The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving
by Jerry L. Martin and Anne D. Neal
American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 1998
America’s colleges and universities are enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Not only are tuition and enrollment up, but so is donor support. In 1997, donors filled college coffers to the tune of $16 billion, up 12 percent from the year before. Of this total, alumni and other individuals chipped in $8.5 billion and foundations and corporations another $6.25 billion. The rest came from religious organizations and other sources.
Yet there is trouble in the ivory tower, in the form of distrust between donors and their alma maters. Three years ago, amidst a public relations nightmare, Yale was forced to return a $20 million gift alumnus that Lee Bass had earmarked for the establishment of a Western Civilization program. That same year, a group of Dartmouth alumni filed suit against the College’s board of trustees for attempting to shrink alumni influence by amending the alumni constitution. And in 1997, a case between the University of Bridgeport and the Herzog Foundation, which accused the University of misusing its $250,000 grant, was settled after an acrimonious legal battle that reached the Connecticut Supreme Court.
But these are all symptoms of donor dissatisfaction. The causes include the watering down of the curriculum with dubious course offerings and programs. This is not another case of removing “core” requirements to learn Aristotle and Shakespeare; that happened 20 years ago at most large universities. What has alumni riled up is what is replacing the standards of the Western canon—from courses on prison literature and pop culture to conferences such as the State University of New York’s “Challenges of Women’s Sexual Freedom,” which featured workshops and panels on sex toys, sadomasochism, and other issues that should be of limited academic interest.
Most alums and donors do not want to fund this kind of offal, and fortunately such programs are still more the exception than the rule. But there are other landmines. To pick a prosaic but more relevant concern for the average donor, how can one ensure that his or her specially-earmarked gift does not fall prey to fungibility (an institution’s ability to redirect funds originally earmarked for a particular program because they have been made available by virtue of a gift)?
A guide to help donors with these issues is now available from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in the form of The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving. The Guide, which Lee Bass cites as “a wonderful primer for donors who really care about how their gift is used,” is a short, well-organized handbook to promote effective gift-giving to institutions of higher learning. Readers will find its advice simple and refreshingly sensible. The book consists of a series of steps, ranging from defining one’s goals to safeguarding against fungibility, to seeking advice from donor and alumni groups, in order to help donors, both big and small, to make informed decisions about their giving.
What really sets the Guide apart is its respect for donor choice. The Guide adheres to a basic principle: donors should be allowed to give to the cause and for the purpose they see fit—after all, it’s their money. The authors do not presume to provide purposes or programs that donors ought to support, only that they be clear about their own goals. Once donors define their purposes, the authors urge them to find a contact at the institution to facilitate the implementation of their gift, make sure that the institution is clear about the gift’s purpose, and monitor the program resulting from the gift. If donors like the idea of making informed choices, but don’t have the time or energy to decide a suitable purpose or ensure the gift’s proper use, ACTA’s Fund for Academic Renewal will even help them locate projects that reflect their educational values, draft appropriate restrictions, and monitor their gifts. The Guide represents a significant breakthrough for donors who want to make their giving to colleges and universities more meaningful, and is available free of charge by calling (888) ALUMNI-8.
Thomas Suh is a research policy analyst at the American Academy of Liberal Education, a Washington, D.C.-based national agency for the accreditation of institutions of higher education.