$100M unrestricted donation seeks to boost HBCU endowments

Last week, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) received $100 million from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.—UNCF’s single-largest unrestricted donation in its 80-year history, The Associated Press reports. The gift will fund a pooled endowment intended to shore up the financial stability of the 37 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that make up UNCF’s membership. Unlike restricted donations, unrestricted gifts are not permanently limited to a specific purpose as outlined by the donor and rather can be used by institutions where they feel they are most needed. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF, hopes other donors are inspired to take a similar approach. 

Related: ‘Put the money to good use’: Revisiting MacKenzie Scott’s transformative unrestricted gifts to HBCUs >

“They’re trusting the judgment of the United Negro College Fund to make a decision about where best to deploy this very significant and sizable gift,” Lomax tells the AP. “We don’t get a lot of gifts like that.”

Lifting all boats

The donation will go toward UNCF’s $1 billion capital campaign, which seeks to raise money for student scholarships; HBCU endowments; capacity-building programs involving technology, training, and research; and other UNCF priorities, according to a press release. As part of its campaign, UNCF hopes to raise $370 million for a pooled endowment to be shared among its members, so that the endowment of each of its member organizations grows by $10 million. The $100 million gift from the Lilly Endowment will increase each member organization’s endowment by $2.7 million, at least doubling the endowment at some HBCUs.

The pooled endowments “will become permanent assets of the institutions,” says Lomax. “Rising tides do lift all boats and UNCF is committed to making this a reality because 100 percent of this grant will be used to enhance the endowments at our 37 member colleges and universities.”

The Lilly Endowment’s gift builds on a history of support for UNCF. Previously, the Lilly Endowment donated $50 million in 2015 for the launch of the UNCF’s Career Pathways Initiative, which aims to improve career outcomes for students at HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions.

“The UNCF programs we have helped fund in the past have been successful, and we are confident that the efforts to be supported by this bold campaign will have a great impact on UNCF’s member institutions and their students’ lives,” N. Clay Robbins, the Lilly Endowment’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

Endowment gaps—and goals

The end of affirmative action in college admissions has brought additional attention to HBCUs, which have seen a surge in applications in recent years from students looking for campuses where they would feel a sense of belonging. However, the institutions have historically been underfunded, with smaller endowments compared to other universities.

On average, endowment dollars per full-time student at public non-HBCUs are three times the size of those at public HBCUs, according to The Century Foundation. Those disparities are even steeper when focusing on private higher education institutions, where on average, private non-HBCU endowments per full-time student are seven times the size of those at private HBCUs. Those inequities affect HBCUs’ financial stability and what initiatives they can invest in, from infrastructure repairs to research and development.

Related: Report urges Congress to address persistent underfunding of Black land-grant universities >

“Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement last year. In September 2023, the U.S. Secretaries of Education and Agriculture called on 16 governors to more equitably fund land-grant HBCUs.

Donors also have taken note, directing more donations toward HBCUs since the murder of George Floyd. In November 2023, the Steinbridge Group, a real estate investment firm, made a $100 million capital commitment to HBCUs. Last September, the HBCU Transformation Project, a coalition of 40 HBCUs, received a $124 million gift from Blue Meridian Partners to boost enrollment, graduation rates, and employment rates.

This week, Spelman College, one of only two historically Black women’s colleges, announced it received $100 million from philanthropists Ronda Stryker and her husband William Johnston, The Washington Post reports. The women’s college says it’s the largest-ever single donation to an HBCU, and officials say $75 million will be used to endow scholarships.

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