Is the Tide Changing of Nonprofits Selling-Out to Donors?


A few days ago, my researcher was discussing with a global nonprofit their fundraising efforts, and she was informed that the organization does not accept gifts that could compromise its integrity or place the charity in an awkward position, which is a good thing. The charity understands they must adhere and stay true to their mission, even if it means the loss of donor funds. After, I came across an article in Nonprofit Quarterly titled “The Concept of Negative Goodwill: When Do Naming Rights Cross the Line?”

New York City Public Library

I smiled because the same researcher is a New Yorker who has long complained that Stephen Schwartzman, founder of Blackstone, renamed the central New York City Public Library on 5thAvenue to The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. In her mind, this corporate titan emblazoned his name on a New York City landmark with historical significance. She’s not the only New Yorker that feels like the legacy of the institution was tarnished.

Abington High School

In the article, here was Schwarzman again, this time in Pennsylvania, looking to change the name of a cherished high school from Abington High School to Abington Schwartzman High School. He was seeking to donate $25 million for a tech center and also wanted to have approval of contractors hired for the tech center that would be built. This time around, the community revolted. Petition

As noted in the article mentioned above, one petition on stated, “Is $25m the price you put on the spirit, pride, history and memories of the thousands and thousands of alumni who have attended Abington Senior High School?” Another petition said, “A tribute to this man’s excessive ego is not a gift to the school, it’s a gift to himself. Selling out for money? What kind of message does that send to our teens?”

Negative Goodwill

For many years, there have been plenty of other examples of major donors who have asked for their names to be placed on buildings, rooms, libraries and even in renaming organizations. However, naming opportunities are a balance that has to take into account the institution and its legacy. In the case of Abington High School, the school had a meaningful legacy in the community, and it ran too deep and much broader than the $25 million that Schwarzman was offering.

Nonprofit Leadership

I have to wonder if the community had not reacted so negatively to the announcement that the name of the school was going to be changed if anyone in the leadership position of the school (perhaps the board or head of school) would have asked Schwartzman to reconsider? My guess, based on the explanation would be that once Schwartzman committed the $25 million, the school would have gone ahead with the plans to change the name of the high school were it not for the blowback.

Handling Naming Opportunities

Although I’ve never met Schwarzman, by all accounts, he’s a hard-charging and demanding person that expects to win. However, nonprofit leaders must take into consideration the history and meaning of their institution within the community before they agree to conditions set by donors in exchange for a significant donation. I realize that it can be challenging to say “no” to a lot of money, especially if it can create an enormous impact, but the reality is that communities and the public don’t like bowing down to monied interests.

  • If you have a donor in your community who is looking to make a game-changing donation, don’t just jump and accept the gift. In fact, be prepared to walk away from it, especially until you fully understand the terms.
  • If there is a request that a building or even the name of your organization be changed to that of a major donor, carefully think about the pros and cons of this particular action. Would it sit well with your community? Would it make sense for the organization? Would you be able to receive the gift with integrity?
  • Take into consideration the amount of the gift versus the naming opportunity costs. In other words, if you’re asked the change the name of your institution, is the donation sizable enough to be commensurate with such an action and everything you may lose, including goodwill and perhaps the support of other donors?

Perhaps what happened with Abington High School is the beginning of a trend where the public has finally tired of capitalists emblazoning their names on institutions without taking into account the history and legacy of the organization within the community? Only time will tell if that’s the case, but it’s nice to know that there are organizations out there that don’t dismiss history and legacy so easily.

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