. At the time Elon was an unknown, and very much outside of the ideology that she had spent so many years raising me to follow.
In 1995, I went to visit my grandmother in Chester, South Carolina for a week in late August. During that visit, she told me many family stories and shared years of wisdom. She tried to give me some of her precious antique dishes and even furniture to haul away in my two door rental car, all of which at the young age of 22, I refused. What I did accept from her, however, was her Morris College pin and her graduation pearls, which were the most important pieces of her life story, and likely, the most important pieces of mine as well.
My grandmother, the youngest of 10 with 9 brothers, who were all prominent HBCU graduates, brought me and my cousin to my see my uncles within driving distance quite often. We’d stay with them in their homes, and go to the public schools where they taught, visit businesses that they owned, sat on their front porches and eat churned ice cream, listened to them play the piano, violin and harmonica, went to church and heard them preach on Sunday and think that this was the norm, because after all, a college education was a non-negotiable for us. As my cousin and I grew up, and other influences came into play, including our own parents’ openness to different collegiate experiences, our understanding of our family HBCU legacy waned, and our interests were diverted to other schools.
It wasn’t until that day, more than a year after my undergraduate commencement from Elon University, that my grandmother reminded me of her deep roots at Morris College. I only wish she had given me her diploma that day, but that she would never give up.
Pride in a legacy can be powerful.
A little more than two years ago, I arrived at a HBCU for an introductory meeting to learn more about a capital campaign that was afoot, and how our team could help. I was completely in awe of the opportunities that I saw and we quickly got in and got started. It was some of the hardest, and most rewarding work I have ever done. And for the last two years, as a team, we were able to not only help to build a new team there, but we also helped to inspire more giving and learn about a culture of pride that was far deeper than I expected.
Deploying a boutique blend of the best fundraising practices that I had learned in both resource abundant and resource sparse environments over the years made our team adaptable, and it also made me better appreciate some of the discipline that I earned to lean into as a fundraiser over the years. The effective use of data, coaching, and accountability systems can be implemented in any fundraising environment. However, how we use these systems to engage alumni, and other constituencies in our HBCU environments is more crucial today, than ever before.
The gaps in the legacy and current wealth in most HBCU alumni versus peer predominantly white institutions results in significantly lower endowments and alumni giving ratios. The giving levels of alumni directly correspond with student loan debt, employability, income upon degree completion and other mitigating factors that students often live with, as many are first generation college graduates, even today. An inability to substantiate and articulate these circumstances through the use of institutional data and trends sometimes deters HBCU advancement teams from effectively soliciting the right gift from all constituency groups.
While facing each of these realities, we were still charged with advancing an HBCU mission. We continued to move a campaign forward, and that's when I began to understand more about pride. As our engagement deepened, I started to meet more of the older generations of alumni and built meaningful relationships with some of them. People who volunteer, spend nights and long weekends fundraising, and make deep personal and financial sacrifices for their alma mater. That is pride, and it is personal.
Engaging Investment from Alumni is a must.
My grandmother's college pin and pearls are symbolic of a legacy of both pride and sacrifice. Morris College, is not what it was during the years that my grandmother attended. A woman who was quietly generous to her church and other causes throughout her life was never significantly invested as a donor in her alma mater. Was it just that she was never asked? I will never solve this mystery, but I believe there are many out there that can be, by engaging with those who have pride in their institution's legacy. It's as simple as the gift of the pin and pearls I received without out even asking for them, because I was just there to listen and learn.