A Lesson in Donor Cultivation: Morgan State University

Morgan State University recently announced a $5 million gift from retired UPS senior executive Calvin Tyler and his wife Tina. This is one of the largest individual gifts given to an HBCU and the largest individual gift to Morgan State.

What I found most interesting about Tyler's gift is that he did not actually graduate from Morgan State. The first person in his family to attend college, Tyler enrolled at Morgan State in 1961 to pursue a degree in business. Just two years later, Tyler had to leave the Maryland institution due to financial hardship; a story that is quite familiar to low-income, first generation college students. A dedicated and hard worker, Tyler easily climbed up the corporate ladder, eventually serving as senior vice president at UPS until he retired in 1998.

As I've been researching alumni giving at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for decades, Tyler's story is particularly interesting to me. To date, I have interviewed over 1,000 alumni about their giving habits and Tyler is different. What we know is that those who don't finish college rarely give back to an institution. We also know that alumni giving rates at HBCUs are low -- with those at public HBCUs hovering near 5-6% and those at private HBCUs near 9-10%. Morgan State is doing something different and it's paying off.

Last year, I wrote an essay for the Huffington Post pertaining to Morgan State's alumni giving rate of 17%, which is substantially higher than that of the majority of public HBCUs. What I found is that the institution was employing myriad best practices in the area of fundraising and being deeply purposeful about its alumni interactions. Along with the fundraising staff, Morgan's president David Wilson, is educating alumni on the benefits of strong alumni participation, incentivizing alumni to give more and regularly, and meeting alumni where they want to give.

For years, research has told us that African-Americans, and especially HBCU alumni, prefer to give toward scholarships. The leadership at Morgan State is giving more and more of these opportunities to alumni. The case of Calvin Tyler is connected to this effort even though he did not graduate. Tyler, through his endowed scholarship fund, is helping those like him -- who may not be able to afford college -- to succeed. His focus is on students from Baltimore who have at least a 2.5 grade point average and have demonstrated determination to persist in college. President Wilson and his team were able to cultivate Tyler in ways that spoke to his interests, his experience, and his life.

From my vantage point, as a researcher studying HBCUs for over two decades and as the author or editor of many books on fundraising and two pertaining to fundraising at HBCUs, specifically, Morgan State is providing leadership for other public HBCUs. Unlike private HBCUs, public HBCUs are newer to the fundraising world -- just as most public institutions are. Alumni are often confused about the importance of their gifts due to the 'public' nature of the institutions. Morgan State is communicating the importance of alumni voices and contributions directly to alumni and it's working.

In recent years, I have seen quite a few public HBCUs increase their fundraising potential -- from North Carolina A&T University to Florida A&M University to Prairie View A&M University to Alabama State University. I am hopeful that the alumni giving rates of public HBCUs will increase in the years to come and that more individuals that have achieved great success like Calvin Tyler, will remember where they began their careers and consider creating opportunities for others. Unless HBCU alumni support their alma mater, it is nearly impossible to convince others of the value of these venerable institutions.