The growing need to diversify institutional philanthropy (opinion)


I have had the opportunity to work in advancement offices at three different universities, and although they were invaluable learning experiences, not once did I see another individual who looks like me. As an Asian American woman, I find myself, now more than ever, searching for representation in the field of institutional advancement and longing for mentorship from someone with whom I share similar physical features and experiences. This need for relatability and representation in American higher education is crucial, especially now, for the Asian American community. It translates more broadly to the way relationships should be created and maintained between development officers and their institutions’ donors of color.

I remember sitting in on a leadership team meeting in 2018 when, as a college intern, I was the only woman in the room, not to mention one of only two people of color at the table. In fact, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education found in a 2015 study of high-performing university development programs that women make up the majority of fundraising offices but are underrepresented in leadership positions. The study also found that people of color occupied less than 10 percent of all fundraising positions, and more than one-third of the studied institutions did not have any people of color in senior leadership positions.

Increasing diversity and representation in higher education is a topic that has continued to grow in popularity, but how committed are college and university advancement offices to actually doing this work? I applaud institutions for committing to become more racially and ethnically diverse, but such initiatives must go beyond admissions rhetoric and student support programs. Even as student populations continue to grow more diverse, and alumni populations follow suit, advancement offices remain composed predominantly of white people, especially in leadership positions.

According to the 2020 American Council on Education’s “Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report,” the number of undergraduate students of color rose from 29.6 percent in 1996 to 45.2 percent in 2016. The report also mentioned that one of the least diverse positions on college campuses were chief development and advancement officers. Asians and Asian Americans made up 0.7 percent of the total 6.6 percent of racially diverse advancement executives.

If the pipeline of alumni and donors becomes more and more diverse, but development offices remain predominantly composed of white people, institutions may increasingly lag behind in efforts to raise money from people of color. While raising money in general is crucial to the success of any college or university, we need to change the culture of institutional philanthropy, especially at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs. We must be diligent in finding ways to encourage alumni of color to give in order to effectively and equitably support communities of color on college campuses. To do this successfully, development office staff will need to become more representative of those diverse campus populations.

A large part of a development officer’s job is to cultivate relationships with potential donors and encourage them to give back to the institution. They must build trust and camaraderie with these campus stakeholders and discover what aspects of their campuses those stakeholders find meaningful. PWIs must become more representative and inclusive of their changing alumni populations if they want to diversify their donor pipelines. I don’t just mean having that one person of color to check the human resources diversity box or to bear the brunt of the workload when it comes to creating and maintaining relationships with alumni and donors of color. No one should be tokenized in the workplace, especially in this field. If institutions are truly motivated to become more successful in raising money from diverse alumni, they will have to invest in their current and future communities of color. They will need to make meaningful changes.

Institutions and donors alike should think about the impact of philanthropy, and colleges and universities should assess why and how they can be more committed to raising money from a diverse pool of donors. People put money where their passions are. Why would a graduate of color want to donate to a PWI that has not historically supported — or perhaps in the view of some people, actually oppressed — students who look like them and have come from similar backgrounds? Many wouldn’t. Perhaps they will choose to aim their philanthropic efforts toward organizations that advocate for their marginalized identities instead of those that have undervalued them.

For example, as a current graduate student and in light of the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, I am constantly paying attention to how my university responds to these events and whether or not they provide sufficient support to my community of color. The actions my institution chooses to take now will greatly affect my propensity to give back as an alumna in the future, and that includes whether or not they take the initiative to recruit and hire more diverse advancement professionals. As an Asian American woman, I would feel more comfortable committing to give back if I were approached by an individual with whom I share similar backgrounds and experiences. I would also be more inclined to give if they presented me with an initiative that I cared about and felt compelled to support, such as an Asian and Asian American student support program.

Institutions should recruit and hire professionals from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds and provide a college environment that genuinely supports and welcomes diversity so they may retain their diverse staff members and donors of color. As our institutions approach another calendar year, we must actively and assertively search for and hire diverse talent. To do this, advancement offices need to educate students about institutional philanthropy, recruit students from diverse backgrounds to participate in paid internship opportunities and field experiences, and create partnerships with student organizations on campus to increase the pipeline of young, diverse professionals within the field.

To foster positive change for members of our underrepresented and marginalized communities, we can no longer ignore the power, influence and transformational potential of institutional philanthropy. And within that culture of philanthropy, our colleges and universities must take immediate steps to increase the diversity in their advancement offices.



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