- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

National Philanthropy Day, which observes its 20th anniversary today, has never ranked high on the list of major public observances. Sure, it’s ahead of Leif Erickson Day, White Cane Safety Day, and National Aviation Day, but hardly in league with Veterans’ Day or Thanksgiving.

Yet, philanthropy is one of the cornerstones of our society. Last year alone, Americans donated more than $260 billion to nonprofit organizations promoting animal welfare, the arts, education, religious affairs, public health, public policy, medical research and women’s issues, among others.

I serve enthusiastically as president of a family charity and as a trustee of one of America’s leading medical research institutes, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, N.Y. My family strongly believes in charity and the nonprofit sector.

But a word of caution: As the mishandling of funds destined for victims of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina revealed, all is not well in the nonprofit world.

For instance, my family and I are engaged in a major legal dispute with top-ranked Princeton University. In 1961, my parents started a private foundation with $35 million in A&P; stock. They entrusted Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to fulfill the foundation’s mission: Strengthening the U.S. government so it can defend and extend freedom and democracy worldwide by preparing Wilson School graduate students for government leadership positions, with special emphasis on foreign affairs. As we all know, that mission is as relevant today as it was 45 years ago, on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis.

Unfortunately, while Princeton has been more than willing to spend several hundred million dollars of the Robertson Foundation’s money, it has been disinterested in pursuing the foundation’s mission. For instance, between 1990 and 2003, the university spent more than $195 million of the foundation’s funds, but placed just 86 program graduates — out of the 886 whose educations were funded with Robertson Foundation money — in federal government positions concerned with international affairs. Essentially, each placement cost the Robertson Foundation $2.27 million.

Indeed, an analysis under the direction of Michael McGuire, former director of finance at Harvard University Medical School and head of the PricewaterhouseCoopers National Education Advisory Services practice, found that Princeton — since the Robertson Foundation’s inception in 1961 — has misspent more than $200 million of the foundation’s funds on programs, projects, activities and personnel unrelated to the foundation’s mission.

Princeton’s disregard for this important mission is what caused us to bring suit against the university. Our hope is that we can remove Princeton’s control of the foundation and use the money to support universities that take the mission seriously.

Although our case has been in the national spotlight, it is by no means unique. Other colleges and universities and nonprofit organizations also are being called to account for the way they use designated gifts.

Not surprisingly, stories such as ours erode confidence in the nonprofit sector. That’s not our intention. Yet, as Professor Paul Light of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Services noted recently, there have been enough such stories about good intentions gone bad to create an “underlying structure of skepticism” about organized charity in America.

If we win our lawsuit, we hope it will underscore in a public and powerful way the longstanding and universal legal and moral principle that charitable donations, when given and accepted for a specific purpose, may be used only for that purpose. It also will serve as a powerful reminder that nonprofit organizations can and will be held accountable in the courts of law, as well as the court of public opinion, if they fail to operate by the highest ethical standards and choose to ignore donor restrictions.

If this doesn’t happen, National Philanthropy Day in the future may become a day to remember America’s generous past, rather than a day to salute the current achievements of the nonprofit world.

William Robertson (Princeton ‘72) is lead plaintiff in Robertson v. Princeton (www.robertsonvprinceton.org), the largest “donor intent” lawsuit in U.S. history. He can be reached at 501 Goodlette Road, Suite D-100, Naples, Fla. 34102.

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