Letter to the editor of the Sacramento Bee

Nov. 12, 2007 12:04 p.m.

An abbreviated version of this letter to the editor was published in the Nov. 10, 2007, Sacramento Bee:

Giving gifts to universities

In his Nov. 6 commentary "No will power," Cal Thomas expresses concern for donors who "increasingly see their gifts used for purposes other than what they intended" and then Mr. Thomas mistakenly claims that Princeton University has "ignored donor intent" in carrying out the purposes of the gift that it received from Marie Robertson 46 years ago.

In fact, Princeton has used these funds solely for the purpose for which they were given and in accordance with the procedures established by agreement with the donor for administering the gift. The lawsuit that has been filed by some of the donor’s children seeks to overturn these procedures, seize control of the gift, and redirect it to other purposes.

Mr. Thomas also makes the novel legal argument that after a donor makes a gift, and receives the tax benefits of making that gift, the donor, or his or her descendants or estate trustees, should have the right at some later point to change the purpose for which the gift was given. Under the law, when a charitable gift is made, the funds are transferred from the donor to the charitable organization, which then becomes solely responsible for them, in accord with the terms under which the gift was accepted. The descendants of the donor are not permitted to retain control of the funds or redirect their use, which is what the Robertson descendants are trying to do in their lawsuit.

If donors want to retain control over the use of their funds they have the option of creating a private foundation rather than making a charitable gift, with different tax consequences. Separate from their gift that was to benefit Princeton, the Robertsons did create such a private foundation (the Banbury Fund), and ironically the descendants are now using the assets of that private foundation to fund their lawsuit and an associated public relations campaign against Princeton.

Robert K. Durkee is vice president and secretary of Princeton University.