August 15, 2023
Often, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector at large may lose sight of just how much even small, incremental investment can make a meaningful change in people’s lives. The real impact of a couple of hundred dollars on some people can be literally life changing.

Karen Lipsey and Christie Worrell became lifelong friends through their children’s friendship, and over the past few years launched the Level the Field Fund, which they moved to the Community Foundation in April 2023. This fund helps Black college seniors graduate college by paying off the relatively small account balances that may be left when commencement season arrives. In the most stark terms, the Level the Field Fund embodies the spirit of large impact with small investment: most of the awards it gives college students are a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. These gifts enable a student to get their degree and set their lives in positive motion. Level the Field’s goal is to help as many deserving students as possible graduate.

When speaking to Christie and Karen, we wondered why these account balances exist in the first place— it doesn’t seem logical that a college or university would consider a few hundred dollars critical funding because most are not-for-profit entities that can operate with losses, and many have endowments of tens of millions of dollars. Christie opened my eyes to a harsh reality: the two universities that Level the Field has given students gifts to, Howard University in DC and Hampton University in Virginia, near Norfolk, are historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and unfortunately, HBCUs are historically underfunded and under-resourced.

There are a few externalities that compound the issue of leftover balances. First, many Black students do not come from families with generational wealth, making finding another source of payment difficult. Second, most Americans, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or any other demographic group, cannot afford a sudden expense of more than a few hundred dollars. Third, the aforementioned historic underfunding and under-resourcing of HBCUs, which only compounds the other two issues. The fund’s goal, as Christie and Karen put it to us, was to “make as much of an impact as possible, knowing that the source of the issue is so vast.”

Though the Level the Field Fund is young, its effects are already quite real. As can be seen on their website, the students served have gone on to work for firms like Apple, Citibank, and Google. With the landscape of higher education changing, HBCUs could become a potent option for Black students seeking higher education beyond well-known state schools and the ivy league. As our conversation concluded, Karen brought up the quote from Fannie Lou Hamer, “No one is free until everyone is free.” Though that goal may not be attained for some time, the Community Foundation is always proud to support funds like Level the Field that strive to serve the community one student at a time.