Andrew Carnegie. Howard Hughes. Bill Gates. For generations, wealthy men and women in America have donated some portion of their fortunes, or most of it, to philanthropic causes–often to scientific research, health care, or education. But how much of that generosity is blessing HBCU coffers?
Recently, a group of six research-funding foundations—most bearing the names of famous billionaires, including Hughes, Gordon Moore, and Jim Simons—was formed to explore ways of increasing the philanthropic contribution to basic research. Already, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, or SPA, has helped 17 of the top US research universities—among them, Yale University—to set up a Research Fund to attract new and existing donors. There’s no word yet on whether any of the HBCU research universities have been or will be invited by SPA to set up a University Research Fund.
Not surprisingly, some of the 17 universities already have strong ties to SPA principals, including Caltech, alma mater of Intel cofounder Moore, and Stony Brook University, where hedge-fund billionaire Simons taught math. HBCUs aren’t quite as fortunate: Less than 10% of HBCU alumni nationwide give to their schools, and less than 0.001% of wealthy blacks give to black colleges, notes HBCU Digest’s Jarrett Carter Sr.
This summer, for example, the family foundation of NBA megastar Lebron James—whose net worth tops $425 million—announced it would provide four-year scholarships, worth about $41 million, for roughly 2300 children from Lebron’s hometown to attend the hometown school, the University of Akron. Lebron, who skipped college for the NBA, has no official ties to the university.
Many minority children will likely benefit from Lebron’s generosity, and that’s a great thing. But Carter Sr. points to Lebron’s gift as yet another case of HBCUs missing the philanthropic moment. That sentiment is reflected in one of the most recent articles on HBCUMoney.com, which notes, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that HBCUs had “almost no where to go but up” after receiving only one donation in 2013 that was worth $1 million or more—the article reports that HBCUs received nine donations totalling $1 million or more in 2014.
The article notes that HBCUs have not been able to attract the “transformative donors who can change the paradigm of an institution with one donation.” For example, in June of this year, the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Science received a $400 million from Harvard alum and hedge-fund manager John Paulson. And in 2013, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $350 million to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University. In contrast, the largest donation to an HBCU in 2014 was a $4.4-million gift to Dallas-based Paul Quinn College from Trammell S. Crow (whose family made its fortune in real estate). Possibly the largest-ever single philanthropic donation to an HBCU was Bill and Camille Cosby’s $20 million to Spelman College in 1988—that endowment has now been suspended in light of rape allegations against Bill Cosby.
There are glimmers of hope. Technology companies, including Apple, have begun to donate to HBCUs and organizations that support them in an effort to diversify the infamously predominantly white and male Silicon Valley workforce. But for HBCU researchers, a University Research Fund, like the ones SPA is setting up, would have a more direct impact. It would serve as a concrete means of motivating—and more importantly, growing—the HBCU donor base.
All that’s left now is to convince transformative philanthropists like Lebron to support HBCU research.