April 16, 2014
(The newest book by Doug White, a well-known expert in the fields of philanthropy and nonprofit management, is "equal parts thriller and cautionary tale," writes Daniel Matz, Foundation Web Manager at the Foundation Center. Click here for more from PND's long-running Off the Shelf series.)
What is a gift? In an ordinary sense, a gift is something — money, property, advice — given freely by one party to another without the expectation of receiving something in return. We all like gifts, and so, too, do the 1.4 million nonprofits in the United States that benefit from private donations, large and small. But in the calculus of large-scale institutional philanthropy, a gift isn't really a gift; it's a gesture with a purpose — a purpose informed, to varying degrees, by the intent of the person or institution that gave the gift. And therein, as Shakespeare might say, lies the rub.
It's no surprise that wealthy donors and foundations seek out organizations and institutions that share their own passions and interests. But what do donors really expect from a nonprofit grantee in the long run? In the performance-measured, accountability-driven world of twenty-first century philanthropy, grantee reporting is de rigueur. For most nonprofits chasing after scarce dollars (and hoping for future gifts), the willingness and ability to demonstrate that they've aligned themselves with a donor's intent goes without saying. But what happens when a donor, after many years of happy engagement with an organization or institution, begins to believe that the original intent of the gift is no longer being honored? Our intuition tells us that, at some level, gifts/grants/donations involve a leap of faith, and that when the trust between donor and recipient is compromised, the recipient is unlikely to receive additional future gifts from that donor. A donor or foundation might even go public with its disappointment in order to discourage others from making gifts to the recipient. But rarely does a foundation or donor who has become disenchanted with a recipient ask for their money back. Which raises the question: Should they be able to? And does a statute of imitations ever apply in such a situation?
Those are two of the questions Doug White, a well-known expert in the fields of philanthropy and nonprofit management, tackles in Abusing Donor Intent: The Robertson Family's Epic Lawsuit Against Princeton University. Just as White earlier explored a rogues' gallery of swindlers and incompetent trustees in Charity on Trial, here he invites the reader to look behind the curtain of privilege and wealth, this time to learn just how bad things can get when a donor and beneficiary no longer see eye-to-eye. Informed by the slow burn of a decades-old frustration, not to mention the disposition of hundreds of millions of dollars and the reputation of one of America's oldest and most respected universities, Abusing Donor Intent is equal parts thriller and cautionary tale.