Leadership & Governance

Spelman Finds Its Key to Fund-Raising Success

Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College

August 04, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz


ERIC KELDERMAN: I want to welcome you, Beverly Daniel Tatum, to The Chronicle of Higher Education. You're joining us not long after completing a very successful $150-million fund-raising campaign, and recently announcing that after June of next year, you will step down as president of Spelman College after 13 years in that post. Spelman has an excellent reputation with a very high percentage of alumni giving. I'd like to know, what is it that Spelman knows about fund raising that other colleges don't know?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: I think one of the things that we can take credit for is persistence. We began our effort, really, when I started my presidency. Our campaign had not yet launched, but when I arrived in 2002, our annual percentage was about 13 percent. Today, it's 41 percent. And we feel great about that growth, largely because we really got smart about how to talk to our alums about it.

When I first came, I would say, "Support the institution. We need your support." And they would say, "We do," and they were right. They supported when they came for reunion, but that's once every five years. We changed our messaging to not "support the institution," but "every woman, every year." We need your support every year.

Consistency is really going to make the difference. And as that message caught on, we started to see 20 percent, 25 percent, 30 percent, 35 percent, now 41 percent, and that has made a huge difference in our ability to track donors from foundations, individual philanthropists, those from outside the Spelman community who recognize that if so many Spelman women are enthusiastic about what we're doing, that they might want to join in as well.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Spelman is uncommon in a couple ways. It's not only an all women's college, it's a historically black college. You serve a couple of very important niches. I'd like to know, with the number of black students increasing at traditionally white institutions, what is it that those colleges can learn from historically black colleges about helping their students of color to succeed academically?

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BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: I think one of the things that Spelman has, and that other HBCUs are able to offer their students, is a real sense of affirmation. That when they come to the campus, they can say this place was built for me. People expect me to succeed. That's part of the tradition of excellence that I'm becoming a part of. At a predominantly white institution, it's harder to say this place was built for you. We know that often that was not the case.

But it is certainly possible to say we have high expectations for you, just as we do for all our students. And that we recognize that there may be some barriers to achieving your goals, because maybe a limit of role models, maybe because of a chilly climate in the classroom, that there are things that we are working on very intentionally to be able to affirm your sense of identity as part of this community.

ERIC KELDERMAN: The great recession that happened in this country just a few years ago has put enormous financial pressure on all institutions, but in particular on smaller niche colleges. You've weathered that fairly well. Some other historically black colleges and other small niche colleges—religious colleges—have had a great deal of difficulty maintaining the sustainability of their institution. What is it that you think historically back colleges, in particular, need to do to ensure their sustainability into the future?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: The great recession really had a major financial impact on the African-American community, the Latino community as well. It's been reported that it was the greatest loss of wealth since the Great Depression in communities that were already economically disadvantaged. So when you think about the high unemployment rates, the foreclosure rates, all of the things that would make it difficult to fund a child's college education, really impacted the African-American community at a much greater magnitude than perhaps other communities.

That said, if you're an HBCU, that's the community you serve. What that means is you've got young people coming to college who don't know how they're going to pay for it. Whose parents don't know how they're going to pay for it. And because HBCUs have been historically underfunded, they don't have the large endowments able to fund financial aid for all the students who need it. This is the fundamental challenge for HBCUs. Talented students, not enough aid: how do you translate that interest of your students into the tuition dollars you need to run your college?

I think that as a nation, we have to really think about how we are going to invest in the next generation of college students. We know that population is increasingly going to be a population of color, increasingly a first generation, low-income population, because that's where the demographic growth in our nation is. HBCUs know how to educate that population. We've got a long track record, but we do need more assistance in terms of providing that scholarship support.

It's one of the things that we focused on in our campaign. We raised $150-, almost $158-million. Fifty-two million of that was specifically for scholarships, and even in the coming year we will be focused on that. Every institution, whether an HBCU or predominately white institution, has to figure out how to remain affordable and accessible to today's college students, and that's really the challenge. And for HBCUs that were underfunded to begin with, it's particularly difficult.

ERIC KELDERMAN: For many—I want to just go aside here for just a little bit—for many black colleges, actually nationwide, the share of black students at historically black colleges has declined significantly over the past 30 years. Is the scholarship assistance the real key to increasing the enrollment of black students in HBCUs, or are there other things that those colleges can do to bring black students back to their campuses?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Attracting students is often about resources. I'm going to use Spelman as an example. We received a wonderful gift as part of our campaign, $17-million to endow a global initiative. One of our goals is that every Spelman student should have a meaningful international experience before she graduates.

This gift, which funded the Gordon-Zeto Center for International Education, has made it possible for us to go from 50 to 70 students a year, to, this year, over 400 students having an international experience. When I talk to prospective students, they're excited about that as an opportunity, but I wouldn't be able to offer that opportunity if I hadn't gotten more resources. So when we think about what is it that today's college student is looking for, I think there are a lot of students who find the idea of an HBCU appealing. But one of the questions I'll ask is, can I get a scholarship? And if the resources aren't there, it's going to be hard to answer that question positively.

And also, will I have the same kinds of experiences at that HBCU that I might have had at a majority institution? Sometimes that answer is yes. At Spelman, we would like to say the answer is yes. But at institutions that are less well funded, the answer may not be as clear, and that's the challenge.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Looking back over your nearly 13 years as president of Spelman, what's one thing about leadership that you wish someone had told you when you started that job?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: You know, it's like having a baby. What I mean by that is, people tell you a lot of things about what it would be like to have a child, but you don't really know it until you've done it yourself. Even though people tell you babies don't sleep much, you might think, well, my baby will, until you realize you have one that is awake all the time.

And what I mean by that analogy is people tell you that it's a 24/7, 365-day responsibility, and truly it is, but you don't really know what that means until you're actually living it. And there's one thing that I was told when I became a president that turns out to be quite true, which is that you have a megaphone.

What I mean by that is, you might just have an idea, and you might just be making casual conversation. But because you're the president that casual conversation turns into somebody else's mind as a directive, as something that must happen. That it's hard to just have a casual conversation. You're wearing the president hat all the time. And that makes a difference.

As you get more experience in the role you come to understand that, and you're a little more careful about what you say until you've thought some of your ideas through more carefully. But it is something that you really have to experience to understand fully.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sometime next year after June, when you are out of the president's house and living wherever it is you're going to live, and you wake up on that first day, what's the one you're really looking forward to at that point?

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: I have to say I'm excited about the idea of being able to focus on my scholarship again. So being able to read and write, and think about something without the interruption of an emergency on campus, or an email that really needs attention, is something that I look forward to. But it is important for me to say just what a privilege and an honor it's been to serve in this role. It was something that I really felt called to do, and I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction over what we've been able to accomplish together at the campus community.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Well thank you for visiting us, and good luck in your future endeavors.

BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM: Thank you so much.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.