Another example that colleges and universities are not always responsible stewards of the gifts they’re given comes to us from New Hampshire. Late in August the University of New Hampshire announced a surprise $4 million gift from alumnus and employee Robert Morin, a penny-pinching librarian at the school with no family and a secret knack for investing. The frugal Morin ate frozen dinners and drove a clunker despite having nearly $1 million in his retirement savings alone.
When he died at the age of 77 he left the bulk of his estate to UNH, where he had worked for almost 50 years. Morin’s story calls to mind similar tales of surprise estate gifts, like the Vermont janitor who left $6 million to his local hospital and library in 2015. (A partisan Yankee might also point out that both these examples of flinty generosity come to us from northern New England, and wonder what sort of unique virtue is cultivated there to encourage such behavior…)
Such gifts remind us that charity need not loudly announce itself in order to be effective. And more viscerally, they make us feel good—a feeling that the institutions benefiting from these gifts use to full effect when announcing them.
But precisely what makes these donations remarkable—their no-strings-attached style—also leaves them open to abuse. Of the $4 million gifted by Morin to UNH, for example, only $100,000 went to the library where he had worked for decades. This relatively small sum will go towards upkeep, staff training, and salaries for work-study students. Morin had requested this amount be set aside for the library, but surely the university could have put more of the overall gift towards this end. More troublesome still, a significant portion of the remaining funds from Morin’s bequest went towards a video scoreboard for the school’s new $25 million football stadium.
Student criticism was fierce, with many seeing this as a wasteful and disrespectful allocation of hard-earned funds. The reaction from the faculty was similarly frosty. UNH administrators have rushed to their own defense, claiming that the shy librarian was a budding football fan at the time of his death and would have approved of the use of funds for the new scoreboard.
But this story feels unseemly because it is. UNH took Morin’s money, did the bare minimum needed to honor the letter of his instructions, and then sunk the rest of the gift into splashy wishlist items. An Inside Higher Ed piece points out—reasonably enough—that colleges are usually desperate for unrestricted funds and often divert them towards whatever pet projects they have lying around; most donations are tied to specific projects and schools with good fundraising programs may still struggle to make ends meet. But by its actions in this case UNH has in fact made it more difficult for donors to give unrestricted gifts in the future, lest they fear the sort of willy-nilly behavior we’ve come now to expect from college administrators.
Donors have to be able to trust that their money is going to good use. But sordid little dramas like this one leave them feeling more like a reluctant parent handing over a wad of cash to a hyperactive child. Colleges shouldn’t be surprised if donors get fed up with this routine sooner rather than later.
To avoid such violations of donor intent, this volume offers practical advice to philanthropists.