NAPLES, FLA. — On a scale of 1 to 10, National Philanthropy Day, which will be observed nationally on or around Nov. 15 this year, has never ranked very high on the list of significant national observances. It's ahead of National Apricot Day and National Tartan Day, to be sure, but hardly in league with Independence Day, Presidents' Day, or Veterans Day.
That's not to say that philanthropy is unimportant. The opposite is true. From the earliest days of the nation, Americans have been a generous, giving people, and their voluntary support of charity has been a cornerstone of society. Last year alone, Americans donated more than $240 billion to not-for-profit animal welfare, art, educational, fraternal, health, public policy, religious, research, and women's organizations, among others.
But a word of caution: All is not well in the world of philanthropy. As the United Way of America scandal revealed several years ago, some of those entrusted to "do good" with our money have mostly been doing good for themselves.
For instance, my family and I are now in the midst of a legal dispute with one of America's top-ranking universities, Princeton. In 1961, our parents donated $35 million in A&P stock to establish the Robertson Foundation, whose sole mission is to support graduate studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The aim: to prepare graduates for foreign-policy careers in the federal government.
While Princeton has been more than happy to spend $200 million of the Robertson Foundation's money over the years, the university has been less enthusiastic about pursuing the foundation's mission. So my sisters and I have brought suit to gain control of the foundation. This would enable us to fulfill our parents' wishes by providing financial support to academic programs and institutions that consider government service in foreign policy-related fields honorable and important.
Disputes between donors and nonprofit organizations have been increasing in recent years. In one prominent case, the New York attorney general ordered St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City to return $5 million of a $10 million endowment set up by R. Brinkley Smithers, saying the hospital had misused the funds, which were given to support alcoholism-treatment programs.
Relatives of the late oil millionaire Sybil Harrington also are involved in a lawsuit with a nonprofit over the misuse of funds. They're suing New York's Metropolitan Opera, requesting the return of a $5 million gift, saying the Met didn't use the funds for the production of traditional opera, as Harrington requested.
Similarly, Harvard University agreed to return a $12.5 million donation from actress Jane Fonda earlier this year after she protested the university's handling of the gift, intended to finance a gender studies program at the Graduate School of Education.
Not surprisingly, such public disagreements are starting to erode confidence in the nonprofit sector. A recent survey commissioned by Charles Schwab & Company, showed just 10 percent of affluent Americans age 45 and older are now planning to leave all or part of their estates to charities, universities, and other nonprofits. More than five times that number - 56 percent - said they plan to leave nothing to such organizations. Of those, 21 percent said they don't think the money would be well spent if given to charity.
Before these numbers get any worse and our trust in charity turns to mistrust, the nonprofit sector needs to clean up its act. Just as the abuses at Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco caused a public outcry and triggered a national effort to improve corporate accountability, continuing abuses in the nonprofit sector eventually will compel comparable reforms.
Nonprofit organizations need to be governed by the highest ethical standards. When they accept donations for a specific purpose, that's how the money should be used.
That principle holds true whether the donation is $100 or $100 million. If the nonprofit sector doesn't police itself, National Philanthropy Day will become a day to remember America's generous past, rather than to salute the nonprofit world's current achievements.
• William Robertson, a 1972 Princeton graduate, is the lead plaintiff in Robertson v. Princeton.