Dear Ms. Harriet,

I’ve come into a part of my life in which I’m able to give back a little something. I usually hang up quickly on solicitation calls, but I was happy to hear from my alma mater. My college years rocked. After anticipating 4 years of being a token, I showed up on campus to a critical mass of Us! We students of color received funding, got matched as roommates, and enrolled in classes focused on our own cultures, history, and people. We studied, partied, cheered, and eventually took the long walk together, graduating into the great unknown. Although many of us were first generation, we felt like we owned a part of the campus. Not perfect, but we felt like someone on campus wanted us there. Hearing from a current student brought up these good memories and, when she started making her pitch, more. 

Did the Development Office miss the diversity memo?

The caller described a whole different college from the one I attended. She talked about parents’ weekend. My family couldn’t afford to visit me and felt very out of place when they did at graduation. She waxed on about football games and pep rallies. Me and my friends went to basketball games, step shows, and soccer matches. She described being a full-time student in ways that assumed no students worked or obtained loans. She talked as if the 1960s through the 1990s never happened even though our university was at the forefront of a good deal of student unrest that helped make it what it is today. I felt embarrassed for her and our college.

Should I tell them?

As a student, I took part in focus groups, answered surveys, and talked openly with college staff. I think it helped us have a better overall experience. But, my alma mater’s vision for diversity seems to only extend to recruitment and student life. It’s as if the Development Office missed the diversity memo. It made me wonder what other offices missed it.

Some of the staff I felt pretty close to at my old college are still there. Should tell them about this? And, here’s the real question, should I donate? It seems beyond what’s expected of the usual ‘how did we do’ surveys so pervasive today even though I continue to feel an allegiance. Do other alum feel the same way about their alma maters?

Best, Enlightened and now burdened

Dear Enlightened and now burdened,

Solicitation calls from my alma mater bring back good memories for me too! And, I hear ya, that’s not all they bring up. Still, judging from what you wrote, I can’t tell what bothers you most about the recent call you received. Figuring this out may help you determine what to do. 

The call seeking funds may have reminded you of a bigger need… to end bias.

If the person with how whom you spoke got under your skin, that’s easy. Next time you receive a call, ask about the African-American theme dorm or mention a favorite professor of color. If you hear other callers in the background, you could even ask to speak with any students of color who happen to be making calls that day. Such tactics may help the caller stop assuming everyone experiences college in the same way. But, the impact may not go beyond her or her circle of friends.

About The Ask

If you’re asking how to get an institution to hear—or act on—your concern, that can be trickier. The student likely read a carefully crafted script. A lot of effort goes into preparing such scripts and The Ask they convey. Fundraisers deliberate over who asks you for a donation (someone you know or someone with a title), when to ask (close to graduation or after some lifetime milestone), how (online, by phone, in person), and more. Fundraising is a business, even if some think running a college is not. The economy continues to grow stronger. But, universities are increasingly pressed to get donations. Potential donors, especially ones with deep pockets, tend to be less diverse. This pattern may explain the caller’s failure to acknowledge diversity matters.

Sending a message to or talking with a staff member you know may result in more people behind the script becoming aware of its shortcomings. But, the adage about having strength in numbers applies here. It’s great that you and your friends once formed a critical mass. Y’all could send a jointly written message. Sign the letter with the name of your student group if you had one. Note too that the chance that your college will hear your message may increase if you, individually or especially collectively, make a donation. This response may help usher in the kind of momentum needed to change bias involved in charitable giving.

Getting institutions to hear us

Finally, is the problem more broad-based? The caller may not have convinced you of your alma mater’s need, but instead reminded you of a bigger one: to end bias. Afterall, education helps, but it’s not a cure-all for every social ill. Perhaps you’re wondering what impact your hard-earned money can truly have.

Ebonie Johnson, a leader in philanthropic matters, encourages mindful giving as can be accomplished by giving in a collective and targeted fashion. This strategy may help counteract an emerging trend regarding the impact of philanthropy on the part of the ultra-rich. Check out Black Philanthropy Month. And, be aware that there’s an effort afoot to bring about change in philanthropy, a matter of importance to us Ones and our allies whose very existence means change.

Giving back while Black

The decision of whether to give is up to you. Figuring out how to give can feel burdensome. Identifying your priorities can help you determine how to impact issues you consider important. Whether you give in little ways (like with a smile), provide feedback, or make large financial contributions, please remember it all counts.

–Signed, Dear Ms. Harriet