NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving made headlines late on the eve of 2021, as a gift of paid tuition he made on behalf of nine seniors at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania became public.
Irving’s gift closes out an unprecedented year of historic giving to historically Black colleges and universities, headlined by more than $500 million in gifts from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and a total that closed in on more than $1 billion in HBCU support in 2020.
Life beyond the worst year ever appears to be set up for the HBCU universe to see its best days ahead. But the record high-level philanthropy of 2020 has reset the dollar amount that can afford future executive access and attention on Black college campuses, setting the stage for tension at the intersections of giving and leadership.
If she wants it, Scott has virtually unlimited access to the cell phone numbers of dozens of HBCU presidents at campuses where she is now the largest donor in institutional history. She could have lifetime season tickets to every football home game, HBCU classic, basketball tournament she ever wanted to attend in nearly every historically Black athletic conference. She could be seated at the head table of every HBCU homecoming gala, on the dais of every HBCU commencement, and could have dozens of buildings named in her honor at dozens of our schools — at any moment she elects to ask for any of it.
Executives at Dow, Southern Energy, Dominion Power, Bank of America, Netflix, and other corporations could enjoy the same perks for brokering their own historic funding partnerships with HBCUs.
That’s what millions in support earns at Black colleges, schools that have long suffered outside of financial and corporate systems fueled by white supremacy, segregation and discrimination. Those systems have made it possible for large predominantly white and Ivy League institutions to consider million-dollar gifts as common support, and to launch multi-year campaigns to reach for fundraising goals in the hundreds of millions or even billions.
Despite having periods of transformative giving following emancipation, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s through the 1970s, and today’s current ‘Black Lives Matter’ era, HBCUs in the last few years are just beginning to realize their prowess as targets for gifts from mega-wealthy people and companies. And while earning gaps between Black folks and white folks are very much a factor, this new era of HBCU support also means that smaller gifts may no longer yield big benefits between an institution and its pool of traditional donors.
A million dollars still virtually buys the keys to a campus, but this also numbers the days of alumni groups and chapters, athletic booster clubs, and fraternities and sororities having the same kind of influence for gifts that are significant in impact, but hundreds of thousands less in unrestricted financial support. If HBCU leaders are having conversations about millions, donors or donor groups who are in position to give between $10,000 and $100,000 should no longer expect or demand million-dollar treatment or access.
“Scott gave a community of donors and wealth an off-ramp to target HBCUs for major gits,” said one president. “That off-ramp gives those donors the kinds of access to presidents which weren’t always available to that kind of audience, because the gifts have far more impact in our communities than at other campuses which have done business this way for years.”
“A donor giving millions to my school makes sure we’re connected when he calls. But it also sets a new standard for who can call and expect that connection.”
We all know the groups and the people who for years have commanded accommodation from presidents and trustees for gifts with five or six-figures. And those people still play the important role of being able to galvanize graduates to protect HBCUs from legislative harm, or to grow the brand in public spaces.
But we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have a new era of fundraising expectations while maintaining old-era free parking, complimentary tickets, free dinners, seats in the president’s box and on-demand audiences with executives. 2021 is either the start of a new era with new standards, or it’ll be a new year with some alumni becoming big mad because the HBCU culture will no longer match the money they’re willing or able to give.