When charity goes awry

If you donate money this Christmas season to a charity that says it will spend it helping to rebuild neighborhoods in New Orleans, chances are you will feel cheated if you later find it was spent on some project or the other in San Francisco, even if the project were a noble one.

After all, when we give we don’t do it blindfolded. There is some cause or institution that we believe in, or some means of distributing the money to a variety of causes that we deem worthy. Cheat those expectations and you may end up damaging the giving spirit.

It’s not just me talking here, but the American people as represented in a poll by Zogby International. Of those responding, just 3 percent said it’s no big deal if charities spend the money for purposes other than those that had been designated. And something close to 80 percent said they absolutely would, or just might, hang on to their money in the future if they found a nonprofit organization spending it differently from what they had in mind.

The poll was paid for by a family suing Princeton University and its results sent to me by a public relations firm representing the family. The family says money was given by the late Charles and Marie Robertson for the training of graduate students for federal careers in diplomacy and foreign service, but that $200 million from the fund has been spent for a variety of other things, such as subsidizing an ecology professor whose concerns are woodpeckers and prairie dogs. The family wants the money back, and hopes to get it in a trial next year.

Princeton insists on its integrity _ and its right to keep $650 million that has grown out of an original donation of $35 million. Despite a low percentage of graduates at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs going into government service, the school says it has tried to do what the Robertson family originally requested. According to a press report, it says the task was made difficult because of all the ways that international issues and the means of addressing them are different from when the money was contributed in the 1961 and that, at any rate, it has flexibility under the agreement with the family’s foundation.

It’s certainly possible to imagine good-faith efforts that did not measure up for reasons extrinsic to the efforts themselves, just as it is possible to imagine an arrogant institution figuring fine print will save it from having to live up to a bargain. The trial may give us definitive answers, but meanwhile there is reason to believe that some of those who ordinarily might donate to Princeton think they already have the answers. The Robertson family’s PR firm notes that in 2004 Princeton received 44 percent less than in the previous year, even though other universities and nonprofit groups were receiving more on average. The PR firm adds that no one is asserting there is a tie to the lawsuit or saying that one can be demonstrated.

In the final analysis, of course, the issue is bigger than Princeton and the Robertson family. It has to do with how honest recipient groups are with donors, and with the threat that dishonesty will kill the goose laying the golden eggs.

Remember how after 9/11 the Red Cross raised an enormous amount of money to help the victims and then ended up spending some of it on causes having nothing to do with the attack? The evidence was that tens of thousands of donors were furious, and the Red Cross amended its ways. One news report suggests the group’s increased candor about how it spends and plans to spend money has paid off to the extent that, after the Katrina hurricane, it received an overwhelmingly large percentage of all relief donations.

Americans are a giving people, the most generous in the world. We donate far more to nonprofit groups per capita than any European country. One estimate I saw said that we give 80 percent of the money contributed privately to deal with disasters and poverty in the world. About the only thing that can get in the way of that would be a disappearance of trust. The absolute requirement of recipient groups is that they remain trustworthy.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)