A Gift Teaches Donors Not to Write Blank Checks

  • Education
  • 1961

In 1961, Charles and Marie Robertson anonymously gave Princeton University $35 million to create programs at its Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy and International Affairs that would “strengthen the government of the United States and increase its ability and determination to defend and extend freedom throughout the world by improving the facilities for the training and education of young men and women for government service.” At the time, it was the largest grant ever bestowed upon a single university, and by 2008 the donated assets were worth more than $900 million.

Within five years, the Robertsons were unhappy with Princeton. They did not like the direction or results at the Woodrow Wilson School, and had come to believe that Princeton accepted the donation without really intending to pursue its stated purposes. In 2002 the family brought suit, contending that the university had never been serious about honoring the Robertsons’ goals, and instead spent the funds however it chose. Just before the case went to trial in 2009 the two parties reached a settlement which saw Princeton paying all the legal bills of the foundation while also returning about $50 million to the Robertson family. This case reinforced for donors, and also recipients, the importance of clearly spelling out the intent behind a gift—whenever possible with concrete and measurable results—and making sure that both parties are committed to the mission.