Intent critical

Nonprofits should use gifts for purposes specified by donors.

[Editor’s note: William Robertson and his sisters are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that involves the issue of donor-intent and seeks to divest Princeton University of its control of the Robertson Foundation, which was founded by their parents and has an endowment of nearly $600 million.]

By William Robertson

[04.28.04] — From the earliest days of our nation, Americans have been a generous, giving people and our voluntary support of charity has been a cornerstone of society.

In 2003 alone, we donated more than $241 billion to charitable organizations.

The groups receiving our donations varied greatly, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and supporting animal welfare, the arts, elementary, secondary and higher education, conservation and medical research, and religious and public policy causes, among others.

Our reasons for giving are usually the same: Most people support philanthropic activities because they care.

A 2002 charitable giving survey by Citibank found 67 percent of all Americans base their charitable donation decisions on personal interests and passions.

That’s why honoring donor intent is so important. When people donate money to nonprofit organizations for a specific purpose — whether it’s 10 cents, $100 or $100 million — that’s how the money should be used. Without this guarantee, Americans are less likely to give.

Unfortunately, the courts in our country have not set a clear legal precedent on this issue, and it’s essential they do so at this crucial time in our history.

According to the 1999 seminal study by researchers John Haven and Paul Schervish at Boston College’s Social Welfare Research Institute, which was updated and re-released last year, some $41 trillion in inheritances will be distributed by the year 2052.

Of that, the researchers estimated, as much as $6 trillion will be given to charity.

Whether this astronomical amount truly ends up in the hands of the many organizations that need it to continue their good works will depend in large part on the ability – and willingness – of the nonprofit community to guarantee that the gifts will be used as intended.  Affirmation of donor intent by the courts will help this process by sending a strong signal to the nonprofit sector that it must accept and embrace this concept, and by allaying the fears of the growing number of Americans who are trying their hardest not to let skepticism get the best of them.

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