Organization Overview and History
Throughout decades of service, UNCF has grown and evolved to meet the needs of its member HBCUs and the students who attend them. Its core mission, however, has been the same since day one.
From UNCF’s inception until today, the organization has acted on the belief that first-generation, low-income African American students deserve and want access to a good education. UNCF is proud to have helped cultivate some of the country’s most brilliant minds for decades.
In 1943, Frederick D. Patterson wrote his historic letter to The Pittsburgh Courier proposing the creation of an alliance of Black colleges that would raise money for their mutual benefit. UNCF was founded in 1944 on the belief that there is strength in numbers—that HBCUs ought to make a joint effort to appeal for funds—as well as the belief that education was crucial to Black mobility. At the start, UNCF served 27 member colleges and universities, totaling 12,000 students. Its first campaign received the support of many prominent Americans, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, II. The collective effort raised $765,000, equivalent to $10 million today, which is three times what its member institutions had raised separately the previous year.
John D. Rockefeller, II, was essential to UNCF’s founding in 1944. In fact, UNCF was the first charity to which he gave his public support. He donated $25,000, equivalent to $300,000 today, and wrote letters to other businesspeople and philanthropists to garner support for UNCF. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College, won the support of President Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. During his term, President Truman also supported the fledgling organization.
In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy donated the proceeds from his Pulitzer Prize to UNCF. Nancy Wilson and Clifton Davis made history in 1974 when they hosted the first UNCF telethon, “Something Special,” and raised $300,000. In 1989, after years of supporting HBCUs, President George H.W. Bush created the Presidential Advisory Board on HBCUs to advise the President and the U.S. Secretary of Education on best strategies to strengthen HBCUs. In 1991, Bush and 50 governors urged Congress to fund matching grants for students at HBCUs. Bush donated a portion of the proceeds of his autobiography, Looking Foward, to UNCF. And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, both George H.W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton partnered with UNCF to raise $20 million to support HBCUs damaged by the storm.
Billionaire publisher Walter H. Annenberg pledged an historic $50 million to UNCF in 1990. His gift is the largest single contribution ever given to help support historically Black colleges. In 1999, UNCF was named administrator of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $1.6 billion Gates Millennium Scholars Program.
UNCF has seen remarkable growth since its founding. In 1948, about 15,000 students had graduated from UNCF-member institutions. By 1972, that number was up to 120,000. It was in this year that UNCF coined its iconic “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”® motto, which later became one of the most famous advertising slogans in history. In the ’70s and ’80s, UNCF made an important step by incorporating scholarships into its organizational mission. Prior to this, UNCF exclusively funded institutions.
In 1991, Rep. William H. Gray, III, became UNCF’s eighth president. By 1994, Gray had brought in one-quarter of the nearly $1 billion UNCF had raised since its founding. That year, UNCF-member college enrollment reached an all-time high of 54,000 students, a 28 percent increase since 1986. The Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute was founded in 1996.
Dr. Michael L. Lomax took his current position as UNCF’s president and CEO in 2004. Today, as the nation’s largest private scholarship provider to students of color, UNCF awards more than $100 million in scholarships to more than 10,000 students at more than 1,100 schools each year. In 75 years, UNCF has raised $5 billion to help more than half a million students earn college degrees.
Diversity matters and fuels growth, and HBCU institutions and students are key components to national economic growth that enables better futures for all Americans.
The “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”® slogan coined in 1972 has persisted and evolved to include the 2013 addition “…but a wonderful thing to invest in.” This phrase succinctly sums up a practice UNCF has kept up over the years—a practice of investing time, money, and influence in HBCUs and the brilliant students who attend them.