Lots of Money, Little Return
Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer beware.
These have always been sensible words when shopping for a car. But
these days, sadly, they also apply to charitable giving.
Consider the case of William Robertson, who is suing his alma
mater, Princeton University, over the school's handling of the $525
million Robertson Foundation.
Robertson's parents set up the foundation at Princeton in 1961 with
an initial gift of $35 million. Their objective: "to strengthen the
government of the United States and increase the ability and
determination to defend and extend freedom throughout the world by
improving the facilities for the training and education of men and
women for government service."
The amount of money in the foundation has grown substantially over
the years-but not the number of Princeton students entering
These days, the university says only about 44 percent of
foundation-supported students who earn master's degrees accept
public-sector jobs. But even that number is inflated. Princeton
reaches it by including jobs in journalism, academia and non-profit
organizations in its tally.
In reality, only nine of the 63 students who graduated from the
program last year entered government service. Just three of those
students had majored in international studies. Clearly the program
isn't paying the dividends its founders intended.
That's all right with Princeton. In court documents, the university
claims the foundation has an "evolving mission."
But it's not acceptable to William Robertson. That's why he's gone
to court. He wants to regain control of this fortune and distribute
it to other colleges and universities that will use it for its
Princeton, it would appear, just wants the money.
The university would like to roll the foundation's cash into its
$8.3 billion endowment. In fact, Princeton has already used the
foundation as its own piggy bank.
In 1997, the university spent more than $13 million of foundation
money to build Wallace Hall. Today that building houses segments of
the Woodrow Wilson School, but also the sociology department, the
"Office of Population Research" and the "Center for Research on
All these may (or may not) be worthwhile programs. But as William
Robertson points out, "if my parents had intended the money to go
to Princeton University, they would have given it directly to
Princeton." They clearly wanted the money to be invested in
government service, and it's not being used that way.
This isn't the first time that a Robertson has questioned
Princeton's motives. William's father Charles complained repeatedly
in letters to Princeton officials that too few graduates were going
into government service. The school managed to placate Charles, but
not his son. He has gone to court in order to redeem his parents'
Good for him. These days, the only way for donors to make sure
their wishes are respected is to personally check out how their
money is being used. Consider one of the most effective charitable
organizations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It's focusing
its work on Africa, so the Gates' traveled there recently to make
sure their money was being well invested.
On the other hand, look at the Ford Foundation. In 1977, Henry Ford
II resigned from its board, because he believed it was no longer
working toward the goals his grandfather founded it to
Instead of stepping down, William Robertson has decided to stand
and fight-and insist that a powerful university respect his
parents' wishes. It should serve as an example for all of us. These
days, buyers-and donors-must be as tenacious as they are
Ed Feulner is the
president of The Heritage Foundation.