Colleges, especially during these tough fundraising times, are reluctant to turn down money. But maybe it's time they start.
Earlier this week, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education held its annual conference in New York. And the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported on an interesting exchange. Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts University
said colleges that relied on endowment gifts to start new programs dug themselves into a financial hole because such programs require additional resources to operate, especially when endowment values drop. Institutions need more flexibility, not less, in how they spend their money, Mr. Bacow asserted.
The challenge will be for colleges to change the conversation from "what donors want to do" to "how they can help institutions meet their goals." His ideal question to donors: "How can you help us encourage innovation and foster strong leadership?"
Here was the response from Charles Bronfman, founder and chairman of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, according to the Chronicle. He told the audience that
Donors no longer wanted to contribute to an umbrella organization—they give where their passions lie...
For Mr. Bronfman, the joy of giving comes from understanding what issues move him personally. If an institution doesn't believe a gift fits its mission, he said, it's the college's responsibility to try to find a better solution. "Work with the donor," Mr. Bronfman said. And if that doesn't change the donor's mind, a college should be disciplined and say thank you, but no.
Now there's a refreshing perspective. It's not uncommon these days to hear college administrators like Mr. Bacow complain about having to spend money on donors' pet projects when the money could be better used for other things. In fact, it's become a regularly sung trope among faculty that some philanthropy (usually from right-wing donors) is actually a violation of academic freedom. (I actually heard a vice president of the Ford Foundation make just that claim at a conference a couple of years ago.)
But here's the thing. No one is forcing colleges to take anyone's money. If you can't live with the donor's terms or you think their interests don't support your institutional mission--move on.