#StandwithBennett: A real-time case study in avoiding the event horizon

February 5, 2019 Update:
Bennett College announced yesterday that it surpassed the SACSCOC mandated $5 million fundraising threshold having raised $8.2 million. A flurry of giving over the weekend followed a $1 million challenge from High Point University on Friday. Read about Bennett’s sprint past the finish line of this milestone and their plans to address long-term sustainability in the
News & Record.

Physicists use the term “Event Horizon” to describe the point of no return. That’s where the gravitational pull of a large object makes it impossible for a smaller object to escape. For nonprofits I use this term to describe the point at which the pull of their financial obligations is so great that no amount of cutting costs, soliciting funds or raising tuition will save them.

The catch is that it’s difficult to know exactly where that boundary lies and organizations often don’t realize they’ve reached it until they’re already on the other side. Watching an organization skim along the event horizon is rare, but offers a real-time case study about organizational sustainability and stewardship. Bennett College finds itself at that moment as it is just days away from a self-imposed February 1 deadline to raise $5 million in advance of a February 18 appeal hearing to try and keep its accreditation.

The stakes are high. Although a college can technically continue to operate without accreditation, losing accreditation is often a death sentence. Without it, a college loses access to federal financial-aid funding for its students.

The Struggle to Survive for an American Treasure

Bennett College is an American treasure. Founded in 1873 and located in Greensboro, NC, Bennett College is one of two existing all-women’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. As a Guilford College alumnus and former head of school at New Garden Friends School, both located in Greensboro, I have long been aware of Bennett’s outsized influence and financial instability. Rebekah Barber does a wonderful job of describing the importance of Bennett College in her Facing South article, “Why saving Bennett College matters.”

Bennett’s struggle has been well documented. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed Bennett on probation in 2016 and in December 2018, the Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) voted to end Bennett’s accreditation. Inside Higher Ed reported that Bennett “was out of compliance with its accreditor’s rules on financial resources, and its probation cannot be extended for a third year.” Multiple sources reported that the commission determined Bennett only fell short when it came to financial resources, but this failure is critical. There is general agreement that an educational institution must have the fiscal capacity to operate. That measure alone is surely not enough to earn accreditation, but it is a necessary component in demonstrating the overall health and vitality of the college.

Positive Trends

Less agreed upon is what metrics should be used to warrant accreditation. That is the question in which Bennett’s future lies. Under the leadership of Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins, Bennett has made significant progress. The Stand with Bennett website identifies improvement in several key indicators from the past year:

  • Bennett generated a surplus of $461,038 and had no audit findings.
  • Bennett was approved for a capital loan deferment over a six-year period with a financial benefit of nearly $9 million.
  • Bennett has steadily increased its fundraising from $3.47 million to $4.25 million over a 3-year period.
  • Bennett’s enrollment has been trending upward for 2 years from 409 in 2017 to 471 in 2018.
  • Bennett’s retention rate is also significantly up from 44% in Fall 2017 to 53% in Fall 2018.
  • The average GPA of new freshwomen increased from 2.8 in 2017 to 3.2 in 2018.
    (source: http://www.bennett.edu/standwithbennett/)

Since probation is no longer possible, does this progress put the college on solid enough footing?

Belle Wheelan, President of SACSCOC, said in an interview with the News and Record, “I’ve told their president they have dug their way out of the hole, but they’re not yet on terra firma. They haven’t been able to demonstrate they have money in hand.”

#StandwithBennett and a February 18 Appeal Hearing

The #StandwithBennett campaign has gone viral. In the next four days, fundraising needs to follow the attention.

That need for immediate “money in hand” brings the current fundraising push into focus.

With 50 days to go before its February 1 deadline, Bennett College announced an initiative to raise $5 million to demonstrate to SACSCOC that it was in a position to have its accreditation restored. The #StandwithBennett campaign went viral. While the hashtag may be trending, funds lagged with less than 30% of the total being raised before last week.

Then on January 24, Bennett received two $500,000 gifts from Papa John’s Foundation and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation toward its $5 million goal. Papa John’s statement was explicit about its rationale to step in now:

Bennett College, which has over a century-long legacy of preparing women of color to lead with purpose, integrity and a strong sense of self-worth, is one of the two existing women-only historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. […] With more than ten franchises in the Greensboro area and our renewed commitment to doing better in the communities we serve, partnering with Bennett College to raise funds to protect the college’s accreditation status was a natural alignment.

Papa John’s gift was a noteworthy corporate example of leveraging financial capacity and corporate agility to both do well and do good. The organization’s gift gives Bennett a fighting shot to reach its goal and continues its efforts to repair a corporate brand that has taken numerous body blows over the past few years.

The publicity of the viral campaign has undoubtedly been beneficial for Bennett. Although in a very different form than Hampshire College’s announcement, the attention on Bennett is another example of the positive benefits that can come with the risk of public awareness of institutional struggle. As John Newsom wrote for the News and Record:

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s this: As Gwendolyn Mackel Rice, president of the college’s National Alumnae Association, told me this week, this episode has given Bennett more public visibility than it has received in years. Bennett now has the chance to talk about itself — its history, its legacy of educating black women leaders, its economic impact, its plans for the future — and find donors who will support its mission and a way forward.

With four days to go, there is hope. The total raised thus far is just short of $3 million. A strong finish is certainly possible.

Event Horizon and Escape Velocity

Even if Bennett survives this current brush with the event horizon, it is hard to tell what the future holds. This is Bennett’s second round of accreditation probation caused by its tenuous financial position. Fifteen years ago the college spent two years on probation, then in 2003 Bennett showed enough fundraising progress to keep its accreditation. The problem with repeated trips to the brink is the increased possibility of tumbling to the other side.

Yes, Bennett reaching its fundraising goal and subsequently keeping its accreditation does not mean that the college will achieve “escape velocity” and return to the relative calm of financial sustainability. The underlying dynamics for Bennett will remain a huge struggle.

But, there are compelling reasons why Bennett should survive to educate future generations as an all-women’s HBCU. The event horizon is upon them. Now is the time to #StandwithBennett.