The Corner

Politics & Policy

In College Giving, the Donor-Intent Problem Is Not New

If you want to donate a lot of money to a college or university, but would like it to be used for the purposes you have in mind, you’d better be careful. The people who run them are often tempted to enthusiastically agree to your terms, but then use the money for whatever they want.

One scholar who has been digging into donor-intent cases is Martin Morse Wooster. In today’s Martin Center article, he writes about a recent book about the difficulties that feminist donors faced long ago when they sought to ensure that their money would be used to open doors for women.

Sometimes they were successful, sometimes not. The difference was in demanding iron-clad guarantees that their money would be used as they wanted.

Mary Elizabeth Garrett wanted Johns Hopkins’ medical school to be open to women, but the first president of JHU, Daniel Coit Gilman, didn’t want women. He just wanted the funds. It took several years of perseverance before Garrett finally got her way.

On the other hand, Olivia Sage wanted New York University to open a women’s college. In 1906, she gave more than $294,000 to NYU, but had nothing more than a promise to use the money for women’s education. It never was.

Wooster concludes with this lesson: “Educational philanthropists should assume that college administrators will use money they donate however the administrators choose unless they draft their documents carefully and then monitor the use of every dollar.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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