Donor Intent Watch: How Much Power do Higher Education Donors Have?

In 2023, following passage of the Donor Intent Protection Act in Kansas, Philanthropy Roundtable launched a monthly series on donor intent controversies around the country to better inform those who care about this important topic.  

To kick off the year, this month’s Donor Intent Watch begins with commentary on two recent pieces about “donor power” and the relationship of donors to their higher education grantees. It then pivots to an update on the pending lawsuit at Middlebury College which we discussed last year, and closes with an unfortunate example of what happens when emotion drives private and public donors alike. 

We encourage donors to contact us with any questions they have about our featured items and consult additional resources on donor intent at the Roundtable’s Donor Intent Hub. We also welcome any news about donor intent that we may have missed.  

Donor Intent and Donor Power in Higher Education 

As higher education donors continue to make public their dissatisfaction with various institutions’ responses to the Hamas attacks in Israel on October 7 and other campus issues, we are beginning to see critics questioning “donor power” in general and – in some cases – the concept of donor intent.  

Former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Dean Susan King recently spoke out in The Chronicle of Philanthropy about her experience with a major donor. In 2020, she attempted to hire “The 1619 Project” author and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a position that had traditionally included tenure. Her recruitment plan went awry, she maintains, when donor Walter Hussman Jr., for whom the journalism school had been named a year earlier, questioned the scholarship of the 1619 Project, for which Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize.  

His concern should have come as no surprise. It followed a steady stream of criticism by United States history scholars and others and an ongoing debate about the accuracy of Hannah-Jones’s assertions in the 1619 Project since The New York Times first published her work in August 2019. The questions raised by Hussman—and no doubt, others—derailed a quick hire with tenure. And when the university announced in May 2021 that Hannah-Jones would be appointed to the position with a five-year contract and a postponed tenure decision, the controversy exploded in campus protests.  

The trustees reversed their decision and approved tenure on June 30, 2021, but a week later, Hannah-Jones declined the offer and instead accepted Howard University’s offer of a tenured position as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism.  

King now admits, “In retrospect, the Hannah-Jones saga was riddled with foreseeable landmines,” seemingly suggesting that naming the journalism school for Hussman provided him with the “influence and prestige” to affect the opinions of other key decision makers at the university. Hussman, she notes, “wanted to rebuild trust in journalism and felt the best way to do that was by preparing young journalists to be objective reporters who relied on facts to tell the story — not opinion.”   

However, she continues, “His perspective was seen as narrow by the new generation of reporters.” Yet the 2019 announcement of the naming said Hussman’s core values were indeed “objectivity, impartiality, integrity and truth-seeking,” and King acknowledged, “The Hussman family’s passion for journalism is based on unwavering values. Their generosity and vision extend transformational support across all of the media disciplines that we teach and research and serve. Core values are at the root of all we do.”  

The university’s announcement added, “Hussman’s core values will be chiseled in granite at the entryway of Carroll Hall for students to see daily.” It was not Hussman who changed between the school’s naming in September 2019 and the summer of 2020. 

King is now proposing that colleges and universities adopt “new ways of doing business — new rules and new, occasionally uncomfortable, conversations about expectations, values and the role of donors.” I agree. Those conversations should be part of an institution’s fundraising and stewardship responsibilities from the day it first opens its doors. She also suggests that university leadership ask what to do “when a donor’s political, emotional or personal agenda doesn’t align with your institution’s goals.”  

Here’s my answer: you decline the gift. You don’t cajole the donor into betraying his or her values and you certainly don’t accept the gift knowing your institution will not honor the donor’s intent. She wishes the grant agreement Carolina signed with Hussman was more specific and “made it clear that Hussman wouldn’t have a say in hiring, firing or setting an agenda.” But Hussman didn’t have the authority to hire, fire or set an agenda – the only power he had was the power of influence.  

King opines that donors should sign a “no influence” clause but cannot explain how such a clause would be enforced. Is she suggesting Hussman should have been prohibited from expressing his opinion to the press, university trustees or other donors? How exactly would Carolina have accomplished that? She speaks of the space “where influence and academic integrity intersect,” but fails to consider how that space can (or should) be policed.  

The most revealing questions she asks are these: “How do you honestly recruit alumni, business leaders and foundations to support an institution’s larger mission without selling out? How do you take their money and make it clear that they don’t control how it’s spent?” Without even a slight nod to donor intent, King provides her answers.  

“Donors must understand,” she writes, “that their contributions don’t buy anything within a university besides supporting higher education’s mission to create knowledge, to question everything, to unsettle conventional thought, to research the past and to discover the future. … More donors need to recognize that their role is to affirm and to continue that great American university tradition: to be a place where people can disagree and still respect each other.” But why should universities offer a space for “people” to disagree and not donors?  

A very different perspective on higher education donors comes from Rebecca Richards in an article published in Law and Liberty. Richards, director of the Fund for Academic Renewal at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, notes, “Donors have two primary forms of influence: philanthropy and reputation.” Their philanthropic influence derives from restricted gifts that target specific college and university departments and functions, from academics and athletics to financial aid and student life.  

Although restricted gifts have come under intense criticism in the past few years – particularly by proponents of trust-based philanthropy – Richards reminds us that large, restricted gifts “are rarely a complete surprise” to their higher education beneficiaries. Nor do experienced and sophisticated development officers typically accept them without careful review of any grant agreement the donor provides.  

Richards also debunks the notion that donors can easily enforce such agreements, writing, “These restricted agreements can be enforceable by law under a highly specific set of circumstances if they include a clause retaining donor standing (the right to sue should the gift be misused) and even then, only if the state’s attorney general office gets involved.”  

What then of a donor’s reputational influence? In recent months we have witnessed the impact on higher education of public statements from donors critical of how colleges and universities responded to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and to antisemitism on campuses. Donors also have spoken out about campus culture in general, and specifically, the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) infrastructure.  

Donors cannot demand that college administrators pursue actions that violate academic freedom, but do donors overstep some unknown boundaries by simply speaking out about what they perceive as misguided leadership? It would be naive to think donors’ philanthropy makes absolutely no difference in how much their opinions matter to university officials. But it would be equally foolish to suggest money will always carry the day.  

With an increasing number of universities controlling endowments of $10 billion and more, even million-dollar gifts are small change. Harvard University will fare quite well financially without any future support from alumnus Bill Ackman, for example, as will the University of Pennsylvania without Marc Rowan. The real threats these donors pose to the higher education status quo are their intelligence and ability to deliver messages that resonate with other alumni and donors – even those without millions to give. It’s gratifying to imagine that their Ivy League educations may well have contributed to their intellectual development and communication skills.  

Read more here and here

Middlebury College 

In our August 2023 Donor Intent Watch, we reported on the unsuccessful attempt by Middlebury College to dismiss a March 2023 lawsuit filed by former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas regarding the 2021 removal of the Mead name from the iconic Mead Memorial Chapel. College officials defended their action by citing the brief involvement in the eugenics movement by another former state governor, John Mead, who funded the chapel in 1914.  

Middlebury’s motion to dismiss rested on two arguments: first, that the gift agreement did not require the Mead name remain on the chapel in perpetuity and second, that Douglas and the Mead family lack standing to bring the case to court. The Vermont Superior Court saw no problem with legal standing, but focused instead on the documentation of the terms of the 1914 gift and allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with discovery. In a recent article, Middlebury student Tejas Srinivasan noted, “Both parties have agreed to an Alternate Dispute Resolution stipulation that the case be ready for trial by June 14, 2024.” We will keep our readers informed about this lawsuit. 

Read more here.  

onePULSE Foundation  

Sometimes donor intent falls victim to an unfortunate mix of tragedy, understandable human emotion, overreaching and careless planning. Following the deplorable June 2016 mass shooting which killed 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Pulse owner Barbara Poma formed the onePULSE Foundation. Over the past seven and a half years, the foundation successfully raised over $20 million dollars from private and public donors.  

A portion of those funds supported the onePULSE Foundation Legacy Scholarship program for financially needy undergraduate and graduate students with special consideration given to the families of Pulse victims and those first responders who assisted at the nightclub following the shooting.  

The core priority of the foundation, however, was the construction of a memorial on the nightclub’s site and a museum nearby. In Poma’s words, “Creating a memorial was always our priority in order that the community honor and remember those whose lives were taken and to provide a place of healing for survivors and those who lost loved ones.” 

In April 2023, Barbara Poma left the onePULSE Foundation where she had served as executive director until 2022 and afterwards as a fundraiser. In October, onePULSE Foundation announced the cancellation of its plan for a museum, returning the land it had purchased with public funds to Orange County. At the same time, the city of Orlando purchased the Pulse nightclub property for $2 million, intending to construct a permanent memorial on that site.  At that point, the onePULSE Foundation confronted questions about whether restricted gifts meant for the museum or memorial would be returned to its public and private donors.  

WESH, the local NBC station, reported on November 1, 2023 that foundation executive director Deborah Bowie had indicated “Anyone who donated money specifically to build the memorial or museum will be getting it back.” The very next day, Bowie claimed her words had been misinterpreted and she was referring only to public donors. The foundation’s chief communications officer Scott Bowman told WESH, “The Foundation has never had a plan to return funds to individual donors, as those gifts have already been used appropriately, whether they were restricted or unrestricted gifts.”  

Florida’s public donors are faring somewhat better. Of Orange County’s original $10 million gift for the planned museum, only $6.5 million was actually transferred. The land that had been purchased with $3.5 million of that money was returned to Orange County, but $3 million had been spent on museum design and is unlikely to be returned. Florida also made significant gifts for both the museum and the memorial, and State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) has stated, “My goal is to ensure that all public monies intended to go toward a Pulse memorial will go toward a Pulse memorial.”  

On November 22, 2023 – following the resignations of both its board chair and executive director – the onePULSE Foundation announced its dissolution.  

Note: Following publication of the January Donor Intent Watch, we received a message from former onePULSE Foundation executive director, Deborah Bowie, regarding comments attributed to her by the local Orlando news outlet in late October/early November 2023. We understand that at that time, Bowie had been executive director for a little over a year and fundraising and giving guidelines for the foundation had been established by her predecessor. We are grateful for the clarification. Below are Bowie’s remarks: 

In the hours after the onePULSE Foundation board of trustees returned the museum property to Orange County, I was asked by WESH TV (local Orlando news station) whether donors for the capital projects would be able to receive refunds. I replied that all projects where dollars had been received would be eligible for refunds. However, I learned later in the day that the Foundation had never solicited for its capital projects individually. In fact, donors were asked to donate to the Museum and the Memorial (together) while other donor solicitations included education programming, scholarships and events (essentially making their gifts the equivalent to an unrestricted gift).  

Donations to the Memorial and Museum were applied to the annual operating costs of the Memorial since the Museum property had not entered into an engineering plan and basically stalled during the pandemic. Additionally, I learned the organization had no written/stated refund policy, thus further complicating the process to allow for donor refunds for the now defunct capital projects. I never said I was referring to public donors only; that statement is incorrect. I did contact WESH later in the day to clarify the lack of a refund policy and bundling of the organization’s solicitation requests, which made it difficult to approve a blanket refund process.” 

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