Civics 101 from Richard Dreyfuss
Tom Watson

Robertson Foundation versus Princeton

I received a link to this Robertson versus Princeton website addressed to me from "Nobody" and clearly sent to philanthropy bloggers. It would appear that the battle between the Robertson Foundation and Princeton over donor intent will be fought not only in court but also in the press and on the blogs.

The Robertson gift seems to have been structured (back in 1961 when it was originally given) as what is called a supporting organization, or private foundation under the wing of the university. The purpose, in endowing the Woodrow Wilson School, was to educate students for government service. The board appears to consist of 3 members of the Robertson family, and 4 members appointed by Princeton, giving the school effective control. Now the board appears riven, and the meltdown has ensued over, among other issues, of whether Princeton made good on the donor's mission.

Without opining on the merits of the case, what lessons might donors and heirs learn? Maybe don't use a structure in which you cede control if control is paramount? Maybe don't give a big chunk all at once, rather than doling the funds out gradually, as the nonprofit performs? Or, maybe don't expect to control after you are gone, or trust your heirs to do it; better perhaps to put the money to work more quickly, and handle the processes yourself? Or, maybe, be gracious, let go, and trust the judgment of the organization to which you entrusted the bundle?

Any way you look at it, we seem to be in an era where "ownership," "control," donor intent," "social investment," "accountability," "metrics," and "social return on investment" all point to the tightening of control of philanthropic dollars in the hands of the giver, as opposed to the organization to whom the money is given. Hewing to donor intent seems almost like keeping a bargain or keeping faith. If organizations don't, donors or their heirs may be bitter, and gifts may dry up, not only from that family, but increasingly from donors as a group. On the other hand, if a gift is a kind of partnership with the organization on whom the gift is bestowed, shouldn't the donor cut the organization some slack? And might society too be a party to the gift, and along with accountability to donor intent, might we raise the question of legitimacy? Do gifts come to seem less legitimate as "public spirited acts" deserving of tax favored treatment, and the honor accorded big gifts, if donors and their heirs require control in perpetuity? Do we as a democracy become more like a country ruled by an Aristocracy, or by Pharaohs from their tombs, if a family with its own particular philanthropic, and no doubt political views, can turn a University like Princeton into its minion, or instrumentality?  Do we want one family  calling the shots on how students are selected, trained, and placed in government service by one of America's best schools?  Don't we actually as a nation want a little of checks and balances in the system where donor intent is a key factor, but the recipient organization also has some rights to use independent judgment? And with a supporting organization, with the board under the control of the recipient organization, shouldn't a donor appreciate going in that the school would have the final say? I don't know. I do think the issues require sober discussion, because so much is at stake, from so many angles, for the family, the school, for the precedents set, and for America and the world affected by those in government service. Without knowing all the merits, I would be hesitant as a citizen to say, "Whatever the Robertson family dictates under their mission is darn good thing for America." I hope the national interest or the public interest has a recognized stake and an audible voice in the debate, even if it is one factor among others, to be honorably weighed by the nonprofit's board, and failing agreement there, by the courts.

Link here to articles on the case from The Daily Princetonian. A quick Google search did not yet reveal opinion pieces by Martin Wooster or William Schambra, but I would expect them to weigh in soon on behalf of the Robertson family's donor rights and the outrages perpetrated by liberal elites.