Sometimes, it’s not very good to give, or to receive.
Princeton University is in the midst of a contentious legal dispute with a former donor’s family concerning a gift now worth almost $900 million.
The lawsuit, which was sent to trial last week, could potentially have an impact that reaches past Princeton’s wallet, ultimately affecting donor-university relations nationwide.
In the suit, the family of Marie Robertson, who donated $35 million to Princeton in 1961, is seeking up to $600 million for Princeton’s alleged failure to adhere to Robertson’s original stipulation.
His donation sought to help Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs prepare graduates for jobs in the federal government, and the family feels the numbers of Princeton graduates in such jobs is too low.
Princeton’s problem isn’t the first high-profile instance of donor discontent; Yale University, for example, returned $20 million to Lee Bass in 1991 for not adhering to his request for the creation of certain Western Civilization programs.
But experts like Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, say the Princeton case may cause donors to keep a more careful watch on how universities manage their money.
That point may be especially salient for Penn, which began the public phase of its $3.5-billion capital campaign in October.
John Zeller, vice president for Development and Alumni Relations, said he cannot remember any similar misunderstandings with donors, adding that Penn has certain mechanisms in place to keep donors constantly informed.
Penn’s stewardship system, Zeller explained, updates donors on at least an annual basis on the specific uses and investment returns of their gifts.
Princeton also has a similar system, but Zeller said Penn tries to avoid disputes like the Robertson case by creating flexible agreements.
Decades after a donation is given, the desired use of a gift may evolve, particularly with donations targeting science and technology.
A new discovery or the introduction of new technology can potentially challenge a donor’s original plan, so Zeller said the University and donors try to create an agreement in which the donor’s intentions can be followed as closely as possible.
Michael Milton of the Association for Fundraising Professionals said all universities could benefit from improved communication with donors.
“A charity or university should show good stewardship,” he said. “A gift doesn’t end with giving the gift.”