Today we proudly sing the praise of her who holds us as her sons*–and other academic anachronisms

The issue of alumni giving (or alumni non-giving, or non-alumni giving–does that cover all the possibilities?) fails to fade away.  First, from Professor Anita Bernstein:

I bought [the August 28, 2007 edition of the] Wall Street Journal** to read on the plane . . . and saw its story on my favorite blog topic, alumni donations to colleges.  [Zachary Seward’s article] had a Chicago focus: some fellow with bachelor’s and law degrees from U of C, an Abbott Labs lawyer, decided to snub Chicago and favor Lake Forest College instead.  He put his name on its library for $6 million, I think, chortling about how much kavod [Hebrew: "honor"] a dollar buys in a school with only a $75 million endowment.

Then Michael Anderson at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic passed along "Exacting
Donors Reshape College Giving," from the September 4 Washington Post

Geri Cecil loved Randolph-Macon
Woman’s College . . . and every year after she graduated in 1968 she gave the school money.
. . .That’s all over now.

Last year,
Cecil felt blindsided by a major change at the college: plans to admit men. She
said she didn’t hear of the proposal until shortly before it was approved and
saw alumnae such as herself stonewalled when they objected. So she stopped
donating — forever, she said. . . .

"I certainly have learned
one thing," Cecil said. "I will never make an unrestricted pledge to anyone,
ever again."

[Here the Nonprofiteer admits to puzzlement: what difference would restricted giving–"Exclusively for a program in basket-weaving"–have made under these circumstances?]

Finally–though of course not really–there’s the cluster of articles detailing Dartmouth‘s recent decision to remove alumni from their prominent, not to say dominant, position of the Board of Trustees, apparently to liberate academic professionals and their tame business supporters–a/k/a trustees–from alumni demands: see the Boston Globe this week, the Washington Post this week, the New York Times this week (twice!), the Boston Globe in August and even the editorial in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal**.

Something (says the Nonprofiteer, with her firm grasp of the obvious) is going on.  But it’s not obvious whether what’s going on is that:

  • universities are leading the way for other nonprofits in declaring that they need general operating support and will no longer tolerate gifts purporting/intending/operating to dictate program; or
  • universities have staffs managing one institution, trustees governing another and alumni envisioning or remembering a third (a situation bound to produce vertigo, if not out-and-out disaster); or
  • universities are experiencing frequent and high-profile encounters with the "new donor" appearing sector-wide, that is, someone who expects to purchase lots of influence at relatively low cost (suggesting the prince who disdained his mother the queen: "That woman certainly expects rich payment for nine months’ lodging!"), or
  • these noisy donors are not new but in fact the sickeningly familiar character who imagines him/herself better able to decide what’s best for an organization s/he’s supporting than the people who are running it (in which case, why support the organization at all?), or
  • some, all or none of the above. 

At the very least, the sentimentality of old school ties is being replaced by a desire for impact, which sometimes means a more profound aspiration to do good but often reflects merely a conflation of "doing good" with "having control." 

A free subscription to this blog to any and all commenters who can explain what the hell is going on here, and what the hell we should do about it.  Is the problem with alumni power that they don’t actually give enough money to deserve it; and if so, how much money would be enough?  Or is the problem that alumni actually have pretty poor academic governance skills, on average; and if so, how does that distinguish them from the amateur governors of most nonprofits? 

The Nonprofiteer admits to a more-than-sneaking sympathy for the professional staff, complemented by a preference for deference to those whose involvement in the institution is long-term, informed and expensive–that is, trustees.  "Client representation" on agency boards is all the rage among institutional funders, and certainly the people being served should be heard from.  But to what extent do clients from an agency’s past have experience relevant to current operations?  And what are alumni but noisy ex-clients?

Alumni enraged by the University of Chicago’s decision to alter the size and organization of its undergraduate college apparently were incapable of noticing that the size and organization for which they were nostalgic was bankrupting the institution they purported to love.  The Nonprofiteer’s own take on that teapot tempest appears somewhere in the archives of the University of Chicago Magazine.

Let’s hear from all the sons and daughters–faithful and faithless alike–of the nation’s alma maters.  (Almas mater?)  Today . . .* 


*First line of University of Chicago alma mater.  Really really no kidding.

**Reminder: the Wall Street Journal and most other restricted-access newspaper contents, including the New York Times’ so-called "Times Select" articles, are available full-text on the ProQuest Newspapers data-base, available through many public and university libraries for the price of a library card–that is to say, free.  Wherever a direct link is available to an article, it’s provided here; otherwise, search ProQuest by keyword "alumni" or by article author.


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6 Responses to “Today we proudly sing the praise of her who holds us as her sons*–and other academic anachronisms”

  1. Paul Oostenbrug Says:

    The Philanthropy News Digest published an article on September 5 that noted “Donors today increasingly are likely to contribute to specific projects rather than the operating funds that are the lifeblood of colleges and universities and are much more willing to stop giving if they don’t like the way their money is being used,” citing an article that originally appeared in the Washington Post reports. The article cites a case that is brewing at Princeton University, where school officials are in court with the members of the Robertson family, heirs to the A&P supermarket fortune, over a fund that has grown from a $35 million gift of stock in 1961 to more than $840 million. Family members filed the suit against the university claiming that the funds were not being used as stipulated in the terms of the original gift — to prepare students for public service jobs in government.
    This case is being watched closely by administrators at other colleges (obviously because of the dollars involved), though Princeton portrays the ongoing legal skirmish as being about academic freedom. Sheldon Steinbach, a lawyer specializing in higher education, notes that “An adverse determination could lead to litigation by a variety of donors across the nation. The Philanthropy News Digest article can be viewed at
    This confrontation reminds me of what happened in Chicago in 2002 when the heirs of the Searle family, which had donated significant funds (which have undoubtedly appreciated considerably since the original donation) to the Chicago Community Trust. You may recall that there was a high-stakes dispute between The Chicago Community Trust (CCI) and one of its main grantmaking sources, the $280 million Searle Fund, that affected millions of grant dollars to Chicago area nonprofits and could impact future grants. An estimated $36 million from the Searle Fund in 2001 and 2002 awaited distribution when Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan filed a lawsuit against the Trust, seeking a resolution to the disagreement after months of failed talks. The ongoing dispute between the CCT and descendants of John G. Searle, who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical business, hinges on an interpretation of Searle’s will. See
    And this might remind us of the dispute against the Barnes Foundation and its suburban Philadelphia museum which was slowing going broke. The terms of that bequest stipulated that nothing in the museum could ever be moved (rather like that of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) except that the Barnes Foundation faces stringent restrictions on the number of visitors it can allow to see the works of art, its building is crumbling, and the bequest is insufficient to allow things to be rectified.
    NPR’s website reminds us that in 2004 a Pennsylvania judge ruled that the Barnes Foundation may move its multibillion-dollar art collection from suburban Merion to downtown Philadelphia. The ruling allows the financially troubled foundation to amend the trust of its founder, the late Dr. Albert Barnes.

  2. Sam Davis Says:

    The probable bottom legal line is that once a gift has been made, and money transferred, effective control passes to the recipient nonprofit. I’ve heard many debates over the years around the coffee maker (nonprofit fundraisers only recently began drinking water) about the extent to which donors’ restrictions, even when written, are binding.

    There is one school amongst development folk that holds there is a greater element of flexibility in spending even restricted gifts, if the money is already owned by the nonprofit, than if the donor retains ownership through a trust, etc., and doles it out.

    I would like to hear some other views on this because, frankly, it’s an issue that may need to be addressed much more frequently than ever before in coming years.

    My own view is that, ethically, money should be spent exactly as the donor instructed, or as darn near close as humanly possible.

  3. articles Says:

    Nice note to remind people to use their tax dollars to access restricted articles!

    But proquest and most article databases while free are cumbersome.

    WSJ right now has an awesome deal for $125/year for BOTH the print version + the online subscription — or you can get for as little as 10 bucks for 30 days.


  4. Paul Oostenbrug Says:

    The Dartmouth alma mater describes Dartmouth graduates as having “the granite of New Hampshire in their muscles and their brains.”

  5. Enducoup Says:

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  6. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Enducoup, Thanks for reading and for your compliments. For your information, though, the author is actually a good lass, that is, a woman.

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