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Here’s some sobering news for U.S. charities: While more than 90 percent of Americans donated money to charity in the past year, just one in 10 “strongly agrees that charitable organizations are honest and ethical in their use of donated funds,” according to Harris Interactive. How long before that level of distrust translates into less giving, which could spell disaster for our country’s 1.4 million not-for-profits and those who depend on them? That’s why my family’s lawsuit against Princeton University, expected to go to trial later this year in New Jersey state court, is being watched so closely. We believe that Princeton has failed to honor the wishes of our parents when they donated millions to a nonprofit foundation 46 years ago to fund a university program. And we’re urging the court to reaffirm the long-established principle that recipients of charitable gifts have a fiduciary duty to honor the donors’ intent. Charity is one of the cornerstones of U.S. society. In 2005 alone (the last year for which figures are available), individuals donated more than $199 billion; foundations and corporations donated in excess of $60 billion more. But a number of recent incidents have raised the trust issue. Several prominent charities reportedly diverted or otherwise misused funds intended to help the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Although many experts said the public would quickly forget about these irregularities and confidence in charities would rebound, it didn’t happen. Fifty-six percent of those interviewed for a November 2006 survey of high-income individuals by Philanthropy Now and the Luxury Institute said they had cut back on charitable donations (or stopped giving altogether) because they had a “distrust of nonprofits.” After conducting another 2006 survey, Paul Light of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Services found that there had been enough horror stories about good intentions gone bad to create an “underlying structure of skepticism” about organized charity. I currently serve as chief executive of the Banbury Fund, a grant-giving foundation, and have been a trustee of the Robertson Foundation since 1974. It is that experience that awakened me to the abuses of donor intent. WHY WE GIVE Most people donate money because they wish to support a cause: free enterprise, animal welfare, equal rights, etc. As a 2002 survey by Citibank showed, 67 percent of all donors base their charitable decisions on personal interests and passions. We give because we care, not because we have to. In turn, the groups benefiting from our generosity should respect our wishes. If I offer a donation for the express purpose of, say, distributing family-planning information to teenage girls, the object of my largess can accept or refuse my donation. If the group doesn’t want to engage in the activity I wish to subsidize, it doesn’t have to take my money. The words “no thanks” are always an option. If the group does take my money, however, it has a moral and legal obligation to use that money for its intended purpose. If the recipient of a charitable donation later finds that using a gift for its intended purpose is impractical or improper (and this is a rare circumstance), it can return the money, ask the donor’s permission to use the money for something else, or ask the court to apply the cy-pres doctrine. The latter allows money to be repurposed “as near as possible” to the donor’s original intent where carrying out that intent would be impracticable, illegal, or impossible. Honoring givers’ intent is a basic tenet of the Donor Bill of Rights — a statement of principle developed by the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Hundreds of individual charities and nonprofits have endorsed the Donor Bill of Rights, and its language couldn’t be plainer: Donors have the right “[t]o be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.” Unfortunately, once the money is in hand, many nonprofit managers don’t see it this way. FOR THE MONEY Conflicts over donor intent are nothing new. As Martin Morse Wooster wrote in his 1998 book, The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of “Donor Intent,” legal disputes in this area go back at least 400 years to England’s 1601 Charitable Uses Act and the birth of the cy-pres doctrine. Other scholars trace the concept of donor intent to the Mortmain laws of the late 13th century, which limited a person’s right to leave property to the church; still others trace it to the late Roman Empire. In the United States, the first major decision affirming donor intent occurred in 1844, when the Supreme Court upheld the will of Stephen Girard in Vidal v. Girard’s Executors. Yet some nonprofits still are tempted to ignore donors’ restrictions. In the past decade alone, Yale, Harvard, Boston University, the New York Metropolitan Opera, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, UCLA, and the University of Southern California have all been involved in disagreements over donor intent. Several cases are making their way through the courts. In Howard v. Tulane, Tulane University is accused of violating donor intent by trying to eliminate its sister school, Newcomb College, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The heirs of Josephine Louise Newcomb maintain that her gift was intended solely “for the maintenance of Newcomb College as a separate women’s college within Tulane University.” As Anna Many, dean of Newcomb in the early 1950s, famously told students: “Remember, ladies: [Tulane] only married us for our money.” In Tennessee, state Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr. has stepped in to stop Fisk University from selling two valuable paintings from a collection donated to the historically black college by artist Georgia O’Keeffe (including a painting by O’Keeffe herself). Cooper is arguing that O’Keeffe gave the collection to Fisk with the express condition that the paintings never be sold. DIPLOMATIC DILEMMA My family’s suit against Princeton involves perhaps the largest sum of money in such disputes — more than $750 million. The purpose of the original gift was clear: to train top graduate students for diplomatic and other federal government careers dealing with foreign policy. But over the years, my sisters and I charge, Princeton has egregiously ignored the donors’ mission. The donors were our parents, who used 700,000 shares of A&P stock, worth $35 million, to establish the Robertson Foundation in 1961. Its sole purpose was to “strengthen the Government of the United States . . . by improving the facilities for the training and education of men and women for government service.” In practical terms, the gift helped expand the Woodrow Wilson School’s graduate program. But the money was not given to Princeton directly; my parents purposefully set up a separate foundation to manage their gift. Unfortunately, they gave Princeton officials four of the seven seats on the board of trustees. The university has used this voting majority to do as it pleases with the money, diverting close to $200 million to activities, programs, and salaries unrelated to the foundation’s stated purpose. Just recently, Princeton refunded more than $780,000 to the foundation on the grounds that it had failed to properly inform the trustees that the money was being spent to support doctoral candidates in the economics, sociology, and political science departments. What the university failed to say is that this was no technical violation — the expenditures were improper, and it had tried to conceal them from the family trustees. The entire incident confirmed, once again, that Princeton is a faithless fiduciary, which is why we brought suit in 2002. We are asking the court to end Princeton’s role in the foundation and thereby free us to pursue its mission with other institutions. According to a 1999 study by John Havens and Paul Schervish of Boston College, an estimated $41 trillion in inheritances will be distributed in America during the first half of this century. Of that, as much as $6 trillion could be bequeathed to charity. Whether U.S. nonprofits will actually receive this money will depend on many factors, not least of which is the disposition of our case. If we win, it will be a powerful reminder that nonprofits will be held accountable in the courts of law, as well as the court of public opinion, when they choose to ignore donor restrictions and are faithless to donor intent.�Everyone who donates to charity and everyone who receives such charity should be watching.
William Robertson, a 1972 graduate of Princeton, is the lead plaintiff in Robertson v. Princeton , a lawsuit seeking to end Princeton’s control of the Robertson Foundation and its endowment. More details are available at www.robertsonvprinceton.org.

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