Why HBCUs Have to Harvest Philanthropy From Pettiness

03/02/2015 02:27 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Last year, I gave more than $10,000 to my church, $1,500 to Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and $150 dollars to my alma mater, Morgan State University. In the time it will take me to finish this column, I could have driven to Morgan, walked into the development office, pledged to give $150 monthly through automatic deduction, and come back home.

But I won't. And considering where I live and what I do for a living, and the countless ways in which Morgan is responsible for both my lifestyle and vocation, that makes me petty and hypocritical. 

All of the best things that have happened in my adult life, are a direct result of Morgan's influence. I met my wife on the campus after Morgan gave me my first real job out of college. I met some of my close friends there as a student. Working journalists taught me the craft on that campus. Several black men whom I regard as mentors, I met there.

I owe Morgan, and I have no excuses for my behavior. But I won't make good on the due balance because I am petty. I don't like the direction of our school's leadership. I don't like its political nature, its disconnection from real issues which impact and could improve our campus, and that so many in the national HBCU community and state legislature laugh and shake their heads at the spectacle our administration has become.

Unlike some of you reading this, I have the benefit of having served in an executive capacity at Morgan to know enough details about why things are the way they are. And I have a large enough platform to share my feelings and to have them become a part of the national discussion about HBCU challenges and value. 

But those things aside, I am just like millions of HBCU students and graduates all over the country and the world. There is something I dislike about my alma mater, and until it is fixed, or at least until I am appeased about why it can't be fixed right now, I don't support the school in the way that I should. For some of you, you don't give because you don't like the direction of the athletics program. Or you think the national alumni association president has an attitude all of the time.

Or because they lost your transcripts 20 years ago and cost you a job. Or because your professor refused to round up those tenths of a point to the next highest grade on your final. Or maybe they just haven't asked you to give.

Hey, I feel your pain. 

In a perfect world, we all would be moral, mature and spiritual enough to see beyond our own dissatisfaction and to think of the students who could use our gifts. We should think that, if we just set an example, perhaps our positive energy and action will influence others to do the same thing -- and perhaps our singular commitments could transform into something sustainable for HBCU giving.

If we did that, maybe we could make the next FAMU 10 for 10, the next Southern 'True Blue' campaign, or the next Spelman 'Every Woman, Every Year' campaign. 

But I'm not confident that the people in charge of my school feel as I do. So I reconcile in my mind that giving is a sign of support; a showing of confidence in leadership in which I do not believe. And my feelings weren't shaped by bad experiences on campus, or a lack of solid income -- I just do not see the difference between leadership at my school and leadership at other HBCUs where a lack of leadership acumen is silently draining the school of its appeal, morale and resources.

I do just enough to count towards the alumni giving rate, and to be able to say I helped beyond a five-dollar gift.

I know better, yet I do my worst. Maya Angelou would be so disappointed in me.

Fortunately, other Morganites are not as stubborn and ignorant as I am. The school annually raises between $4-5 million in alumni gifts and pledges. They do just fine without my $1,800 a year. But when you multiply my anxiety times the 20 people I personally know who feel the exact same way or stronger, add it to the hundreds of students who exit Morgan every year with the same attitude, and add that to hundreds of employees and the thousands of alumni nationwide, you get a sense that four to five million could easily be 10 to 12 million annually if people weren't so upset about a variety of issues. 

Morgan State and other HBCUs must learn how to extract philanthropy from the pettiness; to find a way to reach the people who are upset with the university for legitimate and illegitimate reasons, and to find a way to convince them to give and support in spite of their discontent.

Advancement and development teams can spend months and years building relationships with wealthy individuals and families in the hope of a one-time sizable gift, but won't invest in the resources to cultivate small gifts from hundreds or thousands of people every year. Magazines and emails are not enough -- not in 2015, and not when funding disparities from federal and state sources are quickly shutting off support to black colleges.

Presidents and board members will spend time chatting up politicians, business leaders and celebrities for favor which never seems to come, all while forgetting those influential alumni who can, with one Facebook post, five phone calls or an email forwarded to 10 people, deliver a group of donors who has not seen or desired to see the campus in years.

Be they teammates, roommates, frat brothers, sorority sisters, bandmates or classmates -- no HBCU graduate ever walks alone. 

Every problem can't be fixed. You can't go back and have a nasty professor apologize for student mistreatment they probably don't remember. You can't erase memories of long lines, tasteless cafeteria food, dilapidated dorms or campus jobs that some angry graduates didn't get.

But HBCUs can acknowledge their mistakes, educate on the ties between customer service and campus shortcomings and underfunding, and solicit the feedback on how to improve their systems and campus culture for the next generation of graduates. 

Too many of us have not been good to our HBCUs, but time and dwindling resources are moving faster than our own individual maturity. And for the HBCUs which need the support, the time for harvest is now; even from unyielding crops like me.