College Giving Advice for the Liberty-Minded Donor

Each month, an expert from the liberty movement shares thoughts on how we might be more strategic in our charitable giving. This month, Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill offers advice for those seeking to support institutions of higher learning in a principled, pro-liberty way. You can read past installments on this topic by James Piereson and Peter Lipsett.

Donors committed to principles of liberty are alarmed by what they see on college campuses today. The free exchange of ideas is under assault by institutions more committed to avoiding controversy than fostering civil discourse. And colleges are allowing students to fill semesters with lightweight courses on pop-culture topics, so that many graduates do not understand American history, our institutions of freedom, or how free markets create wealth.

Those who invest their hard-earned dollars in the improvement of higher education see how cavalierly schools sometimes treat their contributions: This summer, an alumnus of St. John’s University sued his alma mater for the return of his six-figure gift, plus interest, intended to support student research on corporate responsibility. Instead of its intended purpose, his gift was used to fund the study of soil conservation and workplace romance.

At the same time, higher education philanthropy has never been more important to the preservation of liberty, the transmission of our cultural heritage, and the advancement of scientific knowledge. With debates raging about free speech on campus, and skills gaps threatening our nation’s competitive economic edge, philanthropists can play a powerful role in restoring excellence to our higher education institutions. Beset by declines in state funds, colleges are under pressure to raise more money and may be more receptive to donors’ priorities.

Principled donors will agree that the firestorm of controversies on campuses is an insufficient reason to withhold support. But it is a reason to give smarter.

Here are six ways for liberty-minded donors to do just that:

Create a Marketplace for Your Philanthropy

Many successful business leaders think of their college education as the foundation for their careers. But no donor should look at her alma mater through rose-colored glasses: The college experience she so fondly recalls may be vastly different from what her alma mater provides today.

Donors should challenge themselves to create a marketplace for their philanthropy by listing, in addition to their alma mater, at least two or three other institutions where they would be proud to make an impact—perhaps schools attended by family members, attended by top employees, or located in their hometown community. They should explore what programs exist at those schools that align with their philanthropic aspirations. Donors may be delighted to find what terrific impact they can have by looking beyond their alma maters.

Don’t Accept a Pre-Set Menu of Options

College presidents and campus leaders face an array of pressures when they are dispatched to raise funds from alumni. They often carry with them a pre-set menu of pet projects.

At the top of the menus are endowment gifts, but donors should be wary: Once a gift is locked away in an endowment, it becomes difficult to challenge its use. Meanwhile, the gift’s value will grow at only the paltry rate attained by too many university investment managers. Rather than contributing to an endowment, offer to fund a program for five or ten years, with annual distributions dependent on satisfactory program performance.

Of course, it’s essential to listen carefully to what college leaders need and their capacities to implement a program you have in mind. But if you want to give a liberty-focused gift, make your end-goal clear and see what university leaders offer.

Likewise, Don’t Accept a Gift Template

College presidents and development officers want to close each gift as soon as possible, and they are quick to offer a template gift agreement for donors. Many donors are just as quick to accept those terms.

But they don’t have to. Donors should strongly consider drafting their own gift agreement or, at the very least, should return a template agreement to an institution with their own terms included. A well-crafted gift agreement will include accountability measures such as site visits, donor representation on a program advisory board, and, at a minimum, annual written reports.

Find Like-Minded Faculty Friends

Savvy donors do well to seek out like-minded faculty friends who can translate their gifts into high-impact programs. Professors, after all, create a program’s content, organize its events, and cultivate its student community. With their in-depth understanding of how an institution functions and their strong relationships with students, faculty can serve as the intellectual guarantors of a program and may be the best guardians of donor intent.

Although most faculty members lean left, there are outstanding classical liberal professors at schools nationwide. Many of them lead programs and institutes that introduce students to ideals of liberty and offer a robust and civil exchange of ideas. The University of Vermont Janus Forum, for example, hosts events where students are able to hear differing views on controversial issues. Even modest gifts to such programs can be a major boost in how often principles of liberty are presented on campus.

Fund Ideas, Not Institutions

Some donors’ philanthropic aspirations are best advanced by a regional or national nonprofit that serves students through promoting the principles and ideals of liberty, rather than by a particular school.

A donor looking to push back against the assault on free speech could make a donation to an organization like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates on behalf of students’ First Amendment rights. Similarly, a donor who wants to provide undergraduates with opportunities to learn about principles of limited government and free enterprise might contribute to the Fund for American Studies, which provides summer institutes and other programs for undergraduate and law students, or the Institute for Humane studies which partners with a nationwide community of university scholars to explore the ideas of a free society.

Consider Field-of-Interest Funds

Donors could also explore giving to “field-of-interest” or special purpose funds. These funds pool contributions and provide grants to multiple institutions, while targeting a particular student population, geographic area, or academic specialty. Just as novice investors take advantage of mutual funds for their investments, many donors may lack the time or expertise to identify programs that align with their philanthropic interests.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s Fund for Academic Renewal (FAR) has created Special Purpose Funds that allow donors to support collegiate programs focused on crucial subjects ranging from economic literacy, to American history and government, to programs that foster the free exchange of ideas. Donors’ contributions are pooled in these Special Purpose Funds, and then FAR makes grants from these Funds to support faculty, programs, and institutes across the country.


Jacqueline Pfeffer MerrillJacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Fund for Academic Renewal, which provides free programmatic and legal advisory services to college and university donors.



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