Posts tagged ‘return a donation’

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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November 11, 2015

Rejecting a $100,000 Gift Helps #Nonprofit Raise MORE Money

The idea of rejecting a major donation usually sends a chill up the spine of nonprofit executives. After all, nonprofit organizations are not in business to return donations. Instead, charities employ hardworking fundraising professionals to bring in contributions. For many nonprofits, donations are the lifeblood of the organization.

However, rejecting a gift can actually help a charity protect its mission. Recently, I reported on two organizations that rejected or returned major gifts:

“When Should You Refuse a Gift?” — tells the story of Lucy the Elephant rejecting a grant offer from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

“Update: Spelman College Returns Gift from Bill Cosby” — relates why a major gift from Cosby was returned

Not long ago, the Girl Scouts of Western Washington demonstrated that a nonprofit can protect its mission and raise more money by mindfully rejecting a donation. In the case of the Girl Scouts, the organization rejected a $100,000 gift and raised over $250,000 in the process!

Girl Scouts W WashingtonWhen the Girl Scouts received the $100,000 gift, the staff was understandably thrilled. The money equaled approximately one-third of the organization’s financial assistance program budget for the year. The Girl Scouts offer financial assistance so that any girl can join despite economic obstacles.

Unfortunately, the Girl Scouts quickly learned that the major gift came with a major stipulation: the organization could not use any of the funds to help transgender children.

Megan Ferland, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington told Seattle Metropolitan magazine:

Girl Scouts is for every girl. And every girl should have the opportunity to be a Girl Scout if she wants to.”

In other words, accepting the donor’s terms for the gift would have violated the organization’s mission. So, the Girl Scouts made the only decision they could; they returned the gift.

Then, the organization tried to turn a lemon into lemonade. The Girls Scouts launched an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to try to recoup the funds. In the campaign, the Girl Scouts explained the situation. However, the organization correctly protected the privacy of the donor by not revealing the donor’s name.

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