Donor Pits Institutions Against Each Other From the Grave

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It’s almost as if the donor wanted this to happen. 

In 2002, University of Missouri accepted a $5 million bequest from alumnus Sherlock Hibbs. Hibbs’ bequest created three chairs and three distinguished professorships in the college of business. 

But the devil was in the details of this one. The conditions of the bequest were that the professors who filled those positions needed to be “dedicated and articulate disciple[s] of the free and open market economy (the Ludwig von Mises Austrian School of Economics).”

Before Hibbs passed away in 2002, he designated Hillsdale College in Michigan as his legal watchdog. According to his will, Mizzou must demonstrate to Hillsdale College every four years that it has complied with the specific terms of Hibbs’ gift. Now Hillsdale says Mizzou ignored the donor’s intent and has filed a lawsuit against Mizzou’s Board of Curators. The case recently reached the Missouri Supreme Court. 

If Mizzou hasn’t met the requirements of the bequest, the remaining funds go to Hillsdale. Though it’s a small, 1,500-student liberal arts school, Hillsdale is not messing around. As Steve Garrison writes, Hillsdale is “a conservative powerhouse.” To make matters even more surprising, former Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat and Mizzou alumnus, is representing Hillsdale in its lawsuit against Mizzou’s Board of Curators.

This situation raises BIG questions and has major ethical implications for the field of advancement.

A lot of this rests on donor intent—was Hibb’s trying to steer Mizzou’s Trulaske College of Business in a more conservative direction? In the dismal landscape of decreased state funding, major donors can have a huge influence on higher education. It’s the institution’s job to keep that influence in check. 

Did Mizzou think they could accept the gift and avoid Hibbs’ influence from beyond the grave—a “take the money and hope for the best” kind of approach? What conversations did Mizzou administrators have before accepting this gift? Were there any alarm bells? Were those hesitations voiced and considered? 

What did Hillsdale think when they accepted this responsibility? Are they a watchdog for justice or little more than a political pawn? Did they consider the corrosive effects of Hibb’s pitting one institution against another? 

We want to know: If your institution or organization was in this situation, what would you do? Where and how should organizational leaders draw the line when it comes to donor demands? 

Post your comments below, on Twitter, or email us. We’re going to keep following this one as it unfolds. In the meantime, if you want to brush up on the best ways to navigate complicated planned gifts and bequests and how to create equitable, trust-driven relationships with donors, check out our recent, in-demand webinars:

Planned Gifts & Bequests: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
How to Address Donors’ 5 Toughest Questions

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