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US companies, nudged by Black employees, have stepped up donations to HBCUs

A Wilberforce University graduate smiles during the school's commencement ceremony in May 2022.
Wilberforce University
A Wilberforce University graduate smiles during the school's commencement ceremony in May 2022.

Natalie Coles will never forget receiving an unexpected phone call in 2020. On the line was Virginia-based Dominion Energy, offering to give money to Wilberforce University, the small historically Black college where she is in charge of fundraising.

The company’s $500,000 donation went in part toward laptops and hot spots for students when the pandemic shut down the college’s campus outside of Dayton, Ohio.

“It was like manna from heaven,” Coles said.

Historically Black colleges and universities, which had seen giving from foundations decline in recent decades, lately are benefiting from an increase in gifts, particularly from corporations and corporate foundations. Some have received a new look from companies amid the reckoning over racial injustice spurred by the killing of George Floyd. But the colleges also have been pitching themselves, emphasizing their ability to deliver returns on the investment in student mobility.

Another factor in the giving by corporations has been the influence of their Black employees.

At the beverage company Diageo North America, the employee resource group for African Americans shaped a program that has provided almost $12 million to HBCUs, said Danielle Robinson, head of community engagement and partnerships for Diageo. The money has gone toward scholarships at 29 schools to lessen the debt burden on Black graduates.

“We talked about a lot of different things, but one of the things that kept coming up was the generational wealth gap,” Robinson said.

The giving to HBCUs is a newer trend for corporations, which had largely ignored them before 2020, said Marybeth Gasman, a Rutgers University professor who researches HBCUs. Increasingly, HBCUs have been using the language of business to argue they not only have a high need but also are a good investment, she said.

HBCUs often have smaller endowments and lower levels of public funding than other universities. A report released in May found foundation support of HBCUs declined 30% between 2002 and 2019. Data is incomplete for more recent years, but HBCUs have been reporting a sustained increase lately in donations from corporations as well as philanthropic foundations.

Delaware State University received $20 million from MacKenzie Scott in 2020, part of the $560 million that the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos gave to HBCUs. The money helped DSU rescue a small college in their county that was closing and invest in their facilities.

Foundations have been more receptive when the school reaches out, said Vita Pickrum, the school’s vice president of institutional advancement. She said she would like to see foundations shape giving in partnership with HBCUS. Gifts to HBCUs typically are more restricted than those given to predominantly white schools, she said, which she would like to see change.

“Trust the institutions to be able to address the problem that the foundation is trying to address in the most efficient way that they see fit,” she said.

While giving to HBCUs has increased lately, better-known schools, such as large private and land-grant universities, have been more likely to receive donations compared with small schools, said Michael Lomax, CEO of the United Negro College Fund.

Those small institutions often operate as engines of economic mobility that lift students from poverty to the middle class, Lomax said. Many have near open-enrollment policies, educating nearly any student that wishes to pursue higher education.

While HBCUs have produced celebrated entrepreneurs, scientists and doctors, they have also educated an outsize number of teachers, nurses and other jobs that are essential for society, he said.

“I want to see more of American philanthropy recognizing that those are important,” Lomax said. “That they’re going to help us ensure that those jobs and those positions are filled, because they are the positions which will ensure a healthy Black America, but really, a healthy America.”

At Wilberforce University, the donation from Dominion supports scholarships and a lecture series on racial inequality in addition to the technology investments. It’s a lot to squeeze out of a half-million dollars, which Coles said reflects the way historically Black colleges and universities stretch their money.

“I would really applaud my fellow African Americans for really pushing things within corporate America to make certain that the George Floyd incident was a movement, a long-term movement, not just a one-off,” Coles said.

At Spelman College in Georgia, an increase in donations has allowed the school to expand financial aid and start centers for Black entrepreneurship and the arts. Jessie Brooks, senior vice president for institutional advancement, said the racial justice movement of 2020 offered visibility that allowed HBCUs to make their case to new potential donors.

“If a donor gives you the resources, and you can show impact in terms of how their gift made a difference, they will continue to give,” Brooks said.

Whether corporations will stick with funding HBCUs for the long term is still a question for Shawnta Friday-Stroud, vice president of advancement at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Donations from corporate and philanthropic foundations have almost doubled from last year, when they’d received $2.4 million at this time compared with $5.3 million so far this year.

She’s observed that corporate foundations are making funding commitments over multiple years and have expressed interest in partnering with her institution, rather than just giving money and walking away. They have put the money toward scholarships and professional development training.

“My hope is that that continues, let’s say, over the next three, four or five years,” she said. “And I think that’s what’s going to be the true test.”