Nonprofits Are Wise to Evaluate Gift Acceptance Policies

Marnie Taylor

OpEd by Marnie Taylor, President and CEO

Over the past several weeks, large nonprofits from across the country and their relationships with high-profile donors have been in the news. For decades, charitable organizations have been incredibly thankful for generous, transformative gifts from large donors. Last week, Caltech announced a record-breaking $750 million gift from the Resnyck family of Beverly Hills. That gift is only topped by Michael Bloomberg’s donation of $1.8 billion to his alma mater Johns Hopkins for mega gifts to American universities.

This incredible gift received universal praise, particularly from scientists, as it was dedicated to the research of environmental sustainability. But looking through a different lens, it wasn’t without critics, as it was from the profits of a large agricultural business in California. Those critics argued that the business was a significant over-consumer of California’s very scarce water supply.

 The Resnyck gift comes after other “in-the-news” cases of donor relationships with institutions. It was recently revealed that both Harvard and MIT received significant gifts from Jeffrey Epstein, a financier who was also a convicted sex offender who died by suicide while in jail awaiting trial. In this case, employees were told not to ever speak of the gifts because of the sensitive situation of the donor. It begged the question, “should the institutions have taken the gifts knowing of Epstein’s convictions?”

 Another case in the news in recent weeks is that of the Sackler family and their holdings with Perdue Pharmaceuticals, one of the world’s largest makers of opioids. Longtime arts and culture philanthropists, the Sackler name adorns the walls of some of the finest institutions in the world. However, in July, the Sackler name was removed from the walls of the Louvre in Paris after numerous protests. Other institutions have done the same.

 All of these instances may seem far removed from Oklahoma, but nonprofits should begin thinking about how donor gifts are publicized, used to name buildings, etc. Five decades ago, a donation for naming rights was hardly questioned. Today, many institutions are adding clauses into gift agreements that let the donor know that a name could be removed by trustee or board vote should something controversial or egregious happen in the future. Additionally, how do we honor these gifts long-after a donor has passed on?

 Nonprofits should also have policies in place on gift acceptance (along with procedures on gift acknowledgement), donor sources and perpetual acknowledgement. Those policies should also contain language giving boards the ultimate say in whether or not to accept gifts or how to potentially deal with controversial situations. I believe we will continue to see stories like these in the news, and I would urge nonprofits to think about ensuring good policies are in action that protect both institution and donor.

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Bill Citty, 2019 Visions Honoree