Christopher Edley Biography
Organization president, advocate, lawyer
"All of my adult life has been heavily laden with the things and the kind of work that would advance Black life," recounted Christopher Edley, former president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), in Jet magazine. Under Edley's tutelage, the UNCF became one of the most widely recognized charitable organizations in America. He joined the UNCF in 1973, a year after the organization enacted one of the first national advertising campaigns to raise money for black higher education. Edley assumed guidance of the campaign with the slogan "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste" for 17 successful years. Poor health forced him to retire in 1991, after helping to solicit the largest individual donation in the history of black philanthropy. Instituting a strong organization was Edley's "greatest gift," related Fisk University president Henry Ponder to Matthew Scott in Black Enterprise. "He has set a well-defined management style into motion that will ensure that our institution moves forward, continuing the mission of raising money for our schools, to provide the best quality education for our students."
Born on January 1, 1928, in Charleston, West Virginia, Edley graduated magna cum laude from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1949. He was one of a handful of black students studying law at Harvard University, and he received his law degree in 1953. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he practiced law both as an assistant district attorney and in private practice with Moore, Lightfoot & Edley. In 1960 he became the chief administrator for the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In 1963 he joined the Ford Foundation, becoming the organizations first black officer. Edley worked for ten years at the Ford Foundation before moving to the UNCF. He married Zaida Coles in 1950, and the couple had two children: daughter Judith and son Christopher F. Edley Jr., a prominent educator and dean of the University of California-Berkeley School of Law.
When Edley was hired to direct the UNCF, it was "like a mom and pop kind of store that was getting bigger," he confessed to Leon E. Wynter in the Wall Street Journal. "People were so busy waiting on customers that no strategic thoughts were being given." During his tenure, Edley provided the UNCF with future goals and fund-raising ideas, including the only national higher education telethon, the "Lou Rawls Parade of Stars." Noted for aggressive maneuvers, Edley actively promoted increased giving by individuals, engineered UNCF's entry into the Combined Federal Campaign, and implemented state and municipal payroll deduction campaigns. His use of television to advertise not only made the needs of black colleges highly visible, but also set new standards in public service advertising. The UNCF's award-winning college fund ads were some of the most eminent in public service advertising history. While he headed the organization, Edley used advertising "to soften people up," he told Wynter. To provide the public with an immediate opportunity to give money after viewing an ad, he created yearly telethons and special events featuring sports and entertainment celebrities.
Based in an office in New York City, Edley employed his successful tactics for nearly two decades. The fund received more than $700 million during his tenure to support 41 private black colleges and universities. When Edley began office in 1973, the UNCF received annual donations of about $9.5 million. By the end of his time in office in 1990, the annual average had risen to $48.6 million. Enrollment in historically black colleges rose to 48,233 students in the late 1980s, a 13-percent increase over mid-decade figures. Colleagues credited the financial triumph of the UNCF to Edley's business savvy. "Mr. Edley has made tremendous strides," Ponder informed Scott. "His ability to raise funds is a significant feat when you consider that during his tenure, the country was in and out of recession, large corporations were merging and there were fewer dollars available." Cathy Mitchell, handler of the Advertising Council Fund's campaign, told Wynter, "I think that Chris is quite a leader. He's directly involved with the advertising and he knows his organization. He knows his market and what he wants to convey."
"If I have succeeded in doing something wonderful, it is because of the leadership, the volunteers and the staff who have supported me," Edley told Scott. "We have implemented all of the modern techniques of business to help our favorite cause." During his last year as head of the UNCF, Edley initiated "Campaign 2000: An Investment in America's Future." Under his direction, the UNCF obtained a $50 million challenge grant—the largest single donation to a black charity to date—from former ambassador to Britain and founder of TV Guide magazine, Walter H. Annenberg. "You can't reduce tension and run the fund," Edley divulged to Don Wycliff of the New York Times in the year of his retirement. Edley, who had a heart bypass operation seven years earlier, was motivated to leave his position upon the advice of his doctors to reduce stress.
"Dad's whole career has been public service in one form or another," Edley, Jr., revealed in Ebony about his distinguished father, "so the uplifting memories are kitchen-table discussions about helping people, about civil rights, about economic opportunity, about housing and the Emancipation Proclamation, about loaning money to poor clients and, later, about planting and nurturing the seeds that became the public-interest-law movement across the nation." "The gift of giving will be the lasting legacy of Christopher F. Edley," assessed Scott, describing one of America's most illustrious public servants. "He will always be remembered for his ability to inspire others to give." Edley passed away on May 5, 2003, after experiencing a heart attack at his home in New Rochelle, New York.
Black Enterprise, December 1990.
Black Issues in Higher Education, June 5, 2003, p. 12.
Ebony, June 1988; August 1988.
Jet, August 20, 1990; May 26, 2003, p. 27.
New York Times, August 2, 1990.
Non-Profit Times, November 1990, p. 10.
Wall Street Journal, August 1, 1990.
—Marjorie Burgess and
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