The charitable Scrooge: Failure to honor benefactors' wishes will dampen the giving spirit
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 Christmas season, when nearly 60 percent of all Americans make charitable contributions, ranging from loose change dropped into Salvation Army buckets to multimillion-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 Hopkins 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, parklike academic campus. Everyone, including my fiercely anti-development aunt, was satisfied.
As a news story at the time put it: “Her profound love of the land led to great concern over its eventual fate. Wooed over the years by numerous interested parties, she found none that met her strict requirements until Johns Hopkins approached her with a plan that was not only acceptable but pleasing. The plan calls for preserving as much open space as possible in a campus-like setting.”
Fast-forward two decades. My aunt, sadly, passed away in 2005. Once she was gone, despite a contract and deed spelling out the plans for the property, Johns Hopkins announced its intention to build a nearly 5-million-square-foot commercial development with 23 buildings and three parking garages on the property. The university has no plans, to date, to occupy even a single square foot of the property.
Despite having limited funds, my family and I have been pursuing the matter in court since 2011. We are currently asking Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals, to review the case and force Johns Hopkins to live up to the promises it made.
If my family's gift to Hopkins was the only one that had gone awry, it might easily be dismissed as an isolated incident.
But it's part of a pattern; abuses of donor intent are all too common. In just the past couple of decades, numerous nonprofit institutions — including the Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia), Boston University, Columbia University, Fisk University, Harvard University, the Metropolitan Opera, N.C. State, Princeton University, Randolph College, St. Luke's Hospital, St. Olaf College, Tulane University, UCLA, the University of New Mexico, the University of South Dakota, the University of Southern California and Yale University — have been accused of violating donor intent. And this is just a partial list.
The Maryland Court of Appeals needs to take our case and signal that it will stand up for donors. This will allow donors to maintain the confidence they have in giving to worthy nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits, like Johns Hopkins, should not be allowed to benefit from contributions where the donors' intentions have been ignored.
This will discourage charitable giving, harming those who depend on it.
Tim Newell, nephew of Elizabeth Beall Banks, is lead plaintiff in John Timothy Newell, et al. v. Johns Hopkins University, a lawsuit seeking to protect Belward Farm.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Kessel addition, better health could have Pens scoring like it’s 1990s
- Steelers cut Scobee, sign free agent kicker Boswell
- Pitt holds off Virginia Tech in ACC opener
- Burnett pitches well in farewell, but Pirates lose to Reds
- New book credits Nunn for Steelers’ 1970s success
- Are Pirates better positioned to win it all this postseason?
- Pirates fans on edge as season again coming down to wild card
- Would-be Troy Hill carjackers scared off by sirens
- More employers adopt generous leave policies
- Shaler man charged in death of girl, 6, not prosecuted in repeated alcohol cases
- Penguins at a glance entering 2015-16 season