Benefits of a Gift Gone Wrong

The Robertsons' donation to Princeton has much to teach other philanthropists

  • Philanthropy Magazine Summer 2014
  • Donor Intent

Charles and Marie Robertson made a gift of $35 million to Princeton University in 1961. The largest gift at the time to benefit a single university, it was directed to the Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy and International Affairs “to 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.”

That never happened.

Ironically, the university’s failure led the Robertsons’ son Bill and his siblings to make an even greater gift—to the whole country. By engaging in six years of hard-fought litigation at stiff personal and financial cost, the Robertson children held Princeton University accountable to the agreement that the school had voluntarily made with their parents. Doug White’s Abusing Donor Intent: The Robertson Family’s Epic Lawsuit Against Princeton University demonstrates the value of the Robertson heirs’ persistence, while plumbing the complex problem of donor intent, and the limits of philanthropy’s ability to change institutions, much less the world.

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Robertson v. Princeton settled out of court for $100 million. Though but a fraction of the current value of the gift (which reached $900 million in the year of the settlement), that’s a remarkable sum. With the proceeds, the Robertson children established a new foundation to carry out the intent of their parents’ original gift, and Princeton moved on, maintaining that it never veered from the intent of Charles and Marie Robertson’s gift, and that it was wronged by the Robertson heirs.

All of that is fairly well known. What is less well known is how and why the Robertsons’ donation, made and received with the best of intentions, went so miserably wrong. White’s analysis of the personalities, institutional dynamics, and grievances involved skillfully dissects the sources of discord. The value of White’s book, however, is less his careful blow-by-blow recounting of the conflict than his thematic and practical reflections about how philanthropists and charities might avoid similar problems in the future. 

For example, White emphasizes the necessity of trust in philanthropy, especially in preserving donor intent. This may sound trivial, but it’s not. In the absence of trust, as White shows, there is no rule, no law, no reporting regime, and no metric that will satisfy discontented parties. A culture of trust is a precondition for a satisfactory working relationship. Without trust, verification—regardless of its rigor—never quells suspicion.

“Charles Robertson knew better,” White reports. “Despite his lifelong love for the university—it had given the middle-class boy many opportunities—he harbored doubts from the beginning about whether Princeton would honor its commitments.” Robertson shopped the project to other schools, but he was under pressure to make the gift quickly: “He didn’t want to wait too long after the family trust dissolved because he thought the stock’s value would decrease. Time was of the essence.”

White writes that the Robertsons’ relationship with Princeton started going sour quite soon. A mere five years into the association, “Robertson was unhappy. He didn’t like the direction of the Woodrow Wilson School or the results.” An absence of trust complicated the partnership at every turn. Soon the question became, as White puts it, “not only whether Princeton should have accepted the gift, but whether the Robertsons should have offered it.” 

This lack of trust was exacerbated by the chasm that separated the Robertson family’s expectations and Princeton University’s practices. Their disparate worlds merged around an unprecedented gift, but did not coalesce, causing friction rather than harmony. The conventions of unbending academic freedom, fierce faculty autonomy, and fungible finances make university business practices seem byzantine to outsiders. This is further complicated by the fact that those cultivating and accepting gifts on behalf of schools are not the ones who determine the direction of the university. Presidents, deans, and development officers come and go; faculty endure. Even when things are going well, academia seems uniquely designed to foster suspicion. Princeton still maintains it honored the donors’ original intent better than the Robertson children did: Marie Robertson wanted the funds to be for Princeton and controlled by Princeton, and that’s how things unfolded, the university argues.

The Robertsons imagined a very specific outcome for their gift: more Princeton graduates in government service. Princeton did not deliver, and may never have intended to. Just 14 percent of alumni of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School who received their master’s degrees in public affairs between 1973 and 2006 went to work for the federal government in international affairs. Here is where the Robertsons’ expectations were catastrophically misaligned with the school’s mission and abilities. No university can guarantee definite outcomes for its graduates. Unfortunately, Princeton was willing to let unrealistic expectations flower. Simple truth was suppressed.

White’s book is timely. Today, there are at least 42 college capital campaigns underway with goals of $1 billion or more. Unthinkable just 20 years ago, the $1 billion fundraiser has become commonplace. Yet for all the money that has been and will be donated to higher education, the exotic conventions and practices of academia frequently still remain at odds—often wildly so—with the expectations of donors. Numerous post-Robertson higher-education gifts gone wrong show that philanthropists continue to betray a collective ignorance on practices of the academy and fail to take measures to protect their donor intent. The Robertsons’ legacy to American philanthropy is their fight to hold one university accountable. Doug White’s book makes that legacy accessible to every philanthropist and charity. It should be read widely.