Making money, administrators at Virginia State University have learned, takes money.
The majority Black school has spent millions of state dollars renovating buildings, partly to heighten school pride among alumni they hope will respond by opening their own wallets.
It’s working: Alumni support has risen from 7 percent five years ago to 10 percent, and individual gifts have increased from hundreds of dollars to thousands, development vice president Robert Turner said as he showed off libraries and academic buildings recently.
“This,” Turner said, surveying the hilltop campus, “obviously converts to good will.”
As state and private funds shrink, historically Black colleges are refreshing outdated efforts to solicit former students, by adding specialized staff, crafting personalized “asks,” improving campuses and increasingly using Internet outreach.
They’re targeting a wider base—more Blacks are graduating—and younger alumni who’ve moved into a broader range of careers.
At VSU, efforts as subtle as adding a donor recognition dinner have heartened alumni like Anthony Spence.
“If I’m going to give my money to a university, I want to be sure that it’s used for the very best,” said Spence, 41, a Miramar, Fla., entrepreneur who’s given about $60,000.
Administrators plan computer network upgrades devoted to online giving at Atlanta’s prestigious Morehouse College, where alumni contributions dipped from about $3.1 million in 2006 to $1.3 million last year.
Wiley College in east Texas will use a nearly $840,000 grant from the United Negro College Fund to help scout 200 major gift prospects a year, create new online giving opportunities and beef up staff.
Wiley, featured in Denzel Washington’s 2007 film “The Great Debaters,” has nine staffers focused on institutional advancement.
“At some of the larger, predominant institutions, they may have an advancement staff of say 20, 30, 50 people,” said Karen Helton, vice president for institutional advancement. “That’s how the Harvards and the Stanfords and the UCLAs generate billions.”
Such measures are commonplace at some mainstream institutions. But they represent a major investment for the nation’s more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities, whose resources often are stretched.
The fundraising push by these schools foreshadows an expected slowdown in levels of state higher education funding, at the same time that predominantly White universities are pushing harder to attract high-achieving Black students.
“There is an urgency about this as we look at our network of institutions and look at trying to sustain them,” said Elfred Pinkard, executive director of the Institute for Capacity Building, part of the United Negro College Fund that represents 39 private historically Black schools.
Since 2006, the institute has granted more than $8.1 million to 29 member schools for projects that include increasing alumni support.
“There was a recognition that alum of these institutions represented a very important constituency that had not been tapped in any systematic way,” Pinkard said.
The colleges, founded to serve Blacks during segregation, have kept tuition low to help underprivileged students. That leaves little extra cash for things like fundraising, said University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Marybeth Gasman, author of “Supporting Alma Mater: Successful Strategies for Securing Funds from Black College Alumni.”
They also have historically been reluctant to ask former students, already paying off loans, to give more money. At the same time, Black alumni haven’t always had the income of graduates from predominantly White schools, Gasman said.
“Their alumni have had more access to income, to assets, and thus could give back,” Gasman said, adding that Blacks also tend to give more to churches.
But at Norfolk State University, alumni giving has grown from 2 percent to 8.2 percent since 2000, nudged, officials say, by graduates who are more moneyed at younger ages.
“As we get some of the majors that we have now, for example the optical engineering, there are individuals leaving college with decent salaries,” said Phillip Adams, interim vice president for university advancement.
And there are potentially more of them: 142,420 bachelor’s degrees were conferred to Blacks in 2005-2006, up from fewer than 92,000 a decade earlier, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But among Black colleges’ top resources, say some, is alumni loyalty.
“Many of our alum respond to our institutions as providing an opportunity when many other institutions would not have. So they give back,” Pinkard said.