“…I have tried to pursue the policy of acting in a business-like prompt way especially when we are able to pay. I wish you would take up all these small accounts that are overdue and settle them. It is doubly necessary that an institution that depends for its living on begging money should keep a good business reputation. It is much more necessary than for an institution doing a strictly commercial business. It does not take long for a rumor to get circulated in any community to the effect that we are not businesslike and this hurts us in getting funds. For all these reasons it is very necessary that all the matters I am referring to in this letter be carefully, systematically and promptly attended to in your office. Some of the letters regarding the bills that I refer to I enclose.” -Booker T. Washington, “February 13, 1915”
Presidential Commentary by Dr. Brian Johnson
As the founding principal and president of Tuskegee (Institute) University, Booker T. Washington, repeatedly demonstrated during his 34-year long administration, the stewardship of one’s existing resources goes hand-in-hand with the petitioning of additional resources. And Mr. Washington here again describes, in what would be the last year of his life, an important philanthropic consideration between a non-profit institution like Tuskegee University-and similarly situated higher education institutions-as opposed to a for-profit “commercial business.” A non-profit institution seeks to serve a higher and greater good, and while profit and revenue are supremely important drivers in such institutions, its focus upon an area of societal need such as higher education makes profit generation only one of several considerations unlike “commercial business”. And this is why non-profit institutions rely upon philanthropic (fundraising) gifts to help support their efforts to serve the larger good. (In the case of Mother Tuskegee, the education and the comprehensive development of her students is the highest and larger good.) Notwithstanding, such a noble aim does not exempt a non-profit institution from “keep[ing] a good business reputation” particularly when it continuously seeks “funds” to support its mission and vision-its tradition and trajectory. Without respect to an institution’s noble ambitions, if it does not manage its existing resources in a manner that demonstrates that it can manage additional resources, it “hurt[s]” itself “in [the] getting [of] funds.” And Mr. Washington tells us precisely why it becomes “difficult” for others to give to it: “It does not take long for a rumor to get circulated in any community to the effect that we are not businesslike…” Moreover, if such a “rumor” is circulated in the kind of “community” that can actually provide a non-profit institution with major, transformational assistance in the pursuit of its noble aims then the hurt is extremely harmful. For no corporation, foundation, organization, entity or individual donor who has successfully stewarded its own fiscal resources will give them to another who has not successfully stewarded its own-however small or meager. These entities are also accountable to their own stakeholders, customers and constituents who rightly question where their gifts are directed, and stakeholder’s rest easier knowing that major gifts from entities they are vested in are going to non-profit institutions who will steward them appropriately. And Mr. Washington, who Tuskegee University celebrates in the centennial year since his passing (1915-2015), was the recipient of many such major, transformational gifts because he “carefully, systematically and promptly attend[ed]” to the stewardship of Mother Tuskegee’s resources from 1881-1915.
Brian L. Johnson, Ph.D.