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Untangling Diversity
Untangling Diversity

Weaving communities of color into your advancement program

By Maura King Scully

Diversity. Unless you've been living your professional life under a rock, you're familiar with the term. You've probably attended workshops and trainings or served on a task force aimed at fostering diversity on campus or on your alumni board. Yet, for many institutions, diversity still remains elusive.

Beyond agreeing that diversity is important, most whites just don't know what to do about it. And while many schools have made great strides in diversifying their student bodies, advancement offices have more than a little catching up to do.

And they had better do it quickly. Demographic projections show that today, 74 percent of the U.S. population is white, but in 40 years, whites will make up only 48 percent, meaning 52 percent will be people of color. So institutions need to start doing a better job now of engaging and cultivating alumni from diverse backgrounds if they want not only to thrive but also to survive.

Diversity defined

What is diversity? The answer isn't as straightforward as you might think. Its definition can vary by institutional type and physical location. For example, diversity at science-driven schools could refer to gender. For institutions in large urban areas like Chicago, diversity may mean ethnicity; in Maine, the term might cover socioeconomic status. "It's important for institutions to figure out what diversity is for them and then to look at staff and volunteers to see if they reflect that diversity," says Rob Henry, CASE's executive director of emerging constituencies.

For purposes of this article, let's consider racial diversity, a complex phenomenon in and of itself. After all, no racial group is a monolith: There are shades and nuances within each. Talk to anyone in the Asian community, and you'll learn that Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Japanese peoples present wide-ranging cultural differences and preferences.

In the Hispanic community, "there are Cubans, who emigrated primarily from wealth, and Central Americans, who tend to be poor," explains Frank Alvarez, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation. "Mexican and South American populations are a mix. And in New Mexico, there are no Hispanics or Latinos-there are Hispanos. They didn't immigrate: They were living there when the U.S. annexed the Southwest from Mexico."

It's important to be aware of differences when undertaking any kind of targeted outreach, lest you unknowingly insult the very people you're trying to attract. The HSF is well acquainted with these intricacies. A national organization, it raises more than $25 million annually from individuals, companies, and community groups across the country. How does it do this? Carefully.

Alvarez explains: "I'm from California. So I'm not going to go into South Texas and tell them what they need to do down there and how they need to do it," he says. "In Miami, I've hired a Cuban to be my eyes and ears in that community."

Beyond the good

Diversity is complicated, yes. But meeting and championing it in your advancement programs is fast becoming a business imperative. "The traditional market for philanthropy is saturated," notes Henry. "If you want to grow volunteerism and philanthropy at your institution, it's going to mean reaching out to untapped groups." And for most institutions, "untapped groups" means alumni in diverse communities.

Need proof? In the United States, demographics projections show that by 2020, people of color will comprise between 31 and 40 percent of the population. In California, non-Latino whites are already in the minority. "By 2050, that jumps to 52 percent," says Marybeth Gasman, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Division of Higher Education and an expert in black philanthropy.

Institutions are seeing these demographic shifts reflected on campus among current students. "Enrollment of students of color has jumped 146 percent over the past 10 years," notes Gasman. "Today, 36 percent of college students are students of color." And you don't need to be a demographer to figure out how that will affect your alumni and development programs.

Clearly, the next generation of committed volunteers and donors needs to include graduates from these groups. Developing a robust, diverse advancement program today, then, will pay dividends for years to come. Conversely, miss the boat today, and you'll pay dearly 10 years from now.

And it's a quick jump from demographics to dollars. If you want to expand your program, you'll need to engage alumni of color. Yet, most institutions haven't done a good job in cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding these graduates because there's a perception that they don't have money. Not true. Combined, these groups have trillion-dollar buying power for consumer goods. Research shows that diverse groups do give money, albeit in ways different than whites.

Latinos, for example, are more likely to send money abroad to family members. "African-Americans give a higher percentage of their income than whites and at a younger age-but they give it to their churches," says Gasman. "They don't have to give it to their churches, but they do because the church asks." Families and churches, of course, don't publish donor lists, so these dollars are missed in traditional wealth screenings.

Diversity-as-business-imperative is a fine bottom-line argument. But for an organization to truly harness the power of diversity, it has to reach deeper than pecuniary concerns. Beyond the numbers must be the conviction that honoring and cultivating diversity on campus and in the advancement offices is the right thing to do.

"The practical, pragmatic answer is that diversity equals strength, equals productivity and a better bottom line," says Gasman. "But the answer from my heart and from my gut is that you pay attention to diversity because you believe it's important and you want to treat every single person with the same dignity and respect."

Off-track attempts

You've heard the definition of insanity: doing something once and getting a bad result, then continuing to do it, expecting a better outcome. When it comes to engaging and cultivating alumni of color, however, that's exactly what many advancement offices do.

Alvarez, who spent 35 years as a health care executive, made this surprising discovery about philanthropy since joining HSF in 2007. "The whole fundraising process is designed to chase after limited dollars: shortsighted, one-time giving," he says. "This doesn't work, especially within the Hispanic community, where it comes down to personal relationships."

The annual fund, with its mass mailings and cold communications pieces, is designed to be productive. "But it's a very impersonal way of doing business," he continues. "Universities do relationship-building very well with people of wealth. But if they want to bring along people of color, they need to do more on the smaller end and find out, what do those potential donors want? Who are they?"

By design, mass mailings like solicitations and reunion invitations are intended to appeal to mainstream alumni. The problem is that many alumni of color felt like outsiders while on campus. "At my undergrad institution, I often felt invisible," says Christal Cherry, national director of groups, alumni, and faith partnerships at the United Negro College Fund. "There were very few courses or events centered around my culture."

No surprise then that Cherry hasn't been back to campus in years. What would it take to get her to return? "Personal outreach," she says. "If someone from my sorority or the gospel choir called and said, 'Hey, we're all coming back, why don't you?' I'd probably go."

This is precisely the kind of targeted messaging planners of the University of North Carolina Alumni Association adopted in marketing their highly successful Black Family Reunion. "Many African-American alumni don't go to the 5-, 10-, and 15-year reunions," says Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, who is an alumni organizer and director of postdoctoral affairs. "Their affinity may be with their fraternity or sorority or the African-American cultural center. Their friends are more likely to span class years."

That's why UNC reached beyond class affiliation to draw 1,400 graduates to the weekend, from a pool of 14,000 black alumni. "We targeted different cohorts. For the '50s and '60s, we developed a Black Pioneers program, recognizing the earliest African-American students. For the '90s, we centered the message on the milestone event of that decade: creating a free-standing black cultural center on campus."

Organizations can also get off-track in their choice of alumni leaders. It's a mistake to pick the top African-American donor and make that person the chair of your African-American alumni campaign. Why? "Because he may not be recognized as a leader within the black community," says Henry. "You need to be careful."

Another misstep is holding events at venues that could be viewed as off-putting to some constituents, like elite country clubs. "Be thoughtful about who goes to country clubs," notes Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of the Iowa State University Alumni Association. "Is it frequented by younger people, or people of color? If not, those two groups will immediately take themselves out of the pool. If you find you're not drawing diverse alumni to your events, ask why."

Speaking their language

In learning what turns off diverse alumni groups, you may also discover what resonates with them. "Messages of racial uplift work with African-Americans," notes Anderson-Thompkins of UNC. "There's a strong tradition of giving back and helping the next generation succeed. Black people give to specific things. They want to know where the money is going, what it will do, and then after the fact, what it did."

Recently, fundraising appeals to African-American alumni at UNC have centered on the Light on the Hill Society Scholarship, which supports African-American students with unmet financial need. At the UNC Black Alumni Reunion, "we awarded the first four scholarships at an event during the weekend," she says, noting the group is now trying to raise enough money to endow the fund. Though the event was held to celebrate the alumni and engage them in the community, UNC did weave in messages about giving back.

In the Hispanic community, "giving comes from involvement," notes Alvarez. "You're not going to get money the first time you ask, usually." Like African-Americans, Hispanics tend not to be unrestricted givers. They want to give to a cause that speaks to them. "If the college says, 'We want to double the number of Hispanic graduates in the next decade,' we'll support it," he says. "We want to see a solutions approach, and for the institution to make a commitment and then be held accountable."

To do this kind of targeted outreach, you need to understand your diverse communities-what makes them tick, what motivates them-in order to craft an effective message. That's difficult for many traditionally white colleges.

"Predominantly white institutions often feel funny about market segmenting by race," says Gasman. "'Would it be bad to target a publication to African-Americans?' they ask." Considering that advancement offices target every other group from business school graduates to zoology majors, it seems a nonsensical question. Why not tailor solicitations and invitations to diverse groups? Gasman reports that a large liberal arts college in the Northeast does produce targeted publications that have successfully drawn more African-American alumni back to events like a reunion.

Business as un-usual

Something as radical as segmenting by race is a bold leap-and that's exactly what's required if advancement wants to attract new and different types of graduates. In fact, reaching out to diverse groups may call for rethinking the whole advancement program. Special events, for example, have long been anathema in advancement because of the high time-to-return ratio. For most diverse groups, however, community is a strong draw.

"Special events work because they are communal; they draw on commonalities," says Henry. "For these groups, they're an effective engagement tool even if don't raise a lot of money."

A few years ago, the Iowa State University Alumni Association evaluated its programs and realized it was missing certain groups of graduates. "We looked at markets we're not serving well-younger graduates and more diverse graduates. And we asked, Can we enhance the products we're offering? Could we offer new products?" notes Johnson.

In 2005, the association launched a Black College Reunion, which was well received. The weekend included a dinner featuring the university president as the speaker, as well as some not-so-typical reunion events: an alumni basketball tournament, a Sunday-morning worship service, and programs centered around the Black Cultural Center. Following the weekend, attendees created their own Web site. "They wanted to show all of their friends how their lives have expanded," he says.

"I've learned a heck of a lot just by looking around the site," says Johnson. "They share information about when they were back on campus; how they felt about a certain professor, class, event, or recent happening. We also get photos, alternate e-mails, and great demographic information that we can feed right into our system." Now, working with a volunteer steering committee, the alumni association is tinkering with the formula to decide how often to hold the reunion and how to reach out to other groups.

So, special events work well with alumni of color. What else does? You would know the answer if your advancement staff included people from these communities. An all-white staff means you're missing out on valuable information that would contribute to your organization's success.

"There continues to be an absence of African-American advancement folks," says Anderson-Thompkins, echoing the lament of other diverse populations. "And the ones that are there tend to be in lower positions so they're not the ones crafting the messages. Colleges and universities are losing out on a whole perspective."

The lack of diverse advancement officers then becomes a Catch-22: It's harder to recruit employees of color because they don't see people like themselves around the office. And even if organizations manage to draw them, they can feel isolated, which makes retention difficult.

How can you break the cycle?

"Schools need to look harder at transferable skills," says Henry. If someone is an attorney or was in sales, she'd likely make a fine major gifts, planned giving, or alumni officer with a bit of training. Another promising strategy is growing your own-cultivating students from diverse communities as volunteers and student workers.

UNC, for example, has a successful student ambassador group: "African-American students who work at the alumni association assisted with the Black Family Reunion," says Anderson-Thompkins. "This helps set the expectation that they will get involved and volunteer after graduation." With luck, it may also interest one or two of them in a career in advancement.

But there's no point in recruiting nontraditional fundraisers if you're going to limit them to doing the same old thing. "Train them in the traditional fundraising methods, but then give them freedom to do grass-roots work as well," says Alvarez. After all, working at the grass-roots level can uncover a rich network of diverse volunteers who could eventually serve on the board of visitors, trustees, or the alumni association.

Believe it or not, diversity-in all its complexity-comes down to what those in advancement know best: the power of personal relationships. Advancement professionals are already skilled in meeting people and bringing them closer to their alma mater by matching their needs and interests with those of the institution. Now institutions just need to put that knowledge to work in diverse communities, with the help of alumni who know those groups best.

Perhaps it's not that complicated after all.

About the Author Maura King Scully Maura King Scully

Maura King Scully is a freelance writer and a former staff member of the Boston College Alumni Association.




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