Back when the FCC had a “fairness doctrine,” television stations didn’t editorialize much. When they did, they had to offer time for “responsible opposing viewpoints.” Typically, that meant they’d editorialize mostly on anodyne topics, if they did any at all.
Now, of course, the fairness doctrine is history, and stations can devote themselves to partisan agitprop all day every day if they want. But the idea of a “responsible opposing viewpoint” stuck with me. There’s something to it.
I got hit with one a few days ago. Most colleges that have fundraising campaigns offer donors the option of choosing among several various earmarked projects, or making an unrestricted gift. I’ve argued for years that in many cases, the unrestricted gift option actually does the most good. It allows foundations to support experimental projects, to cover their own costs, and to make up for shortfalls in expected giving. Many foundations even have their own scholarships that are independent of any given donor, and they use those scholarships to benefit students who might slip between the cracks of endowed gifts.
The assumption behind my position was that most foundations are trying to do the right thing, and that having a bit of control can help them be more effective. And in most cases, I stand by that.
Then I heard about the former librarian at the University of New Hampshire. By living frugally for many years, he was able to donate an unrestricted $4 million (posthumously) to the university. The university is using $2.5 million of that for an expanded career center, $100,000 for the library, and $1 million for a new electronic scoreboard for the football team.
The donor is deceased, so we can’t ask him directly what he thinks of that use of the money. But it certainly seems asinine, if not offensive. A scoreboard? Really?
And that’s where some folks on Twitter raised the responsible opposing viewpoint. Wouldn’t restrictions from the donor have prevented this apparent abuse?
I say “probably” rather than “yes” because it isn’t always that simple. Donors can’t be omniscient, so restrictions have to be written to a best approximation of what’s likely to happen. As personnel change and times change, interpretations of appropriate intent can evolve. Some foundations take looser interpretations than others, and not necessarily in sinister ways. There are times when a foundation has money so tightly bound in one area that it goes unused, while other needs go unmet; having some flexible funds allows them to even out the spikiness.
All of that said, though, I’ll plead guilty to having assumed basic good faith and professionalism. Those have held true at every place I’ve worked. But they may not hold true everywhere.
Fundraising is a very different type of business than the day-to-day operation of a college. It relies on long-term relationships and reputation to a much greater degree. In my experience, savvy fundraisers know that, and are keen on maintaining good relationships with donors. (They sometimes insist on using the term “friendraising,” which I’ll admit raises my writerly hackles.) Successful fundraisers know that the blowback from bad publicity -- such as this case -- can turn off donors for years to come. The temptation to play fast and loose is tempered by the realization that one sketchy move could cost years, or even a career.
But there are no guarantees. Had the UNH donor specified something like “must be used for the library” or “must be used for scholarships,” the money wouldn’t have gone to a scoreboard. In this case, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see blowback over time. The foundation may not have broken any rules, but fundraising is about much more than that.
So yes, there are limits to the virtues of unrestricted gifts. I concede that to the responsible opposing viewpoint. I maintain that they’re generally more useful, but if your alma mater has a history of shenanigans, then restricted gifts may be safer. Point taken.