Lerner on Giving to Higher Education

Professor Craig Lerner advised that philanthropists should give to something they believe in or limit a gift to five or 10 years to avoid finding years later that their gifts are supporting something that would not have been their choice.

Lerner's comments came during a conference on higher education philanthropy sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a new nonprofit group that strives to represent the interest of donors ready to make major gifts. Among the topics examined by a panel of lawyers, philanthropy experts and college alumni at the conference was the redirecting of gifts intended for a specific purpose without adequate notice to the donors.

Donations to American higher education have been doubling every decade.

Giving Thought to Donor Intent, Inside Higher Ed (, December 7, 2007. By Elia Powers.

"Ron Malone, the lead plaintiff attorney in Robertson v. Princeton, a case involving Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said it's important for donors to consider whether they will have the legal standing to enforce how a gift is used, and whether the recipient college has mechanisms in place to report on how money is being spent.

"More donors are demanding that kind of information and wanting to know what's happening along the way with their gifts, said Anne Yastremski, an alumna of Randolph-Macon Woman's College (now the coed Randolph College) and executive director of Preserve Educational Choice, the alumna/student/donor organization supporting litigation against the college over its decision to admit men and to sell off part of its art collection.

"But Malone said donors who have specific ideas in mind for their gifts often fail to clearly articulate them when talks with colleges take place and papers are being signed.

'It's during that period of euphoria over the gift-giving process when donors need protection,' Malone said. 'Once that check clears, attitudes can change. [Those who handle the money at colleges] aren't bad people; they are just asking the wrong questions,' he added. 'They're saying, "What's the best way to spend the money," rather than, "What covenant do we have with our donors. What did we agree to do with their money?"

"Craig Lerner, a law professor at George Mason University, said donors shouldn't be surprised years later if a gift made with only general terms isn't supporting something they approve of down the line, particularly if they are giving to sources they don't know well. Instead, he said philanthropists should consider finding someone or something they truly believe in, limit a gift to five or 10 years and have enough trust so that strings don't need to be attached.

"Added Ruff Fant, who identified himself as a donor to Vanderbilt University: 'The tendency toward highly targeted gifts isn't good for higher education."

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