Posts tagged ‘Inside Higher Ed’

August 19, 2016

Could Your #Nonprofit be Forced to Return a Donor’s Gift?

Officials at Vanderbilt University got schooled. They learned, the hard way, that nonprofit organizations cannot unilaterally void the terms of a gift agreement without returning the donation.

This is a story that keeps on giving. It provides an important lesson for all nonprofit organizations about the requirement, ethical and legal, to honor donor intent.

The tale begins in 1933 when the Tennessee Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy donated $50,000 to the George Peabody College of Teachers to build a dormitory named “Confederate Memorial Hall.”

Confederate Memorial Hall (2007)

Confederate Memorial Hall (2007)

In 1979, Peabody was merged into Vanderbilt becoming the “Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University.”

After years of discussion, according to Inside Higher Ed, Vanderbilt decided in 2002 to drop the word “Confederate” and rename the building simply “Memorial Hall.” The University took this action without gaining the approval of the Daughters of the Confederacy or returning the gift.

After taking Vanderbilt to court, the Daughters of the Confederacy received a Tennessee Appeals Court ruling in 2005 that ordered the University to either keep the original name of the building or refund the donation … in inflation-adjusted dollars. That $50,000 gift from 1933 is now valued at $1.2 million.

As reported in Inside Higher Ed:

The appeals court unanimously rejected Vanderbilt’s argument that academic freedom gave it the right to change the name. Vanderbilt argued that the Supreme Court has given private colleges considerable latitude in their decisions. But the appeals court said that was irrelevant because the agreement to name the dormitory ‘Confederate Memorial Hall’ was between a donor and a charitable group — and the government never forced the gift to be accepted.”

In its ruling, the Appeals Court stated (emphasis is mine):

We fail to see how the adoption of a rule allowing universities to avoid their contractual and other voluntarily assumed legal obligations whenever, in the university’s opinion, those obligations have begun to impede their academic mission would advance principles of academic freedom. To the contrary, allowing Vanderbilt and other academic institutions to jettison their contractual and other legal obligations so casually would seriously impair their ability to raise money in the future by entering into gift agreements such as the ones at issue here.

It took quite some time but, with money raised from anonymous donors, Vanderbilt paid $1.2 million to the Daughters of the Confederacy and renamed the building this month in accordance with the Court’s judgment.

Unfortunately, this has not brought this story to a happy conclusion. Vanderbilt has damaged its reputation by revealing its willingness to “casually” disregard donor intent.

I stand firmly with the Appeals Court decision. How I feel, or anyone feels, about the old Confederacy or the word “Confederate” on the building is irrelevant in this case. Instead, there are two powerful governing issues involved here:

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September 13, 2013

$250 Million Gift to a Nonprofit is Withdrawn … Sort of

The news headlines were stunning:

Centre College Loses $250-Million Gift — Chronicle of Higher Education 

Centre College Loses $250 Million Gift After “Market Event” — Bloomberg 

Kentucky College Loses $250 Million Gift from Charitable Trust — Reuters 

There’s only one problem with the headlines: There never was a $250 million “gift” to Centre College!

Here are four lessons you can learn from this amazing public relations fiasco:

1. Do NOT mislead the public.

Perhaps the news media can be forgiven for getting the story wrong. After all, Centre College proudly announced on July 30, 2013: “Centre College receives historic gift to establish Brockman Scholars Program.” The official announcement began:

Centre College has received a gift of $250 million in the form of stock in Universal Computer Systems Holding, Inc. (Reynolds and Reynolds) from the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust to establish the Brockman Scholars Program in Leadership and Entrepreneurship.”

Unfortunately, as recent events have demonstrated, the announcement was not just premature it was not true. The fact is that Centre College did not receive a $250 million gift. Peter Lattman, writing for Deal Book/ New York Times, quoted Centre College President John Roush as saying:

In retrospect, we might have put a big asterisk on this thing, but no one had any inkling that this would come about.”

The historic gift was a contingent pledge based on a complex recapitalization deal Centre College - Old Centregoing through. Regrettably, the financial deal blew up and, therefore, the gift never materialized, according to the College.

If the College had simply delayed announcing the gift until it actually materialized, it could have avoided enormous embarrassment. Alternatively, if the College had simply characterized the $250 million as a “pledge” or “potential gift” rather than a “gift,” it still could have avoided significant embarrassment.

2. Recognize the difference between a “pledge” and a “gift.”

Centre College had a contingent pledge for a $250 million gift. They never had the gift. It’s not a gift until you have the cash, stock, property, or irrevocable gift agreement in-hand.

Because the College never had a $250 million gift, it did not lose $250 million. That’s about the best that can be said of this situation. This is really just a case of a nonprofit organization publicly counting its chickens before they hatched. Don’t make the same mistake.

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