Donor privacy – Foundation operates in secrecy

When Nike CEO Phil Knight withdrew a previously unpublicized $30 million donation from the University of Oregon, it highlighted both the success of the university’s fundraising operation and the secrecy with which its operations are conducted, the Register-Guard in Eugene,  Oregon, reports.

The school built a $317 million endowment through a six-year fund-raising campaign that is touted as the most lucrative private fund drive in university and Oregon history. 

Knight, who at roughly $50 million was the biggest contributor, made about half of his contributions with a lot of publicity, and the other half as an anonymous donor.

These anonymous donations were possible because the university has set up the private, nonprofit UO Foundation to receive gifts.  Unlike the state-run university, the foundation doesn’t have to disclose the sources or uses of its money.

About a third of the money the foundation spent on behalf of the university last year wasn’t recorded in the university’s books.

Duncan McDonald, the university’s vice president in charge of fundraising, told the Register-Guard that the intent isn’t to hide donor identities or sums — most donors like publicity — but to shield other sensitive information, such as whether they are selling off family stock to make the gift.

There are checks and balances, McDonald says.  University officials check that no undue strings are attached to the donations, and the foundation board of trustees oversees investments.  Also, foundation records are audited.

University of Oregon officials want even more anonymity for their donors.  Today, foundation records are private except when public officials ask for them and use them in their work.  Then, the records are subject to disclosure under Oregon public records law. 

University fundraisers would like secrecy to apply to their donor records as well.  They have sent a proposal to the state legislature to exempt the names of donors and related information from the public records disclosure requirement. 

The University of Oregon is part of a national trend towards privacy in public university fund raising, Jim Moore, political science professor at the University of Portland, told the newspaper.

Public universities that have faced budged cuts have moved to fundraising practices more like those of private schools.

Secrecy is part of the shift, Moore said, and it raises questions for public universities that are supposed to be responsible to taxpayers.

“When their funding becomes unknown,” he said, “then it’s hard to find out.  Are they working for corporations and donors, or are they working for the good of society?”

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