- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The public does not take kindly to nonprofit organizations, charities and educational institutions that ignore the wishes of donors and misuse donated money, according to a Zogby poll released today.

Ninety-seven percent of the respondents called it a serious matter, with almost three-quarters agreeing that the institutions should be held legally and criminally liable. Another 97 percent said respecting the intent of the donor was ethically important.

Eighty-three percent said an organization that intentionally ignores donor wishes should return the money in full, and 79 percent said they would stop donating to any group that accepted contributions for one purpose but used the money for another.

The poll of 1,294 adults was conducted from Nov. 20 to Nov. 22.

Shoving matches between donors and institutions have a burgeoning history. Yale University returned $20 million to Texas businessman Lee Bass in 1995 after failing to offer a course on Western civilization that he expressly funded. In 2002, Boston University rescinded $3 million in funds designated for a library renovation by David Mugar after the campus used the funds for other projects.

This year, Colorado University and the Getty Trust — the nation’s third-largest private philanthropy — are wrestling with disagreements between administrators and donors stemming from shoddy business practices and philosophical differences.

Meanwhile, the largest “donor intent” lawsuit in U.S. history is under way, pitting Princeton University against William Robertson, whose parents donated $35 million to the school in 1961 to fund a program meant to encourage students to enter public service. The fund is now valued at $650 million.

“The nonprofit sector is one of the foundation stones of America’s civil society,” Mr. Robertson said. “If those of us who support charitable organizations lose faith in these institutions, the whole country suffers.”

Though Princeton has gone through $350 million of the donation, only three of the program’s graduates have gone into public service, Mr. Robertson said. The 1972 Princeton graduate thinks his parent’s money, good will and original intent have been squandered. He filed the lawsuit two years ago to end the university’s control of the funds.

The university says it cannot “force” graduates to pursue government careers, an assertion Mr. Robertson calls “nonsense.” The case goes to trial next year.

He is encouraged by the Zogby poll, which he commissioned, and is reassured that his family is “far from alone” in thinking that donors should have a say in the use of their funds. Though not taking credit for the phenomenon, Mr. Robertson also noted that contributions to Princeton dropped by 44 percent last year.

He also has a message for nonprofits that unwisely toy with donations: “Expect consequences.”

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