For Thembi Duncan, it seemed like the kind of opportunity best described as golden.
A popular Washington, D.C., radio talk show wanted Duncan – the new producing artistic director of the African Continuum Theatre Company – for an interview on the air. As recently as 2011, the African Continuum, once billed as D.C.'s only professional black theater company, had a six-figure production budget. Then, leadership changes and a general malaise around donations hit. Production stopped. Now, Duncan is working to rebuild, and the radio show was needed visibility at a critical time of year for giving.
But some of the radio callers offered biting commentary. The African Continuum might break even, perhaps even turn a "profit," if it would move away from snooty plays written by long-dead African-American literary giants. Put a Tyler Perry play on the stage, a caller said. And a good show about a woman wronged or a man scorned and then saved by the blood of Jesus always sells tickets, several callers suggested.
"We are in a rather unusual position in the charitable world," Duncan told The Root. "Like every other nonprofit, we live and die by donations. But we are not an organization that feeds hungry children. So there are just some people (to) whom we don't make sense or seem like a priority. For others, they can't see why we don't simply focus on commercial goals, put on something mass market. But we contribute something very important to an underserved community, too."
For nearly every fundraiser, the holiday season is critical, a time when American generosity seems to surge. And, one little-known truth in a country where African Americans are frequently depicted and described exclusively as charity recipients and, worse still, "takers," black Americans respond to the call for charity more often than others. But in black America, the season for giving has also produced another little talked-about reality: Some causes suffer mightily.
Black philanthropic giving—much like white giving—remains overwhelmingly directed at churches. However, for many black families, the giving often stops there. Secular black institutions, including historically black colleges and universities, museums and other nonprofits, are left struggling to survive.
In 2012, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a Michigan-based organization, released a study confirming that African Americans give larger shares of their income to charity than any other group. The report also found that a growing legion of identity-based foundations and giving circles such as the Associated Black Charities of Mayland together funnel about $400 million a year to a wide variety of organizations. It did not look at where these foundations are directing pooled contributions.
A 2005 study did, noting that individual black households are noticeably more generous in religious giving. The average black household contributed $924 to a church or religious institution, the study found, compared to an average of about $814 donated by white households. But, black families were a bit less generous in secular giving, donating an average of $439 to these organizations compared to the white-household average of $510.
"Blacks have $1 trillion in buying power," said Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. "... African Americans give more of their discretionary income to charity than any other racial or ethnic group in America. Why isn't more going to HBCUs, those institutions that birthed the black middle class as we know it?"
Gasman's job has given her a deep understanding of where African Americans do spend their money. Gasman estimates that today, at least 60 percent of black charitable dollars go to churches, but the other 40 percent is available and, she says, should be aggressively pursued by secular nonprofits and HBCUs.
When it comes to HBCUs, the impact of that pattern is stark, Gasman said. On average, about 20 percent of alumni from all the nation's colleges and universities contribute to their schools. That figure ranges from 5 percent to 7 percent at public HBCUs and 9 percent to 10 percent at private HBCUs.
Walter Kimbrough, president of the New Orleans-based HBCU Dillard University since 2012, has emerged as an outspoken voice calling on black America to do a better job supporting HBCUs.
At first glance, he would seem an unlikely spokesman. Kimbrough thinks the financial troubles of HBCUs are often overstated and questions of relevancy are driven by deeper-seated suspicion and disdain for black institutions.
Yes, some black colleges and universities are in serious trouble (three have closed, and others have lost accreditation in recent years). Some schools need to make the hard decision to shut down, consolidate with another school or eliminate some majors, Kimbrough said. Yes, many need to specialize and invest in developing academic niches at which they excel. (Dillard, for example, produces the second largest number of black undergraduates with physics degrees in the country.) And, yes, many need to improve alumni relations and invest in larger fundraising operations, he said.
But, HBCUs are educating and graduating larger-than-average shares of first-generation and low-income college students, something crucial to the country's future economic success, Kimbrough said. And with 103 HBCUs left around the country, HBCUs are closing at a far slower clip than women's colleges, while educating increasingly diverse student bodies.
Still, Kimbrough has been blunt about calling on black America – über-wealthy entertainers and athletes and moderate- to modest-income individuals alike – to support the nation's HBCUs. And, as the son of a United Methodist Church minister, he rebuffs claims that black America simply does not have the money to do so.
"It's not that black people don't have the money or the habit of giving," said Kimbrough. "I do understand that there is an income gap, that we earn 75 cents on the dollar or something like that and have one-tenth of the wealth of whites. But charity does exist in black America, and it begins and ends for a lot of people in the church."
Kimbrough, like Gasman, thinks that HBCUs and churches may need to work closely together to encourage a concept first described by the Urban League's Marc Morial: civic tithing Frank and direct fundraising appeals for HBCUs need to happen in pulpits. Religious institutions need to commit to funding student scholarships at HBCUs. People in the pews also need to begin to give to secular and not overtly religious black-serving nonprofits, which are fighting to educate students, and provide and boost social justice or civil rights, with the same regularity that they do their churches, he said.
"We are not going to get into a battle with the church, but perhaps we do need to partner more closely to find ways to share some of the charitable dollars and attention," said Kimbrough. "The data doesn't lie. That's where the money is going."
Back in Washington, D.C., Duncan found herself reaching the same conclusion as Kimbrough: Churches may be a new and important font of support.
This summer, the African Continuum was one of a small group of theater companies selected to stage a play about the four little girls killed at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. As a D.C.-based theater troupe, the African Continuum had the opportunity to perform "Four Little Girls" inside the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It drew an overflow crowd. And, in a series of D.C.-area churches where the performance was also live-streamed, the play drew significant audiences, Duncan said.
"Those church-viewing rooms seem to have generated a lot of interest in what we're doing," said Duncan. "I think that's even generated a few three-figure donations. And while we can't put on a play without a major gift, I think we really accomplished something. We are on their radar."
(Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.)