The Norman Transcript

Columns

December 17, 2013

The charitable Scrooge

NORMAN — From the earliest days of our nation, Americans have been a generous people. In 2012 alone, according to Giving USA estimates, Americans donated $316 billion to charity.

At no time is this generosity more evident than during the holiday season, when nearly 60 percent of all Americans make charitable contributions, ranging from loose change dropped into Salvation Army buckets to multi-million-dollar donations.

Whether it’s a child who receives a $10 Christmas toy from Toys for Tots or a college student who will receive financial aid from the $350 million New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to Johns Hopkins University last year, millions of Americans rely on the support and assistance provided by our nation’s more than 2.3 million charities.

That’s why my family’s story is so troubling. It indicates that all is not right in the nonprofit world and threatens to dampen America’s giving spirit.

At issue is the centuries-old concept of “donor intent”: meaning, that when a charity accepts a donation for a specific purpose, it has an obligation to use it for that purpose and no other. Since individuals give mainly because they are passionate about a particular cause, failure to use their money as intended will discourage future giving. As Warren Buffett told Fortune a few years ago, “If people see donor intent get ignored or twisted, it has to discourage philanthropy.”

Unfortunately, the very institution Mayor Bloomberg has so generously supported is one of the most blatant violators of donor intent. And I should know because the gift came from my family.

My late aunt, Elizabeth Beall Banks, in collaboration with her family, donated a 138-acre Civil War-era farm in the heart of Montgomery County, Md., a Washington suburb, to Johns Hopkins University. At the time of the gift, Belward Farm was worth more than $50 million, yet she gifted the farm to JHU for less than one-tenth its value. Elizabeth Banks, a lifelong schoolteacher of modest means, made this generous charitable contribution of her only asset because the university promised that Belward Farm would be preserved from development and turned into an open, park-like academic campus. Everyone, including my fiercely anti-development aunt, was satisfied.

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