At a time when many historically black colleges and universities are facing economic challenges, thanks in large part to slashed federal appropriations and decreased availability of financial aid, Howard University alumni have chosen Valentine's Day to launch a fundraising initiative that rejects the panic about scarcity and the alumni-giving guilt trips that have accompanied recent headlines about their alma mater. They're focusing, instead, on harnessing one thing they say graduates have always had in abundance: love.
The I Love Howard campaign, a grassroots effort by three alumni of the Washington, D.C., school, has an initial goal of raising $20,000 for Howard's endowment. The campaign, which will merge an appeal for giving through its newly launched website with alumni-hosted fundraisers and a social media campaign, was announced today.
Campaign chair Michelle Janaye, a 2007 Howard graduate, said she hopes to raise the full amount by October of this year, handing a check to university officials during the school's annual fall homecoming celebration, and to then set higher goals for additional giving.
"With few exceptions, I've never seen an alumni community cherish, represent and promote their school as much as Howard University graduates do. So our thinking is that if you love something, you will invest in it. The campaign is about putting your money where your love is," she said.
HBCU expert Mary Beth Gasman, professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Institutions, told The Root last year that HBCUs in general fall short when it comes to translating school pride to donation checks, and could do a much better job soliciting contributions from alumni. That, says Janaye, is where I Love Howard plans to step in, addressing what she calls the "anemic tide of giving among HBCU graduates" by combining requests for dollars with a social media-friendly, nostalgia- and pride-inspiring component.
"HBCU pride doesn't pay HBCU bills," she said. "So we want your money. But we also want your stories. Send in videos. Use the hashtag. Tell us why you love Howard. Host a fundraiser. Host an event."
Most HBCUs have struggled in recent years in the face of new restrictions on the federal loans on which many students depend, combined with decreased federal appropriations. But Howard also saw a president abruptly resign and suffered a downgrade of its credit rating by Moody's Investors Service. It also recently announced that it would cut about 200 staff positions.
And especially since a trustee threatened in a June 2013 letter that the school "could not be here in three years" if crucial decisions weren't made, officials—despite their assertions that demand is at an all-time high, that the freshman class has the highest GPA in the school's history and that the school has a positive operating balance—have struggled to redirect public perceptions about the university's outlook.
"I absolutely think we change the headlines with this campaign," Janaye said. "No one envisions Howard closing in three years or 300 years, so that's not even what we're focusing on. Instead, we want to galvanize not only the Howard alumni community but HBCUs across the country, informing them about what the needs are and inspiring them to raise money for those needs."
Gasman agrees that harnessing alumni love for a school can be an effective fundraising tactic but thinks the campaign should aim higher if it's going make a real dent in the university's financial challenges. "It could be even more ambitious. Howard alumni are successful and could sacrifice more to help Howard. $20,000 is a very low goal," she said.
The campaign is urging supporters to tag blog posts and videos in support of its fundraising efforts, starting today, with the hashtag "#ilovehoward."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.