Friday, December 07, 2007

Donor Intent: The Latest Higher Ed Controversy

By Bryan O’Keefe

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend a terrific conference put on by our friend Fred Fransen and his new organization, the Center for Excellence in Higher Education. The topic was donor intent and included two panels, one a more first-hand look at donor intent horror stories and then a second panel which took a longer view about what can be done, the context for donor relationships, etc. A summary of the event can be found in today’s INSIDE HIGHER ED where our own Lynne Munson also gives some of her thoughts about the extent of the problem.

The central donor intent case right now involves the Robertson family and Princeton University, which is currently winding its way through the court system. A representative from the Robertson family spoke at yesterday’s conference and he was very persuasive that Princeton has misused the gift that his parents originally gave to the university. Some of the other donor intent stories were less straight-forward than Robertson, but nonetheless presented interesting questions that will also be resolved by the courts in the near future.

I think from a PR perspective however that colleges and universities would want to avoid these types of disputes. It does not bode well for future fundraising if the current donors are up in arms about how their gifts were used. Part of this can also be blamed on the colleges and universities themselves, whose arrogance can lead them astray in how they use gifts. If anything, colleges and universities should be going out of their way to ensure that the gifts are used precisely as the donor intended.

One of the panelists suggested that the problem itself is overblown and that most donor intent disputes are solved without the assistance of the legal system. That might be true, but Fred Fransen’s new group and various media stories about it have already shown that there are many donors out there who are not happy with how higher education has used their generous contribution. It could very well be that with renewed attention on this issue and important legal cases such as Robertson coming down the pipeline that donor intent will emerge as a growing controversy within the Ivory Tower.

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