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The American Council of Trustees and Alumni released the Intelligent Donor’s Guide to help donors give wisely to institutions of higher education.

Persisting through wars, economic depressions, and civil unrest, our nation’s institutions of higher education have proven themselves to be both resilient and resourceful. In the face of every crisis, colleges and universities are forced to reflect and adapt to meet the perceived needs of their time. Recent changes have resulted in increased access to education, but sometimes they also led to significant compromises in curricular standards, institutional values, and academic mission. Behind the curtain, higher education philanthropists are often silent partners in driving change.

Today, we face yet another crisis. The precarious financial situation of our colleges and universities has been exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic. But higher education was in peril long before the pandemic. The problems afflicting universities are serious and persistent: declining enrollment, poor retention rates, and a growing public skepticism of the return on investment in a college education. As in the past, we must confront these issues with courage and humility. Unless institutions change their course, the core problems will continue even as the nation eventually recovers. Philanthropy is greatly needed right now, but not only their financial gifts; institutions of higher education need their ideas and innovations, as well.  

By thoughtfully directing their gifts, philanthropists communicate certain priorities to university administrations. Colleges and universities are rightly protective of their institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and philanthropists should not seek to undermine this. But by creating or supporting programs that teach topics like entrepreneurship, the Great Books, free markets, and the ideas of the American Founding, donors can support the timeless principles of Western Civilization at a time when they are vanishing on college campuses. These kinds of gifts promote intellectual diversity on campuses, and donors can also advance these efforts by encouraging universities to adopt the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression, for example, or a similarly strong commitment to protecting free speech. These kinds of gifts manage the delicate balance of imparting strong ideals and values while not interfering with the role of the university.

Although anyone can write a check, giving well to higher education poses a unique set of challenges. Donors must navigate a large, complex bureaucracy that operates by its own, often esoteric playbook. It frequently takes several years before the university and the donor agree on the terms of the gift. Even after making a donation, the donor’s ability to enforce the terms of a gift agreement is tenuous at best. With little oversight, it is a great temptation for colleges to include undisclosed hidden fees or use targeted funds as they see fit.

Despite these challenges, higher education philanthropy is tremendously rewarding. In recognition of the complexities of giving to institutions of higher learning the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, started a program called the Fund for Academic Renewal (FAR). FAR advises donors on their gifts to higher education, helping them to protect their intent and achieve their vision. Donors are deeply passionate about expressing gratitude for their own education and providing students with more opportunities. Every gift is unique and, when done well, philanthropy is fulfilling for the donor and transformative for the campus.

To help donors through the giving process, we have updated our signature publication, The Intelligent Donor’s Guide to College Giving, a blueprint for philanthropists seeking to make meaningful, lasting contributions to American colleges and universities.

The guide explores the principles of higher education giving, the most common pitfalls that donors face, and innovative ways to make a difference. Inside are the stories behind gifts that are bringing intellectual diversity and academic rigor to campuses across the country as well lessons from controversies over past gifts. The Intelligent Donor’s Guide has advice on topics from finding a faculty friend to assist in implementing the vision of a gift to protecting the free exchange of ideas on campus.

Colleges and universities have long been shaped by the generosity of alumni and donors, and wise giving will be even more urgently needed in years to come. Whether making a gift large or small, your first gift or your hundredth, The Intelligent Donor’s Guide can help you be confident that your gift is making a difference. Thanks to the generosity of the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni is able to provide a complimentary copy of the guide upon request. To request a copy, use this link or you can access a digital edition here.


1 thought on “The intelligent donor’s guide to college giving”

  1. Avatar richard coyle says:

    Dealing with donor intent and proper stewardship can be a mine-field. This Guide distills 25 years of best practices with 8 successful case studies, and 3 failed case studies, into practical and effective advice. How to craft and monitor transforming gifts–small or large– to accomplish both donor and recipient goals is readily explained. The recommended reading list is spot-on. The Guide is brief, but its content ranks right up there with two classics: “Abusing Donor Intent: Robertson Family Epic Lawsuit Against Princeton University” [Doug White] and “Protecting Your Legacy” [Joanne Florino]. Get out your highlighter and start reading.

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