Marketplace Scratch Pad

Is there a secret donor society?

Scott Jagow Apr 17, 2009

In the past few weeks, at least nine universities have gotten a total of $45 million in donations. In every case, the schools had to promise not to find out the identity of the donor.

This is so unusual, the Associated Press says one school checked with the IRS and Homeland security to make sure the gift wasn’t from illegal sources.

“In my last 28 years in fundraising … this is the first time I’ve dealt with a gift that the institution didn’t know who the donor is,” said Phillip D. Adams, vice president for university advancement at Norfolk State University, which received $3.5 million.

The gifts ranged from $8 million at Purdue to $1.5 million donated to the University of North Carolina at Asheville. The University of Iowa received $7 million; the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Maryland University College got $6 million each; the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs was given $5.5 million; and Penn State-Harrisburg received $3 million.

Nobody knows if all the gifts are from the same person or whether this is a coordinated effort of some kind. All the gifts have been made since March 1, and the stipulation on the money is that most of it be used for scholarships. Usually, universities know the identity of “anonymous” donors but don’t reveal it. In this case, the donor or donors have been using lawyers and middlemen, so no one knows anything.

Some were required to make such a promise in writing. “Our chancellor was called to a Denver law office and had to sign a confidentiality agreement that she would not try to find out,” said Tom Hutton, spokesman at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “Once the chancellor signed it, she was emphatic that we don’t try to find out.”

I’m sure she was, with $5.5 million hanging the balance.

Cool story, huh?

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