Press Releases | Philanthropy

New Guide is First to Show Donors How to Avoid Pitfalls in Their College Giving

ACTA Releases The Intelligent Donor's Guide to College Giving
November 9, 1998

WASHINGTON, DC—In the face of growing public concern about the trends in higher education, ACTA today released The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving, the first book designed to show donors how to avoid pitfalls in their college giving.

WASHINGTON, DC—In the face of growing public concern about the trends in higher education, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) today released The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving, the first book designed to show donors how to avoid pitfalls in their college giving. The 75-page book focuses on individual and corporate donors who—last year alone—gave $14.2 billion to institutions of higher education.

Education philanthropist Lee M. Bass, who successfully demanded that Yale University return his $20 million gift in 1995, called the Guide “a wonderful primer for donors who really care about how their gift is used.”

Robert H. Malott, former chairman and chief executive officer of FMC Corporation, praised the book as an important new perspective on educational philanthropy. “The key to successful giving is the same as for successful investing,” said Malott. “Know the beneficiary of your educational giving as well as you know the companies in which you invest. Satisfy yourself that educational recipients of your contributions meet your standards of educational excellence.”

“Donors who direct their gifts wisely are the true benefactors of their colleges,” said Lynne V. Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and chairman of ACTA.

The Guide, which is available free of charge, provides step-by-step guidance on targeted giving as well as profiles of successful gifts.

The Guide is based on the principle that, “It’s your money—you get to decide how to use it.” It encourages donors to decide what college activities they value most and direct their funds to those activities. Here are eight “pillars of wisdom” drawn from the Guide:

1. Target your giving to an activity or program you really believe in. Money given to the general fund may not achieve anything you care about. Be selective. Identify a program that reflects your own educational values. Direct your funds entirely to that program.

2. Get all the information you can. Some programs may not be so good as they look at first glance. Ask for detailed information. Do some investigating on your own.

3. Find a faculty friend. The best guide to high-quality funding opportunities is a faculty member whose judgment you trust.

4. Put your instructions in writing. Too many donors give on the basis of a smile and a handshake. State clearly and precisely what activities your funds can be used to support.

5. Monitor your gift. Sometimes colleges neglect a donor’s instructions. In some cases, they have not even implemented a funded project. Ask for follow-up reports every year.

6. Put a time-limit on your gift. If you make a gift in perpetuity, there is no way to ensure it will be used as you intended. Make a commitment for a year or a few years and then re-evaluate.

7. Respect academic freedom. The ability of donors to direct their funds is limited by academic rules. Respect these limits. Do not attempt to micromanage.

8. Get help. Free help is available from the Fund for Academic Renewal. According to Forbes magazine, the Fund “helps donors identify the best academic programs to support, specify their intent and make sure that intent is honored.”

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is a nonprofit organization dedicated to academic freedom and excellence with members from over 200 colleges and universities. 

Highlights from The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving:

  • “If you were to invest in a commercial project, you would expect to see it brought to completion—fully, on schedule, and to the level of quality promised. As an intelligent donor, you should expect no less of your investment in higher education.” (p. 7)
  • “Informed consumers lead to better products. As former Yale provost Frank Turner explains, ‘Donor restrictions can call institutions of higher education to fulfill their highest ideals….’ Today, colleges and universities are faced with serious challenges to both academic quality and intellectual openness. Careful giving has never been more needed.” (p. 7)
  • There is a master key to intelligent giving. Be selective. You do not buy every stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange. …You should be as wise a shopper in your higher education giving as you are in selecting a stock or mutual fund. Identify the best programs or activities and direct your funds to those.” (p. 7)
  • “Most donors give the easy way. They contribute to the annual fund or a capital campaign. They are supporting the bad along with the good.” (p. 7)
  • “Intelligence requires separating fact from fiction, reality from illusion. Most alumni view their alma maters through the rosy lens of nostalgia. You’ve heard the joke, ‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.’ Well, your college may not be what it used to be either. Enjoy the memories, but look at the reality.” (p. 11)
  • “Foundations as well as universities have a lemming-like tendency to rush after the latest scholarly, ideological, or pedagogical fashion. They want to be ‘innovative,’ at the ‘cutting edge,’ in tune with the latest nuances of political correctness. By comparison, such educational ideals as liberal arts education, high academic standards, close reading, clear writing, and rigorous thinking look hopelessly old-fashioned. Some donors forget that, for the typical student, it is rock music that is old and familiar; Plato and Adam Smith are new and dazzlingly different. So remember: The best program is not necessarily the most ‘innovative’; it may be the most classic, traditional, or timeless.” (p. 17)
  • “Alumni can help their colleges best by supporting oases of excellence—outstanding programs that give students an alternative to standard campus fare.” — Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of History, City University of New York (p. 18)
  • “Political correctness has had a devastating impact on the university’s mission. On many of the great issues of the day, students are allowed to hear only one point of view. Speakers with a different point of view are rarely invited—a form of prior censorship—or disinvited once their point of view is discovered. … Donors can make a major difference by supporting speakers who will expose students to a range of ideas.” (p. 21)
  • “Think twice before you fund a building or an endowed chair. If your aim is to improve the education available to students or the research conducted by faculty, a building does little to enhance the intellectual content, pedagogy, or research methodology of either. The key to education and research is what goes on inside the buildings.” (p. 23)
  • “Donors should place sufficient restrictions on their gifts to ensure that the college respects their intent. But they should not try to micromanage and, above all, they should not threaten academic freedom. Donors who want the best for their colleges should not only respect that freedom, they should support and defend it whenever it is threatened.” — J. Harvey Saunders, president, Westminster College, 1977-1992 (p. 24)
  • “Stating your restrictions in clear and unmistakable terms will save both you and the college many a heartache.” (p. 37)
  • The lesson is simple: give away all you can now. And give it away in limited-term gifts to keep it accountable. Many a donor has seen his gift in perpetuity misused even in his lifetime. As one donor points out, ‘The best safeguard of your values during your lifetime is you.’” (p. 41)
  • “The donor who just gives money and walks away is unlikely to achieve the best results. When I fund scholarships in a particular program, for example, I make sure to visit the campus at least once a year. I meet with students and faculty. That way I can gauge the success of the gift, and make changes if they are needed.” — Philip Merrill, publisher, Washingtonian magazine. (p. 48)
  • “If you don’t care if your money goes to support ‘Vampire Fiction’ or ‘Soap Opera’ studies, you can probably just send a check. But if you want to advance education in more sensible ways, attach some strings. If in doubt, Lynne Cheney’s outfit can help.” — Forbes, April 20, 1998 (inside cover).

Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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