I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Change that last “what” to a “how” and we have a fitting aphorism for the puzzling story of the wealthy UConn football donor who is demanding the university return his $3-million gift.

As a development officer in private schools for almost ten years, I’ve learned that it’s not unusual for donors, even those who give well below this UConn benefactor’s level, to take a keen interest in how their money is used — especially if there are significant restrictions attached to the gift.

This interest typically comes in the form of concern that the terms of the gift are being carried out. But in the case of the UConn donor with buyer’s remorse, Robert G. Burton was upset about the way the hiring of the new men’s football coach was handled and about the fact that he did not feel adequately consulted during the process that led to the signing of incoming coach and Cheshire native Paul Pasqualoni.

All reputable non-profits require major donors to sign gift agreements with the organization. I’d love to take a look at the memorandum signed by Burton and the University of Connecticut Foundation. But alas, I am not holding my breath.
As is often the case, these imbroglios raise far more questions than they answer. To wit:

● Was Burton led by university officials to believe that he would be consulted over major decisions affecting the football program? Perhaps he already been consulted in the past and assumed it was now standard operating procedure?

● Was Burton naive enough to believe that his money alone would buy him entree into the decision-making process at the university?

● Or is he simply a headstrong CEO who is accustomed to getting his way and who sees UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway as a functionary through whom major donors’ wishes should be honored, no matter how unreasonable?

Regrettably, the field of educational philanthropy is littered with cases of donor dissatisfaction. In a celebrated case about 15 years ago here in Connecticut, Yale University returned $20 million from Texas oil billionaire Lee M. Bass when he insisted on cherry-picking the curriculum and faculty for the Western civilization program his gift was supposed to endow. At the time, it was the largest higher-education gift ever returned to a donor.

Two years ago, Princeton University paid $100 million to settle a lawsuit over an alleged failure to honor the donor’s wishes in funding a graduate school to train students to serve in the federal government.

The stakes are smaller in many other cases, including one I was involved in at a private school in New York state. A donor wanted to make a gift of $5,000 and directed that the money be given to a faculty member. The donor was understandably grateful to the teacher for the academic help and personal mentoring he had given his learning disabled daughter over the years. But in essence, the donor wanted to give a tax-deductible gratuity to the teacher. For legal and ethical reasons, we had to say no.

Fortunately for Hathaway, UConn officials are standing by him. But I think they should order a top-to-bottom review of the fundraising machinery to determine if promises are made to major donors, implicit or otherwise, that could compromise the independence and integrity of its programs. Then they’re going to have to determine whether return Burton’s money.

Maybe they should. After all, as the New York Times wrote in a editorial on the Bass controversy, “It does not pay to pander to a donor’s political quirks in the hope of finding a way around his intent.”

Terry Cowgill is a development officer in Connecticut. He blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, is a Substack columnist and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him here.

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