Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Honoring Donor Intent

This seems like such a basic, "Fundraising Ethics 101" topic that I'd never have to write a post explicitly about it, but it seems that even high profile nonprofit organizations need to be reminded: Donor Intent is King!

This month started with the news that country star Garth Brooks had won his million dollar lawsuit against a regional hospital. The issue was over a donation Brooks had made with the understanding that a building would be named for the singer's late mother.

A week later came headlines that the Ray Charles Foundation was demanding the return of several million dollars the late singer had donated to Albany State University in Georgia for a performing arts center that was never built.

Now, today we learn that Johns Hopkins University is being sued over the alleged misuse of millions of dollars from the estate of Elizabeth Beall Banks. This dispute revolves around farmland given on the condition that it be used for agricultural research and development, but now will be home to nearly five-million-square-feet of construction.

These are obviously high profile cases involving millions of dollars and well known organizations and donors, but the principles involved are the same for $25 donations to local nonprofit groups. You must follow through on your promises to donors. If funds are designated for a particular purpose, it is your legal and ethical obligation to use it for that purpose and that purpose only.

Raising funds with a pitch for one program or project, and then using them for another is a bait-and-switch con that will come back to haunt you. You may think you did well in the short run, but in the long-term you will lose donors, you will lose honest staff and board members, and you will risk your organization's reputation and future.

When dealing with large donations, do your best to set clear expectations with your donor, write out exactly what the purpose of the donation is, and have it signed. This donor agreement is not just for designated funds, as in the cases above, but especially important if you think the donation is unrestricted. The donor's signature on an agreement that you can use the funds in whatever way is needed to support the mission will protect you if they - or their heirs - ever come back and say the funds were designated.

Such clear, written agreements also protect the donor. And, with such well-publicized scandals putting us all under the microscope, offering your donors such transparency and guarantees will help ease their doubts about your integrity.

Tim Newell, Elizabeth Banks' nephew and one of the principals in the case against Johns Hopkins, explains, "You hate to lose faith in the entire system. ... All donors have the right to be assured that gifts be used for the reason they were given."


  1. Do you really think it necessary to note donor intent for unrestricted small donations? Wouldn't it be the donor's responsibility to substantiate any claim that the funds were restricted were it ever brought to trial?
    (I see the value for large gifts, but for an annual gift of $100 I'm not sure I do.)

    1. For small gifts the point is to make sure that they ARE unrestricted! Most of the time this is no problem, but you have to be very clear in your pitch:

      If you say, "Your $25 WILL be used for XYZ," you've just restricted it yourself! Be sure your fund raising letters are a little more general about examples of how small donations "MAY" be used.

      It may all be just semantics, but it's a lesson I learned years ago.

      If your materials are all clear about the use of small donations, then yes, it would be up to the donor to show that you somehow promised them something more specific if they ever took action against your organization.