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Philanthropy Take Note: The Impact of Big Gifts at HBCUs

Date: December 14, 2023

Ava Willis-Barksdale

Vice President of Advancement and Development, Oakwood University

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For the past two years, I have had the honor to serve on an advisory board for the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) as they continue to study the effects of large, unrestricted gifts on philanthropy through the lenses of both recipients and funders. I have been especially proud to review the data collected and share my thoughts from the perspective of a historically Black college or university (HBCU) that was one of the very grateful recipients of a MacKenzie Scott gift in 2021.

I joined Lincoln University (in Pennsylvania) a few months after the arrival of the Scott gift. During my two years there, I was able to observe the ways in which this generosity provided solid support for the university as it climbed out of the worst part of the pandemic, as it sought to further establish the university foundation, and as it suddenly needed to provide additional support for students in financial need and for the needs of the university for technological upgrades. Having this source of funding was critical then and remains a flexible fund for such needs because of its unrestricted nature.

As I transition from serving at that institution back to my alma mater — also an HBCU, but not a recipient of one of those gifts — I have chosen to reflect on the power of not just that gift, but any large unrestricted gift that might be provided to the type of institution where I was educated and now will have spent a portion of my career.

It is not an overstatement to say that gifts of this type are transformational in nature. That is because in most cases, seven and eight figure gifts are either once in a lifetime for HBCUs or extremely infrequent — with long stretches in between them. And, even if they were frequent, gifts of this size are generally offered with strict restrictions on how to use them as well as very structured reporting processes needed to prove that the money was used for the intended purpose, and only that purpose. The power of these recent large gifts can be seen in the ability for supported organizations to expand their footprints in various communities, and to be able to demonstrate that impact. In some cases staff numbers have been able to be increased in order to make the load less on previously small staffs. In large part, organizations were provided with a sense that their mission mattered.

Some observers have suggested that large unrestricted gifts might be too large for certain non-profits recipients to handle and to use wisely. This has not held true in the data collected to date. It is not clear whether this sentiment is expressed by individuals who have not had the opportunity to see the functions of small nonprofits from the inside or have only heard stories of challenge and struggle that sometimes emerge from a small percentage of struggling organizations. On the contrary, those of us who stand all too close to challenging balance sheets know firsthand how carefully gifts of any size are used. As noted, large gifts, especially those that are unrestricted in use, are not frequent. Thus, careful monitoring of financial support is critical.

This new wave of philanthropy, should the pattern of giving big, unrestricted gifts become normalized, can make a significant difference to lots of organizations. But at institutions like HBCUs, where endowments are small or non-existent, the possibility of more giving of this nature truly changes the game and can solidify opportunities for more innovation, for addressing some of the needs that appear without warning, and for broadening the impact on populations that are served by these institutions — institutions that were founded to push whole generations of learners to higher levels of economic empowerment. From where I sit now and for the future, I hope to see this trend continue and grow in order for many more organizations to thrive as their missions and visions are strongly supported.

Ava Willis-Barksdale is the former vice president for institutional advancement at Lincoln University and the executive director of the Lincoln University Foundation. She is now vice president of advancement and development at Oakwood University.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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