The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Education gifts, with strings attached

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal today (subscription required), a group of philanthropists have announced the creation of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a nonprofit organization that will advise individuals and foundations interested in giving to colleges on how to attach legally enforceable conditions to their gifts.

There have been some high-profile disputes recently as to whether universities have been fulfilling the stated wishes of major donors. Princeton, for example, has been fighting the Robertson family (heirs to the A&P supermarket fortune) over whether a gift made in 1961 to train students for federal government service has been diverted to other purposes by the university.

This is apparently far from an isolated case. From the article:

Mr. Templeton, known for philanthropy seeking to reconcile religion and science, has long been skeptical about giving to colleges. "Anybody who trusts a university on a handshake is a fool," says Charles Harper, the Templeton Foundation's senior vice president.

How long before we see a similar step taken in K-12 education?

As noted in Education Week (subscription required), we've already seen several major foundations, including the Atlantic Philanthropies, Pew Charitable Trusts, Kellogg Foundation, and others either stop giving to K-12 education entirely or radically revise their giving guidelines.

Obviously university and K-12 giving are very different in nature. The issue in K-12 education is not likely to be whether the money is spent towards a particular end, but whether it's being used effectively and achieving the results that donors intended.

As noted above, the Robertson family isn't worried about whether Princeton is spending their gift effectively, just whether it's being spent in the area they wanted it spent. In contrast, donors to K-12 education don't usually worry about whether their money is being spent in the area they desired, but rather whether it's making any kind of discernable impact.

I can see a time in the future when a K-12 version of this new Center for Excellence in Higher Education is formed, not to help donors ensure their money is spent on their areas of interest, but rather to help them ensure it's achieving a return on investment (ROI).

It would be fascinating to see what happens after that. I've argued in the past that the best way to increase business' involvement in education is to give them a return on their contribution - would such a move finally make ROI a standard element of contributions and partnerships? I believe it would - and I believe the floodgates of corporate and foundation giving would open for schools and districts.


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