More Giving by Affluent Blacks Urged
For a moment, the crowd stood stunned. It had just been announced that entertainer Bill Cosby and his wife had contributed $20 million to Spelman College, a prestigious black women’s institution in Atlanta.
It would have been a significant sum even in white philanthropic circles, but for the largely black audience it was nearly unbelievable. The gift was equivalent to the college’s annual budget. It was more than the combined alumnae contributions since the school’s founding 107 years ago. And it was even more than all black Americans contributed last year to the United Negro College Fund.
There were applause, laughter, shouts of jubilation and even tears of joy. But as Cosby accepted the adulation, he issued this sobering challenge to the 2,000 alumnae and friends hobnobbing last month over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres:
“Mrs. Cosby and I did not throw that gauntlet down to show off. I think we all understand that these schools need money, but I think we’ve accepted that some white people are either going to keep them alive or let them go.”
With that sentence, Cosby pulled back the covers on a festering debate and a sore point in black America and in the larger philanthropic community: the question of whether those black people who have achieved affluence are doing enough to support the people and institutions that helped get them there.
It is an old question, but in recent years it has taken on a greater urgency. Federal budget cuts to social programs have caused black organizations and institutions to look within the black community for more support. Consequently, they are pressing to get the broadened black middle class to reach out more to the growing number who are looking for help.
In the last 20 years, the gap between rich and poor blacks has widened. The Census Bureau reports that, adjusting for inflation, the number of black households making less than $5,000 increased by 1.7% from 1967 to 1986. But at the same time, four times as many black families moved solidly into middle-income status, with the number of black American households making the 1967 equivalent of $35,000 or more tripling.
It is this growing group of affluent blacks that is under fire--the hundreds of thousands who have walked through the doors of opportunity opened by civil rights gains into positions that earlier were virtually unattainable.
Two new studies show that blacks indeed contribute about the same percentage of their time and money as whites
But many blacks still argue that that is not enough--that those new doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, journalists, corporate managers, personnel directors, entrepreneurs, technicians and bureaucrats who come from their ranks are simply not giving their fair share in time or money.
“They have no sense of reciprocity at all,” complained Methodist Bishop H. H. Brookins, who is familiar with fund raising as a minister and through his involvement in politics and civil rights. “It’s a ‘Now that I’ve got it, the ones behind me get it for yourself. Get me my poodles, my pills and my paradise.’ That’s the tragedy of the whole thing. You don’t have enough caring middle-class (blacks) who feel that they owe something to the generation that follows.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who raised $8 million primarily from blacks during his presidential campaign, said he also perceived a lack of commitment among the young black middle class.
“Unfortunately, many of today’s young middle class do not see themselves as picking up apples that have fallen from the tree that somebody else shook,” Jackson said.
Many Institutions Failing
Consequently, Jackson, Brookins and others said, black organizations and institutions are as financially strained as ever. Black colleges, health-care facilities and legal-aid operations are failing or tottering on the brink. In Dallas, 100-year-old Bishop College folded last spring. Fisk University in Nashville is struggling mightily to stay afloat. Other black colleges report that they are close to going under.
“It’s very strange that what older black people did with nickels and dimes, we can’t do with thousands of dollars,” said Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP. “It is a major failing of the black community.”
“The black cause remains the same,” Brookins said, “a lot of cursing and no capital. Every time Ben (Hooks) calls, he’s strapped for money. (Operation) PUSH is strapped for money. SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) is strapped.”
On the other hand, Emmett Carson, director of a still-to-be-released three-year study on black philanthropy for the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, questions the assumption that a lack of black support is the problem. The study, based on a series of polls conducted by the Gallup organization, shows that blacks volunteer and donate money at about the same rate as whites, he said.
“Consistently, if you control for household income for blacks and whites, we found that similar percentages of blacks and whites contribute,” Carson said. “That goes against the grain that blacks aren’t giving their fair share. The sense that blacks don’t give to black things doesn’t hold up.”
In fact, the study, to be made public next month, showed that, as a ratio of the population, 10% more blacks contribute to United Way than whites. In another new study of giving, the Independent Sector, a Washington-based umbrella organization for some 600 charities, found similar results. Blacks donate a slightly smaller portion of their income, but volunteer at a slightly higher rate than whites, the study showed.
Danny Bakewell, director of the Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles, said he discovered early in the formation of the 20-year-old organization that blacks do give. Brotherhood Crusade, a United Way-like agency, depends almost exclusively on black contributions for the $1.5 million it doles out to various programs.
“We got into the game thinking that black people didn’t give,” Bakewell said. “Black people give more generously than any people on the planet. While white people will say blacks ought to stop begging, here is a premier black institution that depends on black people. The problem is that we do not give to ourselves. The real art of charitable giving is the institutionalized giving, and that means payroll deduction, and we are largely locked out of that.”
Cheryl Dennis, director of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in Philadelphia, said she often believed that blacks were not doing their fair share as she watched the waiting list of black children grow longer and longer in the absence of enough black volunteers.
“I would go to speak before black fraternities and walk in with the attitude that ‘These guys don’t give,’ ” she said. “And then you talk to them and you realize that a lot of them are giving. I talked to one fraternity recently and they had adopted projects through the Philadelphia area. Some were working in summer camps, others were working in housing projects.”
But black fund-raisers and those whose job it is to keep various organizations afloat say what they see doesn’t necessarily square with Carson’s figures.
As evidence, they point to alumni support of the black colleges from which much of the nation’s black middle class has emerged.
Difference in Support
Clarence Jupiter, vice president for development at Xavier University in New Orleans, noted the difference in alumni support between Vanderbilt, a predominantly white private school in Nashville, and Howard University in Washington, often called the premier private black college. The two schools, roughly the same size, each have an annual operating budget of just over $200 million.
Vanderbilt solicited 68,000 alumni and received donations from 21,801. Howard solicited 35,840 alumni, and received gifts from only 2,860, Jupiter said.
He said the record at his own school, Xavier, wasn’t much better.
“Out of $4.5 million we raised in private donations, the alumni gave less than $300,000,” he said. “What does that tell you? We’re talking about piddling numbers. That’s why there is a temptation for some colleges to forgo alumni contributions and just depend on white corporations and foundations.” But we feel all you can do is try to get those numbers up, because if you want to call it a black college, your people ought to be in the forefront to support it.”
Those foundations and corporations are saying the same thing, fund-raisers said.
“Foundations place the value of an institution at no higher than the alumni places the value of the institution,” said Dr. Walter Stafford, vice president in charge of fund raising and alumni affairs at Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Tex. “If the alumni don’t give, then (foundations) don’t give.”
Those who raise money for those colleges as well as other black institutions said that future giving must come from the new middle class.
“The vast majority of black college graduates before the civil rights era became schoolteachers,” Juniper said. “They made a good living, but they didn’t make a lot of money. Talking about parting with $100 to them was a big thing. It’s a mind-set.
“In the 1970s, a lot more graduates went into jobs and careers where they were much better off. They work for private industry and in corporations. They make a lot more money. When they go out to a nightclub, they might spend $100. Hopefully, they will see guys giving to Stanford and Caltech, Yale, Harvard, Vanderbilt, Tulane and think about their own schools.”
The alumni they are targeting are ‘70s graduates like Patrice Johnson, chief of staff for Texas Congressman Mickey Leland; Erskine Tucker Jr., associate manager for target marketing at Procter & Gamble, and Los Angeles artist Varnette Honeywood.
Johnson, 34, a 1976 graduate of Fisk University, said she gives $100 to the school in a bad year and $1,000 when times are better.
“A lot of black folks struggled before us to create the opportunities for our generation,” Johnson said. “So, we have an obligation to continue the struggle, and a part of that struggle is giving money where it’s needed.”
Tucker, 27, a Cornell graduate, is chairman of his fraternity’s effort to counsel young black males to take responsibility for preventing teen-age pregnancies. He also heads the Junior Achievement program for 24 youngsters gathered from four all-black Cincinnati high schools.
“I’m doing it because someone did that kind of stuff for me,” said Tucker, whose father is a graduate of a black college. “Frankly, if I don’t and we don’t, nobody else is going to.”
Honeywood, a 1972 Spelman graduate, began donating her art work six years ago for use in fund raising.
“In my own life, I’ve seen that it’s a commitment that you make,” said the popular artist whose work is prominently displayed on the set of “The Cosby Show.” “My father went to Grambling, and every year he gives money to them and to Meharry (Medical School in Nashville). My sister and I give money to Howard and Bennett College (in Greensboro, N.C.).”
So far, however, fund-raisers report that the statistics do not show this age group adequately meeting the challenge. This may be partly a function of age, fund-raisers said. Those who have been in the workplace a shorter time have less disposable income. And, they said, black institutions often fail to aggressively pursue that group for contributions.
But part of the problem is a failure of young people to recognize the importance of those organizations, they said.
“Many of the young people don’t support the NAACP because they take for granted the rights and privileges, things that they got from the NAACP, without giving them credit for helping secure them for us,” said Stafford of Huston-Tillotson.
Regardless of the cause of lukewarm giving, Hooks and others said they intend to redouble their efforts to bring the new middle class more firmly into the ranks of those supporting those organizations.
“We have to recapture the spirit of giving,” Hooks said. “Otherwise, as a race, we’re doomed.”