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After Alma Mater Gets Your Money, It Just Might Misplace Your Mission

October 31, 2003|William Robertson | William Robertson and his sisters are suing Princeton University over their parents' 1961 donation.

If you're thinking about writing a year-end check to your college or favorite charity, my story might give you pause. It is about Charles and Marie Robertson, my late parents, and the $35-million donation they made to Princeton University. Similar stories have involved Harvard, Yale, the University of Southern California and even the Metropolitan Opera in New York, among others.

In 1961, my parents donated 700,000 shares of A&P supermarket stock, valued at $35 million, to establish a new foundation at my father's alma mater. Its sole mission was to support graduate studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in a focused effort to recruit and prepare top students for careers in federal government service, especially in international relations.

The original $35-million gift is now worth more than $525 million. The foundation has disbursed more than $200 million to Princeton over the years.

But to the great disappointment of our family, Princeton administrators have diverted millions of dollars from the Robertson Foundation into projects and activities that have little or nothing to do with my parents' intent or the Robertson Foundation mission. As early as 1970, my father, who died in 1981, complained to Princeton about the "disappointing number" of graduates entering public service. Last year, the Woodrow Wilson school placed only three of 63 graduates in government jobs related to foreign affairs. This is partly because the school does little to screen and identify applicants who might at least consider government careers. Nor does it do much to familiarize students with the wide range of careers available in government.

Two years ago, the university used $13 million of the foundation's money to construct a new building, Wallace Hall, which primarily houses various social science research centers and the sociology department -- laudable endeavors, one can argue, but unrelated to the Robertson Foundation's mission. Our repeated inquiries and objections failed to resolve the situation. So as a last resort, my sisters and I have been forced to sue to gain control of the foundation and to prevent Princeton from commingling the foundation's assets with the university endowment. The university, of course, denies the charges and continues to resist full disclosure.

Contributions to the nation's richest charities declined last year, the first drop in 12 years, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Further, donations to U.S. colleges and universities declined for the first time in more than 15 years, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Yale University reported a 26% drop.

What's more, a recent survey commissioned by Charles Schwab & Co. found that just 10% of affluent Americans age 45 and older are now planning to leave all or part of their estates to universities and other nonprofits. Many of those who plan to leave nothing to such organizations reached that decision because "they don't trust that the money would be well spent if they left it to charity," the Assn. of Fundraising Professionals reported.

My sisters and I can understand such concerns.

When people donate money to a college or university -- or any other nonprofit organization for that matter -- for a specific purpose, and it is accepted for that purpose, that's how the money should be used. That principle holds whether the gift is $100, $35 million or $1.6 million, which is what Paul F. Glenn -- the plaintiff in a similar lawsuit -- gave to USC in the mid-1990s to promote medical research on aging. Glenn sued to have the donation transferred to another institution, alleging that USC defied his wishes.

In 1995, Yale University returned a $20-million donation from Lee Bass because the businessman wanted veto power in the choice of faculty members funded by his gift. And in 1998, the heirs of Arnold Schoenberg moved the composer's collection from USC to Austria after disagreements over the treatment of the 25-year-old donation.

Donors have every right "to be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given," as stated in the "Donors Bill of Rights" of the American Assn. of Fundraising Counsel, Assn. of Fundraising Professionals, Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and Assn. for Healthcare Philanthropy.

The moral case is abundantly clear, and we are confident the courts will be equally unequivocal.

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