Honoring Donor Intent: When it Works, When it Doesn’t

Donor-centered fundraising is smart fundraising. Part of being donor centric involves always honoring the donor’s intent.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Code of Ethical Principles states:

[Fundraising professionals] recognize their responsibility to ensure that needed resources are vigorously and ethically sought and that the intent of the donor is honestly fulfilled.”

Honoring donor intent is essential for at least two reasons:

  1. It’s the right thing to do.
  2. It’s a fundamental way to earn and deserve trust. Without trust, fundraising would be virtually impossible.

To honor donor intent, you must first ensure that the contribution is received according to the donor’s specifications. This is particularly important for planned gifts when the donor is no longer around to make sure everything goes according to plan. The charity becomes the voice of the donor.

The next part of honoring donor intent requires that the organization use the gift for the purpose specified by the donor.

Unfortunately, honoring donor intent is not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes, it works the right way while other times it morphs into something ugly.

Let’s look at two examples.

The Pennsbury Scholarship Foundation learned of the passing of an elderly woman in the community. I first shared her story in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. A member of the all-volunteer organization’s board knew the woman and knew the Foundation was in her will.

The woman’s attorney produced a copy of the will which included a nearly $1 million bequest for the Foundation and nearly nothing for her two estranged children. However, the children produced another version of the will where the charitable provision was whited-out, literally.

The attorney for the children approached the Foundation to negotiate a settlement agreement. The Foundation, under the advice of legal counsel, held firm and asked that the matter proceed to court as soon as possible.

The attorney for the children initiated a series of delaying tactics hoping that the Foundation would eventually negotiate rather than have the matter drag out. Under the advice of legal counsel, the Foundation held firm.

About one year later, surprisingly quickly given the circumstances, the court upheld the clean version of the will, and the Foundation received the full bequest.

In the Foundation’s case, the donor’s interest was in alignment with the charity’s. The Foundation was right to defend the donor’s wishes. By defending the donor’s interest, the Foundation ultimately benefited. More importantly, young people in the community will benefit for years to come as the Foundation provides scholarships that would not otherwise be possible to award.

Sadly, there are times when protecting the interests of the donor cross a line. In those cases, the organization goes from being donor centric to being self-centered, even greedy. This might be the case with the University of Texas.

Warhol's Farrah Fawcett portrait on exhibit at the UT Blanton Museum.

Warhol’s Farrah Fawcett portrait on exhibit at the UT Blanton Museum.

The University received a bequest from Farrah Fawcett. The Seventies icon left “all” her artwork to the University where she had studied art prior to the successful launch of her acting career. The collection included at least one portrait of Fawcett by famed artist Andy Warhol.

However, the Fawcett story is complicated. Warhol actually did two, almost identical pieces. According to Ryan O’Neal, the actor and on-again-off-again boyfriend of Fawcett, Warhol gave one portrait to Fawcett and the other to him.

O’Neal hung his Fawcett portrait in his Malibu Beach house from 1980 to 1997, a fact not in dispute. When O’Neal started a relationship with another woman, he took down Fawcett’s portrait eventually allowing it to be hung in the actress’ condo. When Fawcett died, O’Neal took the portrait from the condo and rehung it at his beach house.

The University went to court claiming that both Warhols belonged to Fawcett. No formal ownership documentation exists because the portraits were a gift from Warhol, a friend of O’Neal’s. O’Neal’s Fawcett portrait is valued at $1 million to $12 million.

On December 19, 2013, a 12-member jury found in favor of O’Neal. While the decision was not unanimous, O’Neal needed to convince at least nine jurors to prevail.

The nasty dispute between the University and O’Neal could have been avoided if Fawcett’s will had been clearer. For example, she could have provided an itemized list of art pieces she was leaving to the University. O’Neal and Fawcett could also have documented the ownership of the Warhols. For example, they could have exchanged letters on the subject.

Because the ownership issue was murky, the University was not wrong when it went to court. Fawcett wanted her art collection to go to the University of Texas, and the University was defending her intent.

While a jury found that the Fawcett portrait in question belongs to O’Neal, that’s not the end of the story. This month, the University filed a notice of appeal with the court.

This case, particularly the appeal, raises many important questions:

• While the University is certainly within its legal rights to appeal, should it?

• By appealing, will the University go from honoring Fawcett’s wishes to hurting someone she loved thereby disrespecting her wishes?

• Does an appeal simply mean the University is being greedy? After all, I suspect the University would not go to the trouble and expense of an appeal if the artwork in question were simply a doodle, say, done by me.

• At what point does protecting donor intent slip into self-interest and greed?

• What impact is the University’s decision likely to have on current and future donors?

What do you think? Let me know in the Comment section below and by voting in the following poll:

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

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