How Quiet Donors Became Champions for Black Giving

August 14, 2019

{Image description: Eddie and Sylvia Brown, BCF donors. Credit: Baltimore Community Foundation}

Eddie and Sylvia Brown contribute to education, the arts, and health care — often stipulating that other rich African-Americans also must contribute.

By Maria Di Mento
The Chronicle of Philanthropy

One of financier Eddie Brown’s biggest regrets in life is never having thanked the donor who paid for his university education. That education, funded by a wealthy woman from Allentown, Pa., led to his early career as an engineer designing computer circuits for IBM’s huge mainframe computers in the 1960s. He later became a top money manager and founder of an $8 billion investment firm.

Brown, who grew up poor in the segregated South, says he didn’t know enough in his youth to thank the woman who funded his four years at Howard University, and by the time he realized his mistake, he could no longer find her. His deep regret is one of the reasons he and his wife, Sylvia, have made philanthropy a cornerstone of their nearly 57 years of marriage.

"That basically put a fire under me and under us to help people as our way of basically thanking that lady," says Eddie Brown. "That’s why education, especially for underprivileged kids, is high on the priority list."

To date, the couple has given more than $39.5 million both personally and through their Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation (run by the Baltimore Community Foundation) to education, the arts, and health care primarily in the Greater Baltimore area, where they have lived for more than 40 years.

A key component of their philanthropy is aimed at helping nonprofits that serve African-American communities as well as organizations that celebrate the contributions of African-Americans. Among those gifts:

  • $150,000 to the Baltimore Museum of Art to establish the Collector’s Circle Fund for Art by African Americans.
  • $1 million to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for the Eddie and Sylvia Brown African American Collection.
  • Nearly $2.4 million to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to create the C. Sylvia and Eddie C. Brown Community Health Scholarship Program, which provides full tuition and a living stipend to doctoral students who commit to working on improving health disparities in poor urban areas.

Another major aspect of the Browns’ philanthropy includes getting wealthy African-Americans to increase their charitable giving.

"We’re very concerned about giving from the African-American community," says Eddie. "People with capacity aren’t stepping up commensurate with their capacity to give."

To spur other affluent black people to give, nearly all of the couple’s donations are structured as matching gifts or grants with one specific stipulation: that the recipients raise additional donations from other rich African-Americans.

"Some of them are a lot wealthier than us, and they just don’t give. Or they don’t want to be the lead; they don’t want to be out there in front, but they don’t mind giving quietly. So this encourages them," says Sylvia.

They’ve placed matching stipulations on a number of gifts, including ones to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program; and the Baltimore School for the Arts TWIG program, a free after-school program that primarily serves inner-city children who would not otherwise have access to the arts.

"Our point is to hopefully inspire other African-Americans of means to step up and share in some of these critical areas so they can make a difference," says Eddie.

Going Public

It took some time for the Browns to get comfortable going public with their philanthropy.

When they donated $6 million to the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001 for what became the Brown Center, they wanted to give anonymously because they were not used to the attention, and they didn’t want to be bombarded with requests from other groups.

The college’s then president, Fred Lazarus, saw it as an opportunity to show that African-American donors could give big and encouraged the Browns to attach their name to the gift. A colleague of Eddie’s who had researched the dearth of buildings in the United States named for African-American donors also chimed in.

Once news of the gift broke, the Browns were indeed inundated with requests from other nonprofits, but they say they took pride in the contribution and the example they set. They haven’t shied away from giving named gifts since.

Earlier this year, for example, they gave $3.5 million to the Baltimore Museum of Art to endow the chief curator position. The Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator post is one of only a few top curatorial positions named for African-Americans, and it is part of the museum’s efforts to more closely reflect the city’s majority African-American population.

The Browns, who have both served as trustees there at various times over the past 20 years, have had a steady hand in helping that effort with financial support as well as their many donations of works by African-American artists.

Developing Projects

While the Browns tend to give to established nonprofits they know well, they have also adopted projects that have taken time to develop and for which they have enlisted the help of outside experts. One of these efforts is the Turning the Corner Achievement Program, which the Browns started in 2002 to help improve the educational and other outcomes of Baltimore’s African-American youths from poor families.

Sylvia taught middle school in the couple’s early years and later at Baltimore City Community College, where she became assistant director of admissions and registration. As a former educator, she was particularly appalled by the low graduation rates among Baltimore’s inner-city high schoolers. The Browns sought advice and assistance from experts at the Baltimore Community Foundation and Associated Black Charities to help them develop a program that would assist students before it was too late.

The program, into which they’ve put $6.7 million so far, provides services to struggling sixth and seventh graders at Baltimore’s Crossroads School, a public, tuition-free charter middle school.

Most students in the program are from low-income, single-parent homes where the daily stresses caused by poverty can make it impossible for children to focus on schoolwork. Through the Turning the Corner Achievement Program, students get special instruction in core academics, and they and their families receive additional services throughout the year, including a summer program and outside activities like trips to the symphony and visits to college campuses that expose the students to new experiences.

"It’s just kind of to open up the broader world to them and show them that if they do well in school, their opportunity set increases dramatically," says Eddie.

Childhood Experiences

Though they grew up in very different households, both of the Browns experienced poverty and the indignities of Southern segregation. They know firsthand how getting an education and receiving outside support can increase opportunity.

Sylvia grew up in rural King William County, Va., in a family that put a premium on education. Her father was the principal of her high school, and her mother was a teacher there. Sylvia graduated as valedictorian of her high-school class, and it was expected that she and her three siblings would attend college and go on to professional careers.

"To be honest, I didn’t realize I was poor," says Sylvia. "We lived in a very segregated community, but my brothers and sisters and I were protected by our parents. They kept us in watchful mode and didn’t want us to be hurt, so they made it very clear where we could go and where we could not go and how we had to be so much better in everything we did."

In contrast, Eddie’s relatives were laborers in citrus groves, and none had the opportunity to finish high school. The white and black sections of Apopka, Fla., where he grew up, were separated by railroad tracks. On Eddie’s side, the roads were unpaved and people lived in shacks. His mother was 13 when he was born and left him in his grandparents’ care when he was a toddler.

Eddie showed promise in elementary school, and his grandmother encouraged him. One day she took him into town and pointed out the white businessmen in shirts and ties.

"She said to me, ‘Eddie Carl, if you stay in school and study hard, you, too, can sit behind a desk with a white shirt and tie rather than be out in the fields.’ That was a huge motivator," says Eddie.

His mother eventually returned and took him north to Allentown, Pa., where he excelled academically. He was determined to go to college, but he didn’t know how he would pay for it. Luckily, he caught the attention of an African-American community organizer who helped facilitate his scholarship from the woman who became his benefactor. He graduated from Allentown High School in 1957 and left to start a new life at Howard University, where he met Sylvia.

His five years at IBM were particularly fruitful. He moonlighted and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from New York University and earned an MBA from Indiana University in 1970. He joined T. Rowe Price as a portfolio manager in the 1970s and started his firm, Brown Capital Management, in 1983, becoming a regular commentator on the popular PBS program Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser during the 1980s and ’90s.

Remembering Their Roots

Today the Browns are well-known in Baltimore for their philanthropy and in broader circles for their wealth (they declined to reveal their net worth), but they have not forgotten where they came from and are determined to pass on their commitment to philanthropy and encourage other rich African-Americans to give more. That includes the next generations of their family.

While their two grown daughters are involved in their own charitable efforts and their youngest daughter serves as president of the Browns’ foundation, it is their three grandchildren, ages 12, 18, and 21, on whom the Browns are currently focusing their philanthropic influence. Eddie says the two oldest, especially, are starting to think beyond themselves, so to get them involved in giving, the Browns are setting up donor-advised funds for each one.

"That way they can start thinking about an entity or entities that they would like to help," says Eddie. "You might say that is how we’re putting training wheels on."

Cultivating Donors

Fundraisers should approach wealthy donors or their foundations for a gift only after they have conducted extensive research about a philanthropist’s charitable interests, says Eddie Brown.

"Really hone and target the approach to their passion and really tailor it to that interest as opposed to just something completely unrelated," he adds.

The Browns themselves sometimes use their charitable influence with outsiders. Although Sylvia says she does not like to ask other donors for money on behalf of the many nonprofits she and her husband support, the couple has been known to accompany gifts officers visiting potential donors if the nonprofit thinks their presence will help. They also don’t shy away from allowing nonprofits to highlight their philanthropy at fundraising events where they might be seen as role models for other African-American donors.

Susan Taylor, a former editor in chief of Essence magazine who founded National Cares Mentoring Movement, a New York charity that works with other nonprofits to provide struggling African-American children with black mentors, says the Browns gave her organization a total of nearly $2 million from 2014 to 2018, and they’ve helped her cultivate and raise money from other black donors more than once.

Through a Brown challenge grant, Taylor has been able to collect more than $400,000 from smaller-level donors, and Eddie once invited her to give a presentation about her organization to his staff at Brown Capital Management and matched his employees’ donations. When the Browns were honored at the organization’s first gala a few years ago, they attracted a big crowd and helped Taylor raise $1.1 million.

"Eddie Brown is a hero to African-Americans in finance," says Taylor. "That evening brought wealthy black people to our gala; they wanted to meet him."

The Browns’ willingness to offer themselves as role model donors is part of what Eddie sees as the couple’s responsibility based on two tenets of their giving philosophy: "The first one is those who are blessed should be a blessing to someone else, especially those less fortunate," he says. "And the second is that giving is relative, and it’s based on financial capacity, meaning $1,000 for some people may be as significant as giving $100,000 or $1 million. Those two principles are very pertinent."

Used with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Copyright© 2019. All rights reserved.

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