THERE'S AN ALMOST TANGIBLE sense of excitement at the United Negro College Fund this year.
It started with a telethon that was broadcast in January simultaneously from New York's historic Apollo Theatre and a Hollywood studio. It mushroomed with a 50th Anniversary Gala. In March, the excitement became downright visible with the close of the organization's fiscal year 1994, which saw fundraising hit a record high and administrative costs dip below 17 cents per dollar raised, giving the UNCF one of the best such ratios of any educational nonprofit group.
Despite a decrease in the rate of growth in charitable giving, the UNCF last year raised a record $58 million in its annual campaign. It has maintained a vital connection with corporate America while continuing to woo the support of prominent Americans.
"The backbone of any charity is public trust," says Daniel Langan, director of information for the National Charities Information Bureau in New York. "UNCF has the confidence of the people, and that means everything."
Langan says the UNCF has been able to avoid the problems besetting other nonprofits, such as United Way of America, by keeping administrative and fund-raising costs low. "When people see that the money is going where it's supposed to go that makes them want to give more. Plus, there's a lot of unpopular causes out there. How can you argue against education?" Langan asks.
These days, there's also excitement surrounding the UNCF's move from its corporate location in New York to offices in Fairfax County, Va., scheduled to have been completed in August. The UNCF will then be closer to most of its 41 private colleges and universities and 54,500 students, which will further reduce administrative costs. (With the exception of Wilberforce University in Ohio, all UNCF schools are in southern states.)
But make no mistake about it. UNCF is an organization whose greatest challenges lie ahead.
If it is to see a 75th anniversary, UNCF must continue to uncover new resources to fund and supply its schools. UNCF's three biggest challenges seem to be fundraising, fundraising and fundraising. If their schools are to remain competitive, money must be raised for capital improvements, to keep tuition costs low and to make individual curricula creative and innovative.
The organization is developing new funding sources and plans to make UNCF schools among the best buys for the educational dollar. This year, for example, UNCF got Bloomberg Financial Markets to donate $2.6 million worth of computer terminals to its schools. And, if anything can be learned from this organization's noteworthy past, it's that UNCF has the ability to succeed despite any odds, pulling together a group of supporters who'd make strange partners in any other setting.
"We must provide assistance to our institutions at every level. We have to put them in a position to be competitive with other schools," says William H. Gray III, the former Philadelphia congressman who left Capitol Hill in 1991 to become UNCF's president and CEO.
Under Gray's leadership, UNCF has increased charitable donations while lowering administrative costs. Gray succeeded Christopher F. Edley, who led the organization from 1973 until 1990. Gray, the highest ranking black member of Congress when he left, is seen by many as a gifted politician, adept at public relations and possessing an invitation into the corporate boardrooms that UNCF must reach.
Gray did, however, raise more than a few eyebrows earlier this year when, in the midst of UNCF's 50th Anniversary year, he accepted a temporary post from President Bill Clinton as special advisor to Haiti.
"He's done a good job. Gray is a good public relations man and very brilliant," says Dr. Wilbert Greenfield, senior presidential scholar of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the Washington-based group that represents the country's 117 Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Greenfield, former president of Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina and Virginia State University, said UNCF has traditionally connected the town (corporate America) with the gown (academia), and Gray has the skills and connections to take that historic partnership to a new level.
Gray has a tough act to follow. Edley guided the UNCF from a "mom and pop" type...