No Will Power

If you are a person of sufficient, or even modest means, who wishes to include in your will a bequest to, say, a favorite university, you have a right to expect that your wishes will be carried out by the recipient, right? You should expect that, but in too many instances, your expectations are not being met. People who have left (or given while they are alive) money, works of art or other items of value are increasingly seeing their gifts used for purposes other than what they intended.

This is unethical at best and it ought to be illegal.

Several lawsuits against universities and other entities by the donors, or their estates, are wending their way through the legal system. Among those getting the most attention is Robertson v. Princeton, which is expected to go to trial next year. Charles and Marie Robertson anonymously established the Foundation in 1961 with a $35 million gift (worth $240 million in today’s currency). The gift was for Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and its purpose was to increase the number of young men and women going “into careers in government service, with particular emphasis on those areas of the federal government concerned with international relations and affairs.”

That seems specific enough for any academic to understand. Apparently not. The children of the donors have sued Princeton, claiming not only has the university ignored donor intent, but that it has diverted an estimated $200 million or more of the foundation’s money to activities, personnel, programs, real estate and research unrelated to the mission of the Robertson Foundation. The lawsuit also accuses Princeton of a cover-up.

Another case involves Randolph College (formerly known as Randolph Macon Woman’s College) in Lynchburg, Va. The issue there is whether works of art and money contributed in support of the original purpose of the 115-year-old school, which was to educate women in the liberal arts, should be used after its conversion to a co-educational school. A lawsuit filed by students and donors claims the school has no right to sell the college’s famed art collection (valued at more than $100 million) to help finance its capital campaign without the consent of the donors.

Case number three is Howard v. Tulane. Filed last year in New Orleans, this case involves the alleged diverting of a $45-million endowment to an “institute” that grants no degrees and has no academic standing, campus or even a student body. Descendants of the late Josephine Louise Newcomb, who gave Tulane more than $3 million in the late 1800s to establish and maintain the women’s college in memory of her late daughter, also maintain the money has been used for purposes other than what the donor intended.

Randolph claimed it could no longer function as a woman’s college. Other institutions say they need the money for other purposes and believe they should have carte blanche to use the gifts as they wish. Money and other valuables donated by or raised from people whose interest was in furthering the education of women and other purposes should not be spent for other projects unless the donor, his or her descendants, or estate trustees give permission. The universities have no right — legal or moral — to use them for anything else. To do so violates the intent and the spirit of the gift and the giver.

There are a lot more cases like these but the operative phrase, as with so many things, is donor beware. Think twice before you give money to any charitable organization or institution — even your alma mater — unless it endorses the Donor Bill of Rights. To do otherwise and to give “in good faith” may have worked in the distant past, but not today. Taking a few precautions can enhance the power of a will.