A young man raised by common laborers in central Florida and a young woman raised by educators in Virginia united on the Yard of Howard University in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown would marry in 1962 and, just a week before Howard University’s 2021 homecoming celebrations commence, make the largest alumni donation in University history of $5 million.
Eddie C. Brown is the founder, chairman and CEO of Brown Capital Management, an investment management firm, and C. Sylvia Brown is a retired educator who volunteers and sits on the board of various organizations. The couple’s donation was made directly to the Graduation Retention Access to Continued Excellence (GRACE) Grant, a grant established in 2014 for students with an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0 and the maximum federal Pell Grant to encourage them to graduate on time. Such a program today benefits students similar to the Browns when they were on campus.
“I wanted to go to college. I didn’t know whether I could afford to go to college,” Mrs. Brown said. “I paid student loans for a long time. I didn’t have any benefactors. I know how it is,” she continued.
Mr. Brown received a scholarship from an anonymous donor all four years of college that allowed him to graduate debt-free and instilled in him the importance of philanthropy.
“That planted something in my mind that if we ever, as a family, have a few nickels to rub together, that… we always remembered that, and we said that we’d like to help others in similar situations in need to be able to graduate debt-free,” Mr. Brown said.
The Browns established the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation in 1995, and their youngest daughter is the current president of the organization. According to Mrs. Brown, their three main priorities of giving and areas of innate passion are the arts, education and health disparities.
The planning for a significant donation from the Browns has been in motion for years. After the couple received honorary doctorate degrees from the University in 2015, they remained in communication with President Wayne A.I. Frederick about where their giving would be most sufficient and most aligned with their values and passions. The couple said they learned about the GRACE grant last year through a presentation from President Frederick, and they were intrigued by its mission.
“We said, ‘you know? Let’s talk again early in the year—this year—and we will seriously consider that [the GRACE grant],’” Mr. Brown said. “A dollar amount had not been placed on it, but, I said, ‘if we do something, we want to be able to impact, you know, a pretty significant number of students, not just one or two or even five or 10,’ so that’s the way they [the University’s president and the Vice President of Advancement] backed into the number,” he continued.
Although the couple intended to impact a large portion of students, they were not aware that they were making the largest donation in alumni history.
“We had no idea it was the largest… we were both surprised,” Mrs. Brown said.
Such a donation can alter the trajectory of several Howard students’ college experience, as it did for Najah Abduh, a spring 2021 graduate of the University and GRACE grant recipient.
“If I had to come out of pocket for the bill, I feel like that would have been 10 times as much stress, just like, trying to focus on school and trying to figure out a way to pay your bill and not trying to have that burden on your parents,” Abduh said.
Without the GRACE grant, Abduh said she probably would have had to attend a different school. She received $20,000 from the GRACE grant each year she was in college. At that rate, the Browns’ donation would be able to benefit up to 250 students in need.
Though this is the largest alumni donation for now, both the Browns and Abduh hope it sparks a flame in all alumni to give back to students, especially if they have the financial means to do so.
“Hopefully, this will inspire other successful alum to, you know, give to the Alma mater,” Mr. Brown said.
Abduh expressed similar sentiments and also discussed the importance of the University sharing where the money is going.
“People usually give back, and it goes towards something, but we don’t really see the change then and there… Hopefully we’ll see the change,” Abduh said. “They [alumni] were in our shoes once… If you have the money, give back to your school,” she continued.