Morehouse College, the nation’s only historically Black, all-male institution of higher education, has taken an innovative approach to fundraising to restore an important campus facility. The college is raising money using Indiegogo for the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, a multi-purpose campus facility named after Morehouse’s most prominent alumnus. The college is setting a precedent in doing so, becoming the first college or university to launch a fundraising campaign on a major crowdfunding site.
King Chapel is the most prominent religious memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in the world. The building was planned before King’s assassination and, upon his death, Morehouse trustees voted to name it in his honor as a memorial. The facility is used college-wide, not just as a dedicated religious edifice, but to support the entire institution. Because of its size, King Chapel also serves as a civic facility for the city of Atlanta. When Nelson Mandela died, the citywide memorial was held for him at King Chapel. High school commencements are often held there, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, in fact, prefers playing in the space for its acoustics.
Today, after nearly four decades of use, the building is showing signs of wear and tear. Walls are beginning to crack and peel, the roof has small leaks and the college is looking to make major fixes before further damage is done. Morehouse officials have launched an $8 million fundraising initiative to make substantial repairs and improvements to the building. Financial gifts are being culled from a number of sources, including the Indiegogo campaign. The decision to crowdfund, however, wasn’t easy to make.
“In fundraising, it’s pretty well understood that you can’t effectively fundraise using a deficit model. It’s typically better to put forward a positive value proposition,” says Morehouse Chief Development Officer Sulyman Clark.
As a small liberal arts college, and one that’s historically Black, the perception of weakened fundraising capacity is a major concern. The school’s reputation as an elite HBCU is partially built on confidence in its financial solvency. And with crowdfunding often regarded as a fundraising vehicle of last resort, Clark says taking fundraising for King Chapel to Indiegogo was a “calculated risk.” So, despite Morehouse’s instinct to protect its brand, the decision was made to go forward with an Indiegogo campaign because of the opportunities presented by the platform’s features.
Indiegogo is a unique crowdfunding platform. Unlike other popular sites, Indiegogo is open to campaigns of all types and its “Flexible Funding” component allows for non-profit organizations, including institutions of higher education, to raise funds. And, unlike with their general campaigns, nonprofits are allowed to keep anything pledged, even if they don’t meet their overall fundraising goals. And then there are the features that sold Morehouse administrators on the platform. The crowdfunding model allows the college to reach outside of its usual network and donor base. It also encourages a level of communication and transparency uncommon with more traditional models. That, they thought, might appeal to some alumni who don’t already give to the college.
The structure of Indiegogo campaigns requires that fundraisers detail how funds will be spent and Morehouse has outlined how the $8 million it intends to raise will be allocated: $770,000 for a new roof and $375,000 for a new audio-visual system, for example, among other expenses. In addition, donors are encouraged to give according to tiered system with nominal rewards, or “perks.” That, campus officials hope, will also attract to small donors.
“One of the things we're constantly thinking about as an institution, with every graduating class, is how to engage alumni,” says Henry Goodgame, Morehouse’s director alumni relations, special events and annual giving programs.
Goodgame adds that younger alumni are a growing segment of Morehouse grads, and they’re not at home waiting for a fundraising letter to come in the mail. Instead, they’re mostly connected to the life of the college through technology.
“It’s a different mindset. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to engaging alumni donors,” says Goodgame, “In the first years out of college, many alumni today are dealing with student debt and aren’t in a place to consider annual giving of larger sums. But they still have a deep connection to the college. Morehouse men are as proud of their experience and alma mater as graduates of any other institution. So, this new model is a way to meet them where they are.”
Morehouse, like most colleges, primarily raises funds for its $130 million endowment through traditional efforts: large events, annual galas and telethons, direct mail and email campaigns. Those campaigns are targeted mainly at alumni and a network of large donors.
“I arrived at Morehouse the year after King Chapel was finished. It was built with financial gifts from corporations and Morehouse alumni, all private donations,” says Lawrence E. Carter, Morehouse professor of religion and dean of the chapel.
According to Carter, campus officials have known for some time that the chapel would need renovations, but the arrival of a $5 million gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation got the ball rolling. Aside from the Indiegogo campaign, Carter is coordinating an effort among clergy across the country to raise the rest of the funds. In adding crowdfunding to the college’s repertoire, Morehouse officials hope to cultivate another group of donors: individuals otherwise unaffiliated with the college, who identify with its mission and might incorporate Morehouse into their annual giving. Today, the campaign has raised more than $5,032,000 with 10 days left.
“The college is really committed to embracing technology and social media to expand its reach and raise its profile,” says Add Seymour, the social media coordinator for the college. “Crowdfunding for the chapel presented an opportunity to do that while fundraising.”
Contributions aside, Seymour says the Indiegogo campaign is also a way of raising awareness about the work being done by the college, of telling its story and connecting directly with people who might be interested in it.
“In reaching outside of our usual audience to tell our story, it’s already a success, ” he says.
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. Donovan has written for outlets including The Atlantic, The New Republic MSNBC and Ebony, among others. He's currently a Demos Emerging Voices Fellow.