Talking Shop: Visibility and Vision
Vita Pickrum has spent more than a decade in advancement marshalling support for Delaware State University students and connecting with her peers in development at historically Black colleges and universities. Here’s why, she says, strategic focus and showcasing impact are crucial today.
What led you to found the HBCU Philanthropy Symposium in 2010?
I was working with our university’s president cultivating a major foundation that was then an anchor for HBCUs. We were having a conversation about funding, and the then president of the foundation said to me, “Vita, we don’t fund single sites anymore.”
At that time, many foundations were changing their philosophy on funding to have a larger footprint. Institutions the size of Delaware State didn’t seem like enough of an impact. If we were having this issue, so were other schools. I called a few of my colleagues to join forces.
Three schools came together: Delaware State, Morgan State, and Cheyney University. And that was the birth of the HBCU Philanthropy Symposium. Since then, it’s continued to grow; we’ve had 54 HBCUs participate.
It’s established a bond between HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, and now even some predominantly white institutions have attended because of the knowledge that’s presented. The networking is so important. It’s a safe space to ask any question—an environment much like an HBCU. Large school, small school: We’re all facing the same types of challenges.
What is one challenge you see for HBCUs today?
One is knowing your brand, your strengths; the direction and vision of your university; and what you want to be good at. Knowing that is important. Often, when you have a change in leadership, funders get nervous. So, one thing that’s a challenge for HBCUs is building confidence in our brand—that we’re institutions of high quality. We graduate more people of color in the major professions [such as law or medicine] than any other universities, large or small.
How have you applied that approach—focusing on institutional strengths—in your work?
You have to focus on where you want to be and what conversation you want individuals to have about your institution. When I started, I spent a lot of time understanding the strengths of the university: what were the things we wanted to anchor on, like supporting students, supporting our knowledge, or assisting the community or state in transformation. Identifying those areas, we were able to align those with interests in the community and from corporations and foundations. We’ve been really focused on the opportunities we’ve pursued from a revenue perspective, to make sure they are in line with the goals of the university.
For instance, 10 years ago, other institutions were being quite successful in getting funds for cybersecurity programs. But that wasn’t a focus area of ours at the time. The tendency is to say, “We should get some of that revenue,” but it may not be the right move for you to take at that time, if you can’t be successful because you haven’t built the capacity to perform.
HBCUs have made headlines amid conversations about race in America and with MacKenzie Scott’s gifts to HBCUs (including Delaware State). What challenges or opportunities does this national spotlight present?
An area of challenge is having philanthropists see us not just in times of crisis. We’ve never seen the type of attention now being paid to HBCUs in the history of our institutions. Why is that? The institutions haven’t changed. That’s something that, as a society, we need to address. The good thing is that it is [happening] now, and it gives us an opportunity to show the value of our institutions across society, not just from educating students but also in developing communities and being part of the discussions about how we all rise together as citizens of the United States and the world.
To bring it back to advancement, our role is to look at how we’re going to sustain our schools—but also how do we advance the knowledge we provide as institutions to assist society.
How can all higher education institutions work to build more inclusive cultures?
All of us come to higher education with our own lenses on life, developed from our lived experiences. How do you come together, as one, to move forward an agenda or work together? When you’re in an environment where the lens of the majority is the only acceptable one, then you have more challenges. It’s a cultural change and being open to viewing life through a lens other than your own. The tone is set by the president of the university and the leadership, but for institutions to be successful, they have to be open to hear all the voices and find that common ground.
About the author(s)
Meredith Barnett is the Manager of Digital Communications at CASE.
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